The Complete History of Tennis for Two

Los Alamos Laboratory badge identity photo of William Alfred Higinbotham.

The Complete History of Tennis for Two

Key Points:
  • The American physicist designed one of the first video games ever made–the sports video game Tennis for Two.
  • After the initial introduction of the game, it was forgotten until the 1970s when Higinbotham testified in court during lawsuits between Magnavox and Ralph H Baer over video game patents.
  • Ten years prior to Tennis for Two, Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr., and Estle R Mann patented the “Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device,” making this the earliest documented video game predecessor.

Tennis for Two is one of the first games developed in the early history of video games. It’s a sports video game that simulates a game of tennis. Designed by American physicist William Higinbotham in 1958. It was displayed at the Brookhaven National Laboratory’s annual public exhibition. The game was inspired by the government research institution’s Donner Model 30 analog computer that could simulate trajectories with wind resistance. Tennis for Two was displayed on an oscilloscope and played with two aluminum controllers. It took Higinbotham and his technician Robert V. Dvorak 3 weeks to build. The visuals show a side view of a tennis court. Players can adjust the angle of their shots with their controllers and try to hit the ball over the net by pressing a button. People were lining up to play Tennis for Two during the Brookhaven National Laboratory’s three-day exhibition. The following year Higinbotham updated Tennis for Two – he showed it again with a larger oscilloscope screen and a more intricate design. Players could now simulate different gravity levels. Tennis for Two was dismantled and forgotten about until the late 1970s. In the 1970s, Higinbotham testified in court about the game during lawsuits between Magnavox and Ralph H Baer over video game patents. Since the lawsuit, Tennis for Two is celebrated as one of the earliest video games. 

The Inventors of Tennis for Two: William Higinbotham & Robert Dvorak

William (Willy) Alfred Higinbotham was an American physicist. Higinbotham was a part of the team that developed the first nuclear bomb, he then became a leader in the nonproliferation movement. He is also known to have created the first video game created for entertainment purposes. 

William A. Higinbotham Los Alamos ID

William Higinbotham was one half of the team that created Tennis for Two. The other was Robert Dvorak.

How Tennis for Two Was Built

William Higinbotham began working at Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1947. Brookhaven National Laboratory held a yearly exhibition. The exhibition consisted of tours and static displays, but Higinbotham wanted to add some excitement to it. While reading an instruction manual for the Donner Model 30 analog computer, he learned that the computer could calculate ballistic missile trajectories or a bouncing ball with wind resistance. The instruction manual described how to generate different types of curves on the cathode-ray tube of an oscilloscope, using resistors, capacitors, and relays. The Donner Model 30 inspired the foundation of the game. On the oscilloscope, players saw a two-dimensional side view of a tennis court. The oscilloscope used a cathode-ray tube similar to a black and white television tube. The game also simulated the ball hitting a net. The ball was a brightly lit, moving dot. It left trails as it bounced to alternating sides of the net. If the ball did not achieve a high enough arc or if there was a change in velocity due to air resistance, it would not reach the opposite side. 

Attached to the computer were two aluminum controllers. Each controller consisted of a button and a knob. The player would press the button to hit the ball and turn the knob to control the angle of the shot. Higinbotham considered creating a second knob to control the velocity of the shot but didn’t want to make the controller too complicated. With the help of technician Robert V. Dvorak, the device was assembled in 3 weeks. 

Most of the circuitry was based on vacuum tubes and relays. The circuit to display the graphics on the oscilloscope used transistors. When the game was first introduced, the oscilloscope display was only 5 inches in diameter. A big innovation in this game was the use of “new-fangled” germanium transistors that were becoming commercially available. The transistors were used to build a fast-switching circuit that would take the three outputs from the computer and display them alternately on the oscilloscope screen at a speed of 36 Hertz. With this display rate, the eye sees the ball, the net, and the court as one image – rather than 3 images. 

In 1959, Higinbotham improved the game by using a larger screen. It was now between 10-17 inches in diameter. The 1959 version also had select variations of tennis – you could now play on the moon or on Jupiter.

The Unveiling of Tennis for Two

Tennis for Two was shown on October 18, 1958. The game displayed a horizontal line that represented the tennis court and a short vertical line in the center that represented the tennis net. Player 1 would press a button on their controller to send the ball over the net. The ball would either hit the net, fly out of bounds, or reach the other side of the court. Player 2 can then hit the ball back with their controller while it’s on their side. This can happen before or after it bounces on the ground. 

