Nolan Bushnell and Atari
Monday, 31 August 2009
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Nolan Bushnell and Atari
From Pong to Atari


Bushnell explained the idea to Alcorn whose job was to turn the game idea into electronics. He also told Alcorn that he had a contract from GE to build a consumer product for them - he didn't, there was only a letter asking him to submit a proposal for a game. Alcorn fell for the ruse and worked hard - the machine was completed in 3 months. The bad news was that it needed a lot of electronics and couldn't possibly be sold as a consumer item.

What is interesting about the early Pong machines is that they didn't use a software-based approach. Today if you wanted to implement Pong you would start out with a microprocessor complete with video controller electronics. The rest of the game would be constructed by writing a program to calculate the trajectory of the ball, test for collisions and animate the bat. The original Pong machines were built using much smaller electronic building blocks which generated the appropriate TV signal. Alcorn must have actually though in terms of placing a pulse in the correct place in the video signal - line number giving y co-ordinate and time from the start of the line giving the x co-ordinate. The algorithm for Pong is remarkably simple but using individual gates and counters it amounts to a lot of electronics.

Bushnell couldn't get anyone interested in the game. So they put together a large arcade game version complete with old TV and slot machine and put the result in a bar.




Bushnell, Dabney and Alcorn with the Pong

Soon the primitive arcade game was such a draw that people were coming to the bar just to play it. They had a success on their hands - but the first electronic arcade game, not the consumer product that Bushnell really wanted. That had to wait for the microprocessor to be come cheap enough and powerful enough to replace the custom electronics. Still Atari made a lot of money from the arcade machines and managed to create a small games console version of the game in time to keep the profits rolling in.

Laidback Atari style

Atari, of course, had to grow into more than a three-man firm and in doing so started the Silicon Valley casual style of management. Employees would wander in at any hour wearing tee shirts and jeans. Bushnell had a hot tub installed to be used as a think tank by his engineers. You can recognize the same style in the early days at Apple. This might not be an accident as both Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak worked at Atari just before producing the Apple II - the machine that started the home computer revolution and made dedicated games console look less attractive.

Eventually Atari needed a cash injection and after approaching the Disney empire, who turned the offer down, Warner Communications bought a share. The cash was used to launch a personal computer - the Atari 400/800 - and a games cartridge machine the VCS. The 400/800, with a built in cartridge slot, was a modest success but the VCS machine was a flop. Warner blamed Bushnell and he left with $28 million.


The Atari 400

What do you do after starting the computer games revolution that ultimately fed the personal computer revolution? Nolan Bushnell started a chain of pizza parlors! Mind you these were a little different. To keep the kids happy while they waited for their pizzas there were robot automatons that could be fed with coins. I can't say that the automatons were particularly impressive - a bit like the sort of animated windows displays you sometimes see in shop windows at Xmas - but it was still high tech entertainment. The chain was a success at first but eventually went bankrupt - his only really big flop.

But there were lots of smaller non-events. Bushnell decided to diversify as a deliberate policy - copying Disney - and founded a workshop to nurture Silicon Valley start ups. The products were certainly diverse: hi-res colour TV, electronic shopping and a home robot. After a few years most of the startups hadn't made the grade but then that is the rule for speculative investments. There seems to be an understandable desire for the early pioneers to attempt to repeat their successes. Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Nolan Bushnell even Mitch Kapor of Lotus have all tried to repeat their success but how do you cap such early and such great success?

A strange twist to the story is that in 1986 Steve Wozniak teamed up with Nolan Bushnell to design and market battling robots. The robots were to be controlled by computers and linked to video cassettes. The fun would be in pitting your robot against one controlled by the computer. At the time this sounded like the next logical step on from the 2D computer games that Atari made so popular.

This perhaps is the real insight into Nolan Bushnell's view of the world. Bushnell still likes to make comments about the state of technology and plays a role of speculator on our high tech future. But rather than being a pioneer of the personal computer and the electronic game, his is more accurately seen as the most foresighted of the previous generation of hardware-oriented engineers. If you like he takes the mechanical calliope and adds an electric motor rather than seeing the true magic in the software.

With the mostly software based games industry making billions perhaps it is worth remembering that it all began with Nolan Bushnell and a game called Pong.

To program Pong for yourself see our JavaScript implementation and if you simply want a nostalgic experience we have a playable version.






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