The arcade game Pong was released upon an unsuspecting world of pool and pinball players forty years ago this week. I recall vividly the day one of the games was set up at the local college student center. Dozens of young people gathered around to watch and wait their turn to play. Pong wasn't the first video arcade game, but it was the one that introduced a generation to interactive digital entertainment. Nolan Bushnell, Ted Dabney, and Al Alcorn left decent jobs at Ampex to form their own company, Atari, to develop video games. In September of that year, they delivered the beta version of a tennis-like game to Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, California.
Alcorn headed out to the local Walgreens, picked up a $75 black-and-white television set, hid the Hitachi logo inside a rudimentary orange casing, which housed the logic circuits and a coin box made from an upturned sawed-off plastic milk jug, and dragged it into the corner of Andy Capp's, next to the pinball machines, the jukebox, and the Computer Space machine. “There were seven or eight machines in the back of the bar,” Alcorn says. "Andy Capp’s was one of our favorite places because we knew the owner, and we trusted him. If something went wrong, we knew he’d call us.” It was September 1972.
The Atari designers and engineers decided to linger for a while. “It was really interesting,” Bushnell says. “You put it in place and stand back and watch people play it.” What they saw was encouraging, but not extraordinary. “We watched for a couple of hours, drank a couple of beers, then went home.” Bushnell was catching a flight to Chicago the next day, a portable version of Pong in an aluminum case under his arm.
Within a few days, Bill Gattis, who ran the bar, was on the phone to Atari. “The machine had stopped working; I was told to go fix it,” Alcorn explains. ”I stopped over on my way home from work, and much to my surprise, the coin box was overflowing, gushing with quarters.”