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The World's First Video Game?

55 Years ago, William Higinbotham's "Tennis for Two" wowed vistors to BNL and ushered in a new era

Tennis for TwoOn October 18, 1958, William Higinbotham, the newly minted head of Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Instrumentation Division, was looking for something to liven up his department’s “Visitors Day” exhibition. Anticipating that displays including a sodium iodide detector, a multi-channel pulse height analyzer and the Chase-Higinbotham linear amplifier would not be dynamic enough to generate much interest from the general public, Higinbotham wrote, “I thought it might liven up the place to have a game that people could play, and which would convey the message that our scientific endeavors have relevance for society.”

In three weeks Higinbotham, with the help of David Potter and Robert V. Dvorak Sr., devised a “tennis program.” The simulation of tennis was built on a Systron-Donner Model 30 analog computer and displayed the trajectory of a moving ball on a 5-inch in diameter DuMont cathode-ray oscilloscope.

In an interview with Stony Brook University Philosophy Professor Robert Crease, Higinbotham said: “The laboratory had several analog computers and a book which tells you how to do a bouncing ball and some other things. I look at it and say, I can fix it so people can control it. It didn’t strike me as the least bit novel. All the circuits I used were circuits that have been used by people before, except for putting these hand controls in — and a game which would go with that.”

It was a huge hit. Hundreds of BNL visitors waited in line for hours to play while most of the other exhibits were largely ignored.

William HiginbothamFor the following year’s “Visitors Day” an updated model of the game was introduced. Modifications included a larger monitor to display the action, a button to increase the ‘force’ of a serve and changeable gravity effects to show what it would be like to play tennis on another planet. Though it was again the highlight of the exhibition, this was the game’s final appearance. Higinbotham soon forgot about his “tennis game” moving on to pursue more weighty scientific endeavors.

It has been argued that Tennis for Two could not be titled the first “video” game because it did not display a “video” signal. But while Higinbotham’s system did not create a video signal, he had created a unique way to alternate among the computer’s outputs with the transistor switching circuit, creating the image of a tennis court and allowing players to control a movable ball seen on a screen, just like a modern video game. And this was the first time that the public played a computer game.

In 2011, Stony Brook University founded the William A. Higinbotham Game Studies Collection, managed by Head of Special Collections and University Archives Kristen Nyitray and Associate Professor of Culture and Technology Raiford Guins. The Collection is explicitly dedicated to “documenting the material culture of screen-based game media” and in specific relation to Higinbotham: “collecting and preserving the texts, ephemera, and artifacts that document the history and work of early game innovator and Brookhaven National Laboratory scientist William A. Higinbotham, who in 1958 invented the first interactive analog computer game, known as, “Tennis for Two.”

As part of preserving the history of “Tennis for Two,” the Collection has produced a documentary entitled When Games Went Click: The Story of Tennis For Two, on the history of the game and its recreation by Peter Takacs, physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory:

When Games Went Click: The Story of Tennis for Two, produced by William A. Higinbotham Game Studies Collection.

By Howard Gimple


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