by Eric Berkman

First, There Was Pong

Jan 01, 20022 mins
Consumer Electronics

Madden NFL 2002 has graphics so realistic you think you’re watching a Sunday afternoon telecast, and state-of-the-art games like Majestic and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 keep even the most stimulus-hungry teenager occupied for hours. But back in the early days of video games, all anyone needed for video bliss was the staccato ping of a computerized blip bouncing between two graphically crude paddles.

Pong is as iconic of the mid-’70s as the steel curtain defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers and “Whip Inflation Now” buttons. But the game’s heritage stretches back to the 1950s and a scientist at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y. There, in 1958, Willy Higinbotham built the first game to use a computer and cathode-ray tube. It was a tennis game, with an inverted T for a net and a bouncing point as a ball. Higinbotham never tried to commercialize the system, and no one claimed to be the inventor of the video game until 1968, when electronics engineer Ralph Baer devised his own tennislike game and applied for the first video game patent. This game hit the market in 1972 as the Magnavox Odyssey?the first commercially available home video game system.

Pong was introduced the same year by an obscure new company, Atari. Its creator, Nolan Bushnell, introduced the system as a coin-operated arcade game and placed the first machine at Andy Capp’s, a bar in Sunnyvale, Calif. A day later people were lined up outside at 10 a.m. to get the chance to play. Magnavox learned of its nearly identical new cousin, and ultimately forced Atari to pay for the right to keep manufacturing the game. The payoff proved worth it. Pong and offspring like Breakout and Video Pinball spawned the Atari video game empire of the early 1980s. Although the Asteroids/Space Invaders revolution would leave Pong in the dust, some folks still yearn for those days when the primitive game could keep you absorbed seemingly until the end of time. Are you one of them? A vintage 1975 Atari Pong home system will run you about $50 on eBay?not a bad price for youth recaptured.