When the game was presented, hundreds of visitors lined up to play. Because of the game’s popularity, Higinbotham created an upgraded version that was shown the following year. This new version included enhancements like a larger screen and different levels of simulated gravity – the game’s concept was the same. The game was referred to as Tennis for Two; however, the place card attached to the upgraded version was titled “Computer Tennis” After the exhibition, the game was dismantled, and its parts were put to other uses. 

Tennis for Two Fun Facts

Was Tennis for Two the First or Second Video Game?

There is an argument that several other inventions preceded Tennis for Two. 

Ten years before Tennis for Two, Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr., and Estle R Mann patented the “Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device,” making this the earliest documented video game predecessor. The device required players to overlay pictures of targets in front of the screen. This was different from Tennis for Two, which displayed the entire game’s visuals on screen. 

Another predecessor to Tennis for Two was a video-game-like device, the Nimrod computer. This was built by Ferranti International and first displayed at the Festival of Britain’s Exhibition of Science in 1951. The computer was built to play a logic and strategy-based game called “Nim.” This electronic version of the game was designed to show the processing power of the new computing device. The Nimrod computer was designed to show processing power. It also did not use a cathode-ray tube display or mimicked movements on screen. 

Following this, in 1952, at the University of Cambridge, A.S. Douglas created an electronic version of Tic-Tac-Toe, titled “OXO.” OXO was a single-player “game” designed for academic purposes – Douglas wanted to study the “Interactions Between Human and Computer.” 

Comparatively, Tennis for Two was the first game to be created purely for entertainment purposes and didn’t require an overlay of images.

Image of the early video game

Tennis for Two.

Tennis for Two Remake

In May 2011, as part of the Museum of Electronic Games & Art’s project, the closest Tennis for Two replica was created – T42 (Pronounced: Tea for Two). T42 resurrects the beloved Tennis for Two game. It’s the only 100% analog and fully playable reconstruction of William Higinbotham’s 1958 Tennis for Two game. T42 is still playable today.

Tennis for Two vs. Pong

Pong is a two-dimensional sports game that is very similar to Tennis for Two. Each player controls an in-game paddle by moving it vertically across the screen. Players can compete against each other by controlling paddles for each side. The players use the paddles to hit a ball back and forth. Players earn points when one fails to return the ball to the other, and the goal of Pong is to reach eleven points before your opponent. 

William Higinbotham’s Tennis for Two and Atari’s Pong helped shape the first public opinion regarding video games for entertainment. Both games started off as science experiments with entertainment goals. 

Tennis for Two is known as the first visual media game to be created. Built with an oscilloscope display, each player has a remote control to control an electron beam that projects from a cathode ray. By pushing a button the ball travels across the electronic display onto the other player’s side allowing the other play to reciprocate. 

An issue with this simplistic design was that there was no way to keep score on the screen. The entire game was displayed with two lines and a dot. Players would need to keep track of their scores with a third party or by pen and paper. 

Tennis for Two was never meant to be released to the public and the original game was dismantled. 

In 1971, Nolan Bushnell, Bruno Bonnell, and Ted Dabney released the Atari, and Pong was released. It became so successful that it required two different versions – a home system and an arcade version. The arcade version of Pong is often regarded as the first arcade system to require a quarter for entry. During its time only a penny was required. 

For Pong, there were no written directions except for the words “avoid missing the ball for high score” written before the title screen.

Pong didn’t have it easy. Management at Bally Manufacturing Corporation rejected the initial premise of Pong. The producers initially thought about introducing Pong to home entertainment systems so players could play through a television screen, but the manufacturing company refused. That didn’t stop them. The producers worked for several years, there was a string of lawsuits from the company Atari. The game Pong was fully realized, licensed, and produced on the Atari home entertainment system in 1972. 

There are a few notable differences between Tennis for Two and Pong – the largest being how it’s played. Tennis for Two was on an oscilloscope display and Pong on a television or an arcade game. Also differing from Tennis for Two, Pong had a built-in point system making it easier for players. 

Tennis for Two was the first video game created for entertainment. Although there weren’t any scientific advancements, there were societal ones. Tennis for Two paved the way for video game entertainment like Pong, PacMan, and so many others. 

Up Next…

  • Jack Kilby — Complete Biography, History and Inventions Jack Kilby’s contributions to computer science, namely in the invention of the microchip, won him the Nobel Peace Prize in Physics.
  • Meet These 6 Famous Women in Technology and Computer Science Learn about 6 women who made major contributions in the fields of technology and computer science.
  • Charles Labofish – Biography, History and Inventions Charles Labofish was a Jewish inventor who held patents for six different calculating machines.

To top