Retro History – Tennis for Two

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What does the Manhattan Project, nuclear nonproliferation and a ballistics computer all have in common? Surprisingly, they are the forerunners of every video game ever made.

Ask most people who invented video games and you may get a wide variety of answers; non-gamers would likely say it was Nintendo, most retrogamers might say it was Ralph Baer and the more knowledgeable ones may say it was Steve Russell’s Spacewar. None of them are correct, the man we have to thank for the first video game as we would know it is American scientist William Higinbotham.

How Tennis for Two would have looked to the first “gamers”.

Unsurprisingly, most people will not have heard of Mr Higinbotham but by the time he created “Tennis for Two” in 1958 he had already a very illustrious career. As a key member of the Manhattan Project during the Second World War he was responsible for the ignition systems used in the first nuclear weapons as well as developing radar technology for experimental planes. After the war, he worked for the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York state where he used his knowledge to explore peaceful uses for atomic power.

As part of an annual open day that took place at Brookhaven, William wanted to have an exhibit that was not just a static display. He took a Donner Model 30 analogue computer which was used to calculate ballistic trajectories for missiles and then connected that to an oscilloscope. With a simple program created over a few weeks, Tennis for Two was born. Visitors to the exhibition were able to use some crude homemade controllers to play a very simple version of tennis.

Viewed from side-on, a tennis court was rendered as a simple horizontal line with a shorter intersecting line to represent a “net”.Unsurprisingly, the game was a huge hit – so much so that an upgraded version was on display in 1959 where hundreds of “players” played what has become the first video game created solely for the purposes of entertainment.

Sadly, after the 1959 exhibition, the entire game was dismantled so that the parts it used could be made available for other projects. Tennis for Two was lost to history for nearly 20 years until in an ironically it was used in a legal case between Ralph Baer and Magnavox as an example of “prior art”

The actual 1959 Tennis for Two setup from Brookhaven.

William Higinbotham continued his career at Brookhaven until his retirement in 1984 but also became very much involved in the nuclear nonproliferation movement up until his death at the age of 84 in 1994.

So next time you fire up your gaming system of choice, give some silent thanks to William and his “Tennis for Two” game.

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