How Pong Invented Geekdom
Tipplers at Andy Capp's tavern in Sunnyvale, Calif., were mystified by the machine. A cheap black-and-white TV encased in a wooden cabinet, the contraption emitted odd blurps quite unlike the dings of pinball, the game it would eventually shove aside. Patrons puzzled over the instructions, which consisted of a lone directive: "Avoid missing ball for high score." When a quarter was deposited, a dot of light traversed the screen, zinging between two rectangular "paddles" that players moved up and down by twisting knobs. Less than two days after its arrival, the machine, dubbed Pong, conked out; the sawed-off plastic milk container that served as the coin box was overstuffed with change.
Pong wasn't Nolan Bushnell's first foray into video games. In 1971, the year before his trademark invention debuted at Andy Capp's, the Utah-born engineer created Computer Space, a coin-operated version of a game that university students had been playing on mainframes since 1962. But the instructions for Computer Space were numbingly complex, and it flopped. "To be successful, I had to come up with a game people already knew how to play," Bushnell later recalled. "Something so simple that any drunk in any bar could play." Confident that computer games were his ticket to untold riches, he pooled $500 with a colleague and founded a company that took its name from the term for "check" in the Japanese game of Go: atari.
Atari churned out Pong at a breakneck clip, shipping 6,000 in 1973 alone. Desperate for new products, engineers tweaked new permutations: QuadraPong, Pong Doubles, SuperPong, Puppy Pong. But the breakthrough product was a version of Pong that could be played on the family TV set. Sears ordered 150,000 "Home Pong" units in 1975, and it became the bestselling item in its catalog.
Bushnell bailed out of Atari in 1976, selling the company to Warner Communications for $28 million; since then, he's had a hand in numerous business disasters, ranging from robot-filled Chuck E. Cheese pizza parlors to foul-smelling dolls called Breath Blasters. But the industry he christened with Pong has matured into one of the entertainment world's most lucrative sectors. Electronic-game sales in North America hit $5.5 billion last year, closing in on movie receipts of $6.9 billion.
The video game's ascendance coincided with the triumph of the proverbial 98-pound weaklings. Many of the nerds who now rule the dot-com universe, too scrawny or unathletic to enjoy pickup football, first encountered the microchip's power while playing Donkey Kong. Instead of fiddling with joysticks, other Silicon Valley heavies got their start designing games, including a pair of misfits who worked for Bushnell at Atari. Their names were Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.
This story appears in the December 27, 1999 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.