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Tracing the History of the Computer - Spacewar Video Game




Spacewar was the world's first video game, developed by a team of programmers led by Steve "Slug" Russell at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Development of the game began late in 1961, with the first version being released in February 1962.

One of the reasons why the PDP-1 was chosen as the platform for the game was because it was the first computer that could be switched on and off by use of an on/off switch. Prior to the PDP-1, switching a computer on and off normally required the intervention of a technician. The PDP-1 was also the first computer that could handle two flows of information, an essential factor if two players are to play at the same time.

It's hard to imagine now, with all the highly advanced hardware and software on which today's video games run, how excited people would have been with the Spacewar game. Nowadays we take it for granted that racing games, for example, will make us feel as though we are really driving the car.

Spacewar Game Play

Basic game play involves two armed spaceships attempting to shoot each other whilst manoeuvring in the gravitational pull of a star. Each player controls a ship, and must attempt to simultaneously shoot at the other ship and avoid colliding with the star. Player controls include clockwise and counterclockwise rotation, thrust, fire, and hyper space.

The ships fire missiles which are unaffected by gravity. Each ship has a limited number of missiles and a limited supply of fuel. The hyper space feature can be used as a last-ditch means to evade enemy missiles, but the reentry from hyper space occurs at a random location and there is an increasing probability of the ship exploding with each use.

Early versions of the game contained a randomly generated background star field, but this was later changed to a real star charts that scrolled slowly.


There are several optional features controlled by sense switches (the main control for the game, although the first joysticks were invented for use with Spacewar) on the console:

  • no sun (and thus no gravity)
  • enable angular momentum
  • disable background star field
  • the "Winds of Space" - a warping factor on trajectories that required the pilot to make careful adjustments every time they moved

As of November 2005, there is only known to be one working PDP-1 in existence, at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. The computer and display were completely restored after two years of work, and Spacewar is operational. The restoration team has plans to make a playable exhibit of Spacewar, allowing visitors to actually play it on the PDP-1.


Steve Russell


PDP Timeline

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