Nolan Bushnell and Atari #history

On this day in 1972 Nolan Bushnell co-founded Atari – the coin-op to home console game company


Extract from The PC Pioneers

Everyone who’s ever taken a shower has an idea. It’s the person who gets out of the shower, dries off and does something about it who makes a difference. Nolan Bushnell

Nolan Bushnell had been a keen amateur radio enthusiast.  He worked at the Lagoon Amusement Park while at school and college and was particularly taken by the arcade games there.  His first business was repairing radios and TV sets.

He played Spacewar! while studying electrical engineering at the University of Utah and then met it again through a friend working at the Stanford AI Lab.

He and Ted Dabney were working at Ampex when they decided to bring Spacewar! to a wider audience through a new operation, Syzygy Engineering.  Syzygy is one of those useful quiz-question words – a word without an official vowel, like rhythm.  It is an astronomy term with a series of definitions but essentially means a conjunction, usually of the sun and moon.

Bushnell broke with the subsequent established norms of the PC business; he used his daughter’s bedroom as his workshop, not a garage!

Dabney developed the product while Bushnell looked for a manufacturer, eventually agreeing a deal with Nutting Associates, a company that had made mechanical coin-op games.  Nutting was not at the time particularly successful and perhaps this was why he took on the speculative job.  The result was Bushnell’s first coin-op arcade game Computer Space, released in late 1971.

It was based around the use of an expensive off-the-shelf minicomputer but this proved too slow, so it was instead designed in hardware using more than seventy transistor-transistor logic chips and a 15” (38cm) black and white GE screen for display.  This analogue approach radically reduced their costs.

The console styling certainly looked the part but its gameplay proved quite complex and it was not a huge success.  However they did sell 1,500 to 2,000 units at a value of more than $3m, not bad for a start-up.  Perhaps just as valuably, Bushnell learned about the target end-user for this sort of coin-op and it gave him experience with various locations to establish those that were most valuable.

Bushnell and Al Alcorn subsequently developed Pong, market–tested in late 1972 in Andy Capp’s Tavern, a helpful current client.  Within a few days the bar owner called to say the unit was malfunctioning.  Alcorn found that the mechanism had been jammed by the overload of quarters inserted to play the game.  The success of the coin-op and later the home versions of Pong founded the video game business.

Steve Jobs joined Syzygy, by then renamed Atari as a technician for just $5 an hour; he became its employee #40.  His brashness apparently led to Alcorn, his manager, scheduling him to work nights when he would be less likely to offend the rest of the team.  This allowed his friend Steve Wozniak to come in out of hours and get free time on the games.

In 1976 Bushnell wanted to come up with a single-player version of Pong that he had envisaged and called Breakout.  Al Alcorn set the task for Steve Jobs and offered him $750 to create the prototype but he added an intriguing incentive – a bonus of $100 for each chip that could be eliminated from the outline design.

Jobs knew that Wozniak had seen the Atari arcade game Pong and been motivated to develop his own version with many fewer chips.  Jobs had encouraged him to show it to the Atari engineers.

Naturally Jobs brought in Wozniak to assist and he successfully eliminated fifty chips.  Jobs duly earned a bonus of $5,000, but reportedly paid Wozniak only half of the original fee, $375, for his work.  Wozniak only learned of this from a book about Atari published much later in 1984; if he had learned this earlier perhaps Apple’s future would have been quite different.

In fact his design was judged as too small for the company to use given its current manufacturing approach so Atari decided later to redesign it using more chips.  Though Wozniak said he could find nothing in the finished product that was different from his gameplay design.

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