The circuitry for Tennis For Two, as seen in the bottom left, was the size of a microwave (Picture: Wikipedia)
This Gaming Short Stories tells how a physicist created the first video game ever, just so his science exhibition would be more interesting to people.
Nowadays, it takes huge studios with hundred million dollar budgets, making games that run at 60 frames per second and requiring 100+ GB of storage, to make a state-of-the-art video game, but that’s not how things started out.
Let’s go back in time, then back some more, to a time before consoles were a thing, and when arcades were filled with nothing but pinball and fruit machines. If you were playing games at home in the 1950s that probably meant Yahtzee with your family or putting a transparent overlay on the TV to draw on.
It was in this decade that American physicist William Higinbotham, who happened to have worked as the head of the electronics division on the atomic bomb, as part of the Manhattan Project, invented Tennis For Two – so that his annual science exhibition wouldn’t be too boring for the public.
Higinbotham’s stunt worked, as Tennis For Two was very popular during Brookhaven National Laboratory’s annual exhibit, where he worked as the head of the instrumentation division. The event on October 18, in 1958, was so popular that the game was brought back the following year, this time with upgrades.
Tennis For Two probably wouldn’t be much fun to play nowadays, as it was played on a small oscilloscope monitor and the controller only had a trajectory switch and an action button to hit the ball. The game viewed a tennis court from the side, with the court and net made from simple lines, and once the ball landed on your side of the court you’d click the action button to send it the other way.
Tennis For Two was never meant to be anything but a minor novelty. Higinbotham designed the game in just a few hours, after realising that the institution’s Donner Model 30 analogue computer could simulate trajectories. He then put technician Robert V. Dvorak onto the task of building it, and it was ready just three weeks later.
Keen on a game? (Picture: Wikipedia)
Besides the oscilloscope monitor and the controller, the actual hardware was made out of vacuum tubes, relays, and transistors (none of which are in modern day computers), making it the size of a microwave.
Except for being a fun attraction to the laboratory’s visitors once a year, in 1958 and 1959, the game was put aside and mostly forgotten about.
There is some debate about exactly which game counts as the first video game in history, with some suggesting that it’s a nameless 1947 cathode-ray tube amusement device and some claiming it’s Bertie The Brain from 1950.
Play noughts and crosses with Bertie The Brain (Picture: Wikipedia)
The unnamed amusement device had you controlling the trajectory of artillery shells, which makes it a distant relative of the Worms franchise, but it didn’t run on a computing device, so it’s arguable whether it really counts.
Bertie The Brain is a better candidate but it used light bulbs as the display, rather than a monitor, so you could play noughts and crosses against an AI.
Tennis For Two, however, was the first video game created purely for entertainment purposes, with the game running on contemporary computer equipment and being displayed on a monitor.
After that followed 1962’s Spacewar!, athough that too wasn’t made for public entertainment, but as a student project at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
It wasn’t until 13 years after Tennis For Two was demonstrated that the first commercial video game came out, which was 1971’s Computer Space, which was essentially an arcade version of Spacewar!
A year later, in 1972, Pong launched, a table tennis-themed arcade game and arguably the first successful commerical home video game.
The rest is, very literally, history, and means that by this autumn the concept of the video game will be at least 65 years old.
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