Biographical Sketch: William (Willy) A. Higinbotham

Excerpted from "William A. Highbotham: Scientist, Activist, and Computer Game Pioneer" by Kristen J, Nyitray
Published in the April - June 2011 issue of IEEE Annals of the History of Computing.

After reading an instruction manual that accompanied a Systron-Donner analog computer, William Alfred Higinbotham was inspired to design Tennis for Two, the first computer game to display motion and allow interactive control with handheld controllers. It was also the first game to be played by general public, in this instance, attendees of “visitors day” at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) in 1958.
For Higinbotham this was just an isolated incident in a distinguished career as a physicist and electronics expert that also encompassed spells at Cornell University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Los Alamos National Laboratory. Recruited from MIT in 1945 to work on the Manhattan Project, he developed the timing circuits for the first atomic bomb and witnessed the test detonation in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The following year he helped found the Federation of Atomic (later, American) Scientists. A passionate advocate of nuclear non-proliferation, he worked tirelessly to educate government officials and the public about adapting atomic energy for peaceful purposes and implementing safeguards on weapons of mass destruction.

William (Willy) Alfred Higinbotham was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut to the Reverend Robert G. and Dorothea Higinbotham on October 25, 1910. His father was the minister of several churches in New York before settling at the “White Church” or First Presbyterian Church in Caledonia, a small town located southwest of Rochester. William’s interest in science emerged at the age of fourteen, when he began constructing and dismantling radios in an effort to pick up the frequency transmissions of the first commercial radio stations. At the age of sixteen, he enrolled in a high school physics class and quickly discovered that he had a natural affinity for it. Higinbotham entered Williams College in 1928, majored in physics, and obtained a bachelor’s degree in 1932. Finding his prospects for employment hindered by the Great Depression he decided to pursue graduate studies. He was accepted at Cornell University but struggled there as an impoverished student.

Experimental physicist Robert Fox Bacher was pursuing post-doctoral studies at MIT in 1941 when he extended an invitation to Higinbotham to join its Radiation Laboratory to research and develop radio detecting and ranging (RADAR) devices for application during World War II. During this time, analog computers were being developed and adapted for military initiatives, particularly for simulations as a cost-saving measure by the U.S. government. Higinbotham designed displays using cathode-ray tubes (CRTs) and gained experience converting transmitters and displays from airborne radars to usage in anti-submarine activities. Among the dozens of initiatives that the laboratory embarked upon was a joint project with Bell Laboratories to develop the “Eagle” radar, a high altitude bombing system.

Higinbotham’s professional relationship with Bacher would continue for several more years. Bacher recruited Higinbotham in 1943 to Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico for the purposes of working on a classified military assignment: researching and developing design components for the first atomic bomb as part of the “Manhattan District Project.” At Los Alamos, his work concentrated on developing the timing circuits that would control the bomb just prior to detonation and developing electronic amplifiers, counters, and recorders.
On July 16, 1945, he and several of his colleagues boarded a bus to witness the test denotation of the first atomic bomb, which had been given the code name “Trinity” by director J. Robert Oppenheimer. Their location was situated about eighteen miles from the site in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Higinbotham established the radio contact that allowed the group to listen and monitor signals. A bomb was dropped over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and another on August 9, 1945 at Nagasaki. Higinbotham was appointed chairman of the Association of Los Alamos Scientists a few days later.

Witnessing the test of the atomic bomb in Alamogordo and viewing images of their effects in Hiroshimo and Nagasaki took an emotional toll on Higinbotham, deepened by the deaths of brothers Philip and Frederick during the war. After leaving Los Alamos he was eager to share his deep convictions about nuclear non-proliferation. Several of Higinbotham’s colleagues from the bomb program had expressed distress and apprehension about the implications and consequences of scientific endeavors on the global community. On November 1, 1945, the Federation of Atomic Scientists was formed to address these issues. In December 1945, Higinbotham persuaded his colleagues to consider expanding the membership scope of the organization; it was subsequently renamed the Federation of American Scientists. He moved to Washington, DC to incorporate the non-profit organization and served as the first executive director, chairman, and in other capacities.

The Atomic Energy Commission founded Brookhaven National Laboratory in Yaphank, New York in April 1947 with the mission to advance research in the atomic sciences and to develop scientific machinery of the highest caliber. Higinbotham stated that it “looked like the best place for me for what I wanted to do. I wanted to be involved in instruments and also be at an institution that wouldn't complain if I continued to be active in arms control.” At BNL, he developed safeguards for instruments in the disciplines of medicine, high and low energy physics, nuclear chemistry, and biology. By the end of 1948, he already had received a series of promotions and achieved tenure. Higinbotham married Julie Ann Burritt on June 9, 1949, settled in Bellport, New York, and had three children: Julie, Robin, and William B. He was appointed to the position of “Division Head, Instrumentation and Health Physics Department” in 1952, a rank he would hold for seventeen years. His division produced the electronic equipment used in Brookhaven's particle accelerators and research reactors and conducted pioneering work on digital computers.

In 1967, Higinbotham and three of his colleague submitted a proposal to the Atomic Energy Commission advocating for the establishment of a nuclear safeguards division at BNL to serve the federal government in an advisory capacity. Their lobbying efforts were successful; in January 1968, the Technical Support Organization (TSO) was formed at BNL. Higinbotham subsequently joined the TSO (later renamed Safeguards and Materials Management Division of the Nuclear Engineering Department). He officially retired from BNL in 1984, but continued to serve as a consultant to the TSO and as the technical editor of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management’s publication Journal of Nuclear Material Management.

William A. Higinbotham passed away on November 10, 1994. He was known for his kindness, generosity, and jovial spirit, which was often expressed through his musicianship. He often entertained his colleagues, friends, and family with his lively accordion playing and singing. One of his original compositions was titled, most apropos, “Atomic Power.” Tennis for Two, an invention that Higinbotham devised within a matter of hours in 1958, purely for the purpose of entertainment, has made an indelible impact on everything from computer science to popular culture.


William A. Higinbotham

William HiginbothamAfter reading an instruction manual that accompanied a Systron-Donner analog computer, William Alfred Higinbotham was inspired to design Tennis for Two, the first computer game to utilize handheld controllers and to display motion. It was also the first game to be played by general public, in this instance, attendees of “visitors day” at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) in 1958. Learn More »

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