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Tracing the History of the Computer - PONG Video Game


PONG was a video game based on ping-pong, released by Atari on November 29, 1972. It was the first video game to win widespread popularity, in both its arcade and home console versions. Before going on to talk about PONG in more detail, it's interesting to reflect on just how far sports video games have come over the years with there now being a great selection of sports games available, including football games, basketball games, golf games and baseball games online.

The creators Of PONG were the first to recognize that technology had evolved sufficiently to make such a game possible. Displaying graphics on a video screen and reacting immediately to user input required more computer power than 1960s consumer products could afford. Even in 1970, the computing power of a modern cell phone would have required a mainframe computer the size of a small apartment.

However, by drawing only two lines for paddles, a line for the net and a square for the ball, Pong was playable as a graphical game on the primitive technology of the early 1970s. It unleashed a torrent of innovation and creativity that represented the first generation of video game development.


PONG is a basic simulation of the racket sport of table tennis. A small square representing a ping pong ball travels across the screen in a linear trajectory. If the square strikes the perimeter of the playing field, or one of the simulated paddles, the square ricochets based on the angle of the impact.

Game play consists of players moving their respective paddles vertically to defend their scoring zones. Players score one point by maneuvering the square past their opponent's paddle.

PONG can be played either by a single player pitted against a computerized opponent, or by two players each controlling a paddle. In Atari's original PONG arcade cabinets, players controlled their paddles using one of two small paddle controllers (a knob-like input device). Contrastingly, several of the derivative table tennis simulations employed longitudinally-sliding joysticks.



Whilst not the first electronic game, the earliest form of an electronic ping-pong game dates back as a game played on an oscilloscope, by William A. Higinbotham at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1958. His game was titled Tennis for Two.

In 1966, Ralph Baer, then working for Sanders Associates, made a design for running simple computer games over a television set. His ideas were patented, and he created a game resembling PONG proper, except with slightly more complex controls. In 1970, Baer demonstrated his video game system to corporate heads at Magnavox, who became convinced that such a device would help sell more Magnavox television sets. Magnavox and Sanders Associates joined forces, with Baer and his patents at the center, to develop a stand-alone unit called the Odyssey 1TL200 to be sold to consumers for use in the home.

In the spring of 1972, the Magnavox Odyssey system was on display at a demonstration in Burlingame, California where Nolan Bushnell played the Odyssey's ping-pong game for the first time. Soon afterwards Nolan and a friend formed a new company, Atari. Nolan envisioned creating a driving game for arcades. He hired an electronic engineer, Al Alcorn, fresh out of college. Concerned that the game he envisioned would be too complex for his new employee, Nolan first directed him to build a ping-pong game. The game Alcorn created was so fun that Nolan decided to go ahead and market it. Since the name Ping-Pong was already trademarked, they settled on simply calling it PONG.

Atari had not been viewed as a manufacturer but only a developer of arcade games. So Nolan set about demonstrating his new game to several amusement manufacturers. Initially, there was little interest in the product, primarily because the unit had not undergone a field test. Soon before departing on a trip to Chicago (Nolan had appointments scheduled with pinball makers Williams and Bally/Midway), he and Alcorn rigged a coin switch to the unit for a location test.

The system was initially tested in a small bar in Grass Valley, California and Andy Capp's Tavern, a bar in Sunnyvale, California. Within a day, the game's popularity had grown to the point where people lined up outside the bar waiting for the place to open.

Before long, the unit broke down, and the bar's owner called Alcorn at home to have him remove the game. When he opened the unit to start a game, he quickly discovered the problem - the milk carton placed inside to catch the coins was overflowing with quarters to the point that the coin switch was jammed. Alcorn immediately called Bushnell in Chicago to tell him about the game's outstanding success, and Nolan decided they should manufacture PONG themselves.

Two weeks later, Magnavox learned of PONG, and notified Atari that they already had a patent on the concept. The two companies went to court. Magnavox was able to produce witnesses who had seen Nolan playing the Odyssey's ping-pong game, and they had a guestbook from the event which Nolan had signed. Magnavox and Atari eventually settled when Atari paid the television manufacturer $700,000 to license the patents.

The home version of PONG was conceived in 1973 and designed by Al Alcorn, Bob Brown, and Harold Lee in 1975. Atari demonstrated the unit at the 1975 Summer Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Because of the failure of the Odyssey (the unit was discontinued in 1974), retail outlets weren't interested by Atari's home console. These systems had on-screen digital scoring, something absent from other versions of PONG.

However, soon after the show, Atari was contacted by Tom Quinn, sporting goods buyer for Sears. Quinn met with Nolan Bushnell, and asked how many units Atari could produce in time for the holiday shopping season. Bushnell said they could probably produce 75,000. Quinn told them Sears wanted double that many units, and they would pay to boost production to that level. In return, Sears would be the exclusive seller of Atari PONG.

Christmas 1975 was the most popular season for PONG, with customers lined up outside Sears, waiting for shipments to arrive. That season's popularity caught the attention of Al Franken and Tom Davis during Saturday Night Live's first year; the comedy duo wrote and voiced several segments for SNL in which no actors were visible; all viewers saw was an active Pong game display, looking just like it would if they were playing the game themselves. As the game proceeded, Franken and Davis would talk to each other as friends, commenting only occasionally about the game itself (though the conversation of the players clearly had an occasional detrimental impact on their game skills).

By 1977, the coin-op arcade version of Pong had become so popular that it was copied by other manufacturers until the market was overrun with cloned machines. The flooded market could not absorb more Pong systems -- real or cloned -- and the resulting "crash" in demand contributed to Fairchild's decision to exit the market.

By the end of March 1983, Atari had sold between 8,000 to 10,000 coin-operated PONG systems.


Many versions of PONG were released: Pong Doubles (a four-player PONG), Quadra Pong, Doctor Pong, etc. Aside from Atari's arcade units, there was a slew of PONG clones as well. In their rush to market, Atari did not wait to file for copyrights or patents on their unit. Despite Atari's success, only one in five PONG style games in arcades were actually made by them. To reduce this problem, Atari purposely mismarked the chips in genuine Pong units to confuse anyone who tried to clone one.

The PONG systems remained popular in the US until the late 1970s and in Europe until the early 1980s.


Beyond the home versions, PONG has also been remade several times, including a version for PlayStation. It has been included in the recent "TV Games" collections, which are console-on-a-chip systems that feature "classic" games from the Atari 2600 era.

PONG also served as a source of inspiration for Atari's game Breakout (1976) which was itself updated successfully ten years later by Taito under the name Arkanoid.

Pong is available on Arcade Classics for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive.

The original Pong is challenging to faithfully emulate because it uses 7400 chips rather than a CPU for game logic.




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