Norbert Wiener

The First Video Game of William Higinbotham

The American physicist William (Willy) Alfred Higinbotham (October 25, 1910—November 10, 1994) is credited with creating the first computer video game to display motion and allow interactive control with handheld controllers in 1958.

William A. Higinbotham earned an undergraduate degree from Williams College in 1932 and continued his studies at Cornell University. During WW2 he went to work on the radar system at MIT. In the later years of the war he worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory (where the first atomic bomb was developed) and headed the lab's electronics group.

In 1947 Higinbotham entered the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York as a senior physicist and later as head of the Instrumentation Division. When in October, 1958, the Lab organized its annual visitors’ days, Higinbotham realized how static and non-interactive most science exhibits were at that time tried to change that, introducing a game as an element of entertainment. He wrote later it might liven up the place to have a game that people could play, and which would convey the message that our scientific endeavors have relevance for society.

Higinbotham decided to create a game—Tennis for Two, and despite of the fact, that he had only 2 weeks for this purpose, he managed to make it. In 1983 he recalled—It took me about two hours to rough out the design and a couple of weeks to get it debugged and working. It didn't take long and it was a big hit.

The Tennis for Two was first introduced on October 18, 1958, at one of the Lab’s annual visitors’ days. Two people played the electronic tennis game with separate controllers that connected to an analog computer and used an oscilloscope for a screen (see the lowe photo).

Visitors playing Tennis for Two saw a two-dimensional, side view of a tennis court on the oscilloscope screen, which used a cathode-ray tube. The ball, a brightly lit, moving dot, left trails as it bounced to alternating sides of the net. Players served and volleyed using controllers with buttons and rotating dials to control the angle of an invisible tennis racquet’s swing.

Tennis For Two simulator

A recreation of the original Tennis For Two, constructed for the 50th anniversary of the game's first appearance (source: www.bnl.gov/bnlweb/history/higinbotham.asp)

Liven up the place it did! Hundreds of visitors lined up for a chance to play the pioneering electronic tennis game. And Higinbotham could not have dreamed that his game would be a forerunner to an entire industry that less than fifty years later, would account for $9.5 billion in sales in 2006 and 2007 in the USA alone.

Higinbotham had more than 20 patents on electronic circuits to his credit, but he never patented his video game, which associates said was the forerunner of the early 1970's video game "Pong." Higinbotham, discussing in 1983 his decision not to seek the patent, said, "It wasn't something the Government was interested in" and that he "didn't think it was worth it."