William Higinbotham and the Paleolithic Tennis Author: William Hunter - with additions from the curator
Original Source: www.thedoteaters.com/stage1.php
William A. Higinbotham
William (Willy) A. Higinbotham (October 25, 1910 - November 10, 1994), an American physicist, is credited with creating one of the first computer games, "Tennis for Two". Like "Pong", its a portrait of a game of tennis or ping-pong, but featured very different game mechanics that have no resemblance to the later game.
While it is as far from the eventual commercial videogame systems that come later as a walk in the park is to a walk on the moon, a physicist trying to make the public tour of his lab a little more exciting to bored visitors designs what some consider as a precursor electronic game system in 1958. Working at Brookhaven National Laboratory, a US nuclear research lab in Upton, New York.
Mr. Higinbotham, head of BNL's
Instrumentation Division notices that people attending the annual autumn open houses, which are held to show the public how safe the work going on there is, are bored with the displays of simple photographs and static equipment.
"I knew from past visitors days that people were not much
interested in static exhibits," said Higinbotham, "so for that year I
came up with an idea for a hands-on display – a tennis game."
Educated at Cornell University as a physics graduate, Higinbotham had come to BNL from Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project, and had actually been witness to the first detonation of the atomic bomb. A chain-smoking, fun-loving character and self-confessed pinball player, he wants to develop an open house exhibit at BNL that will entertain people as they learn.
His idea is to use a small analog computer in the lab - a Systron Donner SD-3300 that was made from vacuum tube circuits - to graph and display the trajectory of a moving ball on an oscilloscope, with which users can interact. Missile trajectory plotting is one of the specialties of computers at this time, the other being cryptography. In fact, the first electronic computer was developed to plot the trajectory of the thousands of bombs to be dropped in WWII.
As head of Brookhaven's Instrumentation Division, and being used to building such complicated electronic devices as radiation detectors, it's no problem for Higinbotham, along with Technical Specialist Robert V. Dvorak who actually assembles the device, to create in two weeks the game system they name Tennis for Two, and it debuts with other exhibits in the Brookhaven gymnasium at the BNL annual visitors' day on October 18, 1958.
Tennis For Two at Brookhaven NL, 1958
In the rudimentary side-view tennis game, the ball bounces off a long horizontal line at the bottom of the oscilloscope, and there is a small vertical line in the centre to represent the net. Two boxes each with a dial and a button are the controllers. The dials affect the angle of the ball back to the other side of the screen.
"It was simple to design," remembered Higinbotham. "Back then, analog
computers were used to work out all kinds of mechanical problems. They
didn't have the accuracy of digital computers, which were very crude at
the time, but then you didn't need a great deal of precision to play TV
Higinbotham said it took about three weeks to put the game together. It
was actually built by Robert V. Dvorak, a Technical Specialist in the
Instrumentation Division who died in 1969. "Bob and I worked very
closely together," said Higinbotham. "I made some drawings, gave them
to Bob, he made a patchboard, we changed the things that didn't work,
and got it running in time for the first tour."
Based on Higinbotham's original drawings, official BNL blueprints were
done by Alexander Elia, a Design Engineer still with Instrumentation.
Higinbotham said the blueprints show a few relay contacts in the wrong
position, but the game worked beautifully, so they must have been fixed
in the actual circuit.
The electronics consisted mostly of resistors, capacitors and relays,
but where fast switching was needed – when the ball was in play –
transistor switches were used. "These days, this sort of simulation is
done with solid state switches, not with relays," said Higinbotham.
"Where I needed it, I took a step in the right direction."
Only BNL visitors in 1958, 1959 and 1961 had a chance to sample video tennis.
After that the computer and oscilloscope were separated and used for
other jobs. For the next visitors day, Higinbotham and his colleagues
designed a new exhibit – a spark chamber that showed cosmic rays
passing through. Little did he realize that his game may have
spawned an entertainment medium that may last into the next century.
Tennis for Two demonstration
Simulated on a screen was a vertical side view of a tennis court
showing the edge of a floor with the edge of the net perpendicular to
it. Each player had a knob and a button. Rotating the knob changed the
angle of the ball and a press of the of button sent the ball toward the
opposite side of the court.
If the ball hit the net, it rebounded at an
unexpected angle. If the ball went over the net, but was not hit back,
it would hit the floor and bounce again at a natural angle. If it
disappeared off the screen, a reset button could be pressed, causing
the ball to reappear and remain stationary until a hit button was
pressed. You actually
couldn't see the
paddles but had to guess, based on turning the nobs of the potentiometer.
It wasn't a tremendously challenging game, but in
represented something that was "neat" and fun. No score is tabulated, and it is displayed in glorious phosphor monochrome on a puny 5" oscilloscope screen, but it is still a big hit with everyone who visits the display. There are people in line for hours to play it.
Tennis for Two reappears for the 1959 and 1961 open-house, and modifications include a larger monitor to display the action, and changeable gravity settings to show what it would be like to play tennis on another planet. After this final appearance, the system is then dismantled and its components put to other uses.
What's believed to be the world's first electronic Tennis game is the second unit
from left above,
a small oscilloscope perched on a black box. It was part of this 1958 display at Brookhaven.
Higinbotham's Tennis for Two was played on a 5-inch oscilloscope screen at the Visitors Day Instrumentation Division exhibit. The photo abowe is the only existing photo of the original 1958 presentation at Brookhaven's Instrumentation Division.
Details about William A. Higinbotham and Tennis for Two
by Peter Takacs, Brookhaven National Laboratory
On October 24, 2008 BNL's Instrumentation Division held a celebration to honor the fiftieth anniversary of Tennis for Two. A recreated version of Tennis for Two was presented, rebuilt by the Instrumentation Division's Peter Takacs, Gene Von Achen and Paul O'Connor, with Scott Coburn, Condensed Matter Physics & Materials Science Department.
"We decided to rebuild Tennis for Two about eleven years ago, in preparation for BNL's fiftieth anniversary," Takacs said. Using Higinbotham's original plans, Takacs and his colleagues rebuilt the game with vintage parts, including mechanical relays and germanium transistors that first became commercially available in the 1950s. The original 1950s model analog computer that was made from vacuum tube circuits had to be simulated using modern integrated circuit chips."
"It took us about three-quarters of a year to rebuild it," Takacs added. "It was difficult to find the parts, then difficult to put them together. In contrast, it took Willy Higinbotham only two weeks to put it together and get it going."
The game held up well for about the first two hours of the celebration, then a spark went off in the inner workings of the game, and the horizontal line for the "court" on the screen disappeared. Takacs immediately looked at copies of the game's original plans, which were on display, interrupted a tour in Instrumentation, and with the help of colleagues Paul O'Connor, who found the necessary part - an oscillator chip - and Von Achen, who cut out the damaged chip and soldered in the new one, got the game working again within 25 minutes.
"Because it's an analog computer, I could quickly identify the part that we needed and replace it easily," Takacs said.
From left, Scott Coburn, Peter Takacs and Gene Von Achen,
both of the Instrumentation Division, watch as visitors play Tennis for Two projected on a large screen on Oct. 24, 2008
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