You can tell what role the picture has for a lab by looking closely at the oscilloscope. But it didn’t have a utility function; it had a pleasure function.
Tennis For Two was the first video game in history. If you look closely, you can see gold and green in the oscillograph that looks like a tennis court. The game was created in 1958 and was exceedingly simple, as one would expect from the world’s first video game. It was a tennis game akin to the 1970s video game Pong that proved popular at the open house at Brookhaven National Laboratory.
The game was devised in October 1958 by physicist William Higinbotham, who created it because he found the exhibits at the lab boring. He hoped to pique visitors’ curiosity by producing an interactive display, and later told reporters:
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.
First Video Game in history
Higinbotham was a brilliant physicist in his own right. After graduating from Williams College in 1932, he attended Cornell University for graduate studies in Physics. He’d get his PhD and work as an electronics technician at Cornell. He joined the MIT Radiation Lab in 1941, where he worked on cathode ray tube displays for radar displays.
Higinbotham began working on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos in 1943, serving as head of the electronics branch from 1943 to 1945. He would subsequently go to work at the Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), where he would do research on the peaceful applications of nuclear power. From 1951 to 1968, he was the head of the instrumentation group at the BNL.
Every October, BNL would host annual visitors’ days, with thousands of people coming to tour the facility, and Higinbotham was tasked with designing the exhibit. He made the decision to integrate a small analog computer that would display curves and the route of a bouncing ball on an oscilloscope.
You’d think it would take a long time to create the first video game in history. Higinbotham, on the other hand, simply needed a couple of hours to come up with the idea for the tennis game and a couple of days to put it together.
He has spent his entire life working on radar systems and technological equipment. He had little trouble creating the simple display.
Another technician, Robert Dvorak, would build the gadget using Higinbotham’s drawings over the course of a few weeks. They finished debugging the game before releasing it. Tennis for Two would be the name.
Players just adjusted a knob to change the angle of the ball before pressing a button to hit it to another player. They couldn’t miss the ball if they clicked the button when it was on their side of the net, but if they angled it incorrectly, it may hit the net or go out of bounds.
The game was nothing spectacular, and the graphics consisted of a cathode ray tube display with two lines, one depicting the ground and the other representing the net. The ball was nothing more than a dot.
Players were unable to keep score. They had to do it on their own. The game’s circuitry included resistors, capacitors, and relays, as well as some transistors for quick switching, especially when the ball was in play.
The game would be a smash hit.
Tennis For Two was the most popular exhibition at BNL that year. To play the game, people waited in long queues.
Higinbotham decided to upgrade the game the following year with a larger display because it was so modest the first time. He also included the option for the game to have stronger or lesser gravity, allowing visitors to play tennis on different planets like the moon.
The game would barely last two years, and the oscilloscope would be put to better use. Higinbotham would go on to work on other projects. He didn’t think tennis was particularly impressive or groundbreaking, but history would prove him wrong.
It never occurred to me that I was doing anything very exciting. The long line of people I though was not because this was so great but because all the rest of the things were so dull.Higinbotham
He had already patented 20 innovations and would not have had ownership of the game because he worked at a government lab. He made $0 from the first video game in human history.
Higinbotham could care less about video games in his professional life. Sanders Associates, a defense contractor in Nashua, New Hampshire, would be awarded the first video game patent. In the 1970s, Magnavox, an electronics company that is now a subsidiary of Phillips, would purchase the patent. People only found out Higinbotham invented the video game after he was brought to testify in an attempt to get Magnavox out of the patent.
Nuclear weapons, not video games, would pique his curiosity. After all, he was a member of the Manhattan Project and later served as the Federation of American Scientists’ first chairman.
Higinbotham died in November 1994, more famous for his video game than his nonproliferation work, according to the American Physical Society in 2008.
However, we can all thank Higinbotham for inventing the video game, even if he never saw it as his greatest success.