On the first day of the new year I tend to think of the first days of other things. Remember back in 1982, when state of the art gaming brought you that marvel of the modern world, Pong? That was actually a crude digital descendant of the more elegant Brookhaven Lab’s Tennis for Two, built all the way back in 1958 by nuclear physicist William Higinbotham. It used a Donner Analog computer to drive the game, which was basically a series of potentiometers married to a patch panel; the potentiometers were assembled in sets as electronic slide rules, the patch panels allowed you to physically configure each electronic slide rule for specific types of calculations and then assemble sequences of the configured assemblies to simulate various real world processes or respond to real time input. The game controllers were two boxes with a button and a potentiometer on each, the potentiometer controlling the angle of the virtual tennis racket, and the button indicating the swing moment.
When Brookhaven National Laboratory was celebrating their 50th anniversary in 1997, they had the good sense to want to make this piece of gaming history part of the party, but the original device had only existed for a year. So another engineer who had joined Brookhaven a few decades later had to resurrect the game based on old film footage and a series of notebooks. He could not get a Donner analog computer at first, so parts of his reconstruction were digital circuits imitating the actions of the original.
The scary part is this wasn’t even the first video game; that honor goes to 1947’s Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device, which was the original analog computer version of arcade favorite Missile Command. I had thought Asteroids came before Missile Command, but that one didn’t get invented until 1962 at MIT under the name Spacewar, and was first built on a digital computer. I include part one of The History of Gaming from The Irate Gamer. He seems to think his topic begins with 1962’s Spacewar, but from that point forward he does manage to hit a few of the high points.