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Nolan Bushnell

Pong

Nolan Bushnell, inventor of Pong and founder of Atari, is rightly considered the father of electronic gaming.

Growing up in Utah in the 1940s, Bushnell had a childhood typical of a budding inventor: his early inspirations included a third-grade science project on electricity; his early setbacks included nearly burning down his family's garage with a homemade liquid-fuel rocket mounted on a roller skate. In time, Bushnell began to show his talent for business as well: at age 15, when his father died, he took over his concrete business.

Bushnell's career plans gelled while he was attending the University of Utah. At that time, he was learning the basics of computer graphics, while managing an amusement park and playing tournament chess on the side. Fascinated by the combination of computers, images, and fun, Bushnell went on to invent his first computerized video game, "Computer Space," in 1970. This game, which looked like a prototype of the later "Asteroids," was unfortunately too complicated and cumbersome for mass production.

So Bushnell simplified: the next year, he invented Pong, a video version of ping-pong, whose "ball" was a blip that bounced back and forth on the screen between two "paddles" that were moved up and down by control knobs in the hands of the players. Pong debuted at a bar in Sunnyvale, California, one evening in 1971. The game was literally overplayed: the machine broke down after being stuffed too full with quarters.

Knowing he had a winning product, Bushnell founded Atari in 1972, with the help of his friend Ted Dabney and only $500. The games produced by Bushnell's company in the next few years, including Asteroids, gave rise to not only the video arcade, but an entire industry that is still thriving today. In 1975, Bushnell made an agreement with Sears to sell a home version of Pong: this was an even greater milestone, for here for the first time home television sets became interactive.

In 1976, Bushnell sold Atari to Time Warner for $28 million; by 1982, their Atari division was making $2 billion in annual sales. Meanwhile, Bushnell had already founded another company, Chuck E. Cheese pizza restaurants (1977), which gave kids the chance to enjoy, simultaneously, the fun of playing electronic games and the fun of eating out.

To date, Bushnell has founded 18 companies. He has worked in many fields, including personal computers and robotics; but he continues to develop computer games. For example, Bushnell now envisions "cybersports," internet-based games that could accommodate thousands of persons per team.

Bushnell has always been convinced that computer games are an excellent way to foster curiosity and creativity in a social context. In other words, Bushnell has always seen computer games as a means of education; and certainly his own games paved the way for the myriad of explicitly educational video games available today. At the very least, Nolan Bushnell has revolutionized entertainment, in public and at home; and he will doubtless continue to do so.

 

[Aug. 1998]

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