Long before the mustachioed plumber went on a long journey to save his princess (hello Super Mario) and the round yellow glutton got lost in the haunted maze (hey, Pac-Man), the first video game in the history of mankind was created, the purpose of which was not only to draw people’s attention to the achievements of science, but also to have fun. It was two-player tennis that captured many people back in 1958.
GLOBAL HAPPENINGS tells the story of the first video game and its developer (to watch the video, make the news to the end).
Tennis for two
Brookhaven National Laboratory held an annual visitor’s day in the 1950s, when the best minds were shown to curious people. Probably, from year to year it became more and more difficult to surprise people (especially since the first TVs were already booming in the market), so nuclear physicist William Higinbotham came up with a toy that should return people who were bored with the reasonable (of course), but such ” lean scientific.
“This place could be enlivened by a game that people could play that would send a message that our scientific efforts matter to society,” wrote the physicist who headed the Brookhaven Laboratory’s Instrumentation Division.
Of course, he was limited by the technological development of his time, so he couldn’t surprise people with the amazing landscapes of distant planets or the fast-paced plot, but he probably guessed that there is nothing more fun than friendly rivalry, so tennis became an ideal option.
For the first time “Tennis for two” was presented on October 18, 1958 at one of the annual visitors’ days. Higinbotham’s design was equipped with two separate controllers connected to an analog computer, which were used by the players, and a 12.7 cm oscilloscope screen was used instead of a monitor.
Visitors playing “Tennis for Two” saw a two-dimensional image of a tennis court on an oscilloscope screen that used a cathode ray tube. The ball, a brightly lit moving dot, left marks as it bounced across the net.
Players could hit the ball, as well as make spin shots, using the controller buttons and rotary controls that changed the angle of impact of a virtual tennis racket.
The first visitors liked the game so much that later in the laboratory there were queues of those who wanted to look at the miracle of technology, as well as test it on their own.
A year later, Higinbotham updated his game. In addition, oscilloscopes with a screen diameter of 25 to 44 cm were now used, new physics appeared in the game. Players could now play tennis on the Moon – in low gravity, as well as tennis on Jupiter – in high gravity. Although visually, of course, it was the same screen with light elements of the court and the ball.
Of course, when Tennis for Two appeared in 1958, no one knew that video games would appear decades later, which at the beginning of the 21st century would become something on the verge of interactive films and books with well-written plots and deep characters.
So the development of Higinbotham as something historical was only talked about in the early 1980s, when several specialized magazines called “Tennis for Two” the first video game in history.
How Higinbotham managed to create his game
The “brain” of “Tenis for Two” was a small analog computer, and he borrowed the very idea for the game from the instructions for the computer. There it was described how to generate different curves on an oscilloscope cathode ray tube using resistors, capacitors and relays. Among the examples were the trajectories of a ball, a rocket and a bouncing ball. It was the example with the ball that gave rise to the idea of ”Tennis for two” in the physicist’s brain.
The computer had 10 operational amplifiers, four of which were responsible for the movement of the ball on the screen, and the remaining six limited the movement of the ball, understanding when it hits the ground or hit the net, and also switched control to the player. Which side of the court was the ball on?
Peter Takacs, of the Brookhaven Lab’s instrumentation department, who was involved in the revival of Higinbotham’s development in the 2000s, noted that the nuclear physicist’s development was cutting-edge for its time.
“The real innovation in this game is the use of ‘newfangled’ germanium transistors, which were only becoming commercially available in the late 1950s. Higinbotham used the transistors to build a fast circuit that would take three computer outputs and output them to the screen in turn. ‘lightning fast’ at a speed of 36 Hertz. At this speed, the eye sees the ball, the net and the court as one image, and not as three separate pictures,” the scientist explained.
In general, when Higinbotham developed Tennis for Two, he used a lot of what he had done before. It took about two hours to develop the design, and it took only a few days to fill it with the components at hand. About three more weeks were spent putting the game together and making it work.
The laboratory still holds official drawings dated 1958.
Is “Tennis for Two” really the first video game?
Formally, before the development of Higinbotham, there were three other games that used electronic components. But none of them can be called a video game.
In 1948, Thomas Goldsmith Jr. and Asl Mann patented the “Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device”. However, this device required players to superimpose images or illustrations of targets in front of a screen. Otherwise, there was no point in the game. Instead, Higinbotham’s tennis displayed the full image of the game on the screen.
In 1951, Ferranti International developed the Nimrod computer, which was used to play the century-old mathematical logic-strategy game Num. But the game was on the computer only to demonstrate its processing power. So the main element of the game – entertainment – was missing.
In addition, Nimrod did not use a cathode ray tube display, which allowed simulating the movement of elements on the screen. Instead, he used a set of light bulbs that turned on and off as the player made their turn.
1952 A.S. Douglas of the University of Cambridge also created his own game, an electronic version of tic-tac-toe, which he called OXO. But the game was single-player and aimed to explore the interaction between humans and computers. Like the Nimrod, the OXO was not designed for entertainment.
Earlier, GLOBAL HAPPENINGS told how the first computer in history looked like and why it was not recognized for a decade.
I am a technology author with 8 years of experience in journalism. My writing covers the latest technology advancements and trends, drawing on my expertise in news journalism and social media platforms. I have contributed to major media outlets such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Reuters.