All Your Base Are Belong To Us - Prelude - Continued

With its expensive germanium transistors, the game was state of the art in 1958, a time when technology was speeding forward rapidly in many industries. The world itself was infected by space fever. Sputnik went 60 million miles as it orbited Earth; the world was entranced. The Cold War had frozen relations with the USSR, and Nikita Khrushchev became its cunning, fi st- pounding premier. Americans were mired in a heavy fear and paranoia about a coming nuclear war. On January 13, 9,235 scientists, led by the father of molecular biology, Linus Pauling, took out ads in newspapers, begging the United States to put a permanent halt to its nuclear testing. One of those scientists was Dr. William Higinbotham, the head of the Instrumentation Division at the Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Higinbotham had worked on the Manhattan Project, and like many scientists who worked on the project, he was plagued by guilt when the bomb was used on Hiroshima.

To understand why Higinbotham made the game, you have to look into his personality. On May 18, 1958, just months before he created Tennis for Two, Parade magazine profile led Higinbotham in a three- page article entitled “A Scientist You Should Know . . . Wonderful Willie from Brookhaven.” Like many Parade profiles, the story was a puffy feature. But it spoke volumes about the five- foot- four, 125- pound personality who invented an electronic bombsight, one of the first digital computers, and who helped to create the Atomic Energy Commission. Not mentioned in the Parade story was that, as the chairman of the anti- bomb Federation of Scientists, Higinbotham was considered to be a communist sympathizer by paranoid, self- serving senator Joe McCarthy. Because Higinbotham had given his life to science and the government, the label haunted him.

He forgot about any woes, though, when he was with his family. Parade said, “He’s an electronics expert who can play the accordion, call a square dance and ‘do anything with an egg.’ To his lawn mower, he would attach a sulky and to that, two red wagons to take his kids around the yard.” As much as he was a scientist, he also longed to entertain. He would lead his band, the hilariously named Isotope Stompers, down the road at Brookhaven during festivals, playing Dixieland jazz. Making the simple game was another way to let off steam. In his role of government scientist, Higinbotham was the maker of the trigger that set off the nuclear bomb. In his role as Brookhaven entertainer, he was someone who could give pleasure beyond the passive but tangible joys of listening to music. His real gift was one of interactivity. His experiment allowed people to become one with a machine. Hands on and gloves off, they competed, they won or lost, and those excited folks told other people of their newfangled adventure.

In Higinbotham’s own unpublished notes, he lamented that at Brookhaven’s Visitors’ Days, the main exhibits were typically “picture or text displays or static instruments or components. . . . It occurred to me that 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 to society.” The tube on the oscilloscope was not that different from the tube on a TV, except that its screen showed patterns and not pictures. When Higinbotham opened the instruction booklet to his new computer at Brookhaven, he noted that it “described how to generate various curves . . . using risitors, capacitors and relays.” The booklet explained how to show bullet trajectories, wind resistance, and a bouncing ball. “Bouncing ball?” thought Higinbotham. “That sounds like fun.”

Some of the more persnickety game fans do not consider Higinbotham’s work to be a videogame. After all, it did not use a video signal, the kind of electric impulses that became images on the old cathode- ray analog TV sets. It did not display pictures that you could recognize. It did not connect to something in the living room. To the naysayers, what Higinbotham made looked like nothing more than the display on an early heart monitor. Yet while Higinbotham’s oscilloscope didn’t technically display video, by “alternating the computer’s output with the transistor’s switching circuit,” he certainly did create what looked and played like the videogames that would become available to everyone more than a decade later. Who cares if you couldn’t display it on a TV?

In September, the curious stood and waited for hours in long lines during Brookhaven’s ninth annual Visitors’ Days to play Tennis for Two; even though Brookhaven’s official press release made no mention of the game, word of mouth had spread quickly, almost with the speed of today’s Internet gossip. It was more than just fun. Once those lines of people played and enjoyed, it marked the beginning of videogame history.

Higinbotham proved a few things with Tennis for Two. People enjoyed playing together while looking at a screen. As they went at it, they made the communal noises of primal togetherness that you make at a sporting event. They hooted, hollered, and laughed. They imagined they were playing on the courts. And then they went home and talked to others about this brand- new thing they had witnessed. That enthusiasm lasted when Higinbotham made version 2.0 the following year; people continued to queue up, indicating that the market for such games was already in place. Willie Higinbotham, the scientist/entertainer, had stumbled upon the future. And the future was games.

Meanwhile, a determined but self- effacing engineer was hard at work on a game machine that would work when hooked up to a television set. His name was Ralph Baer. A few of the old- timers at Brookhaven believe that Baer took a trip there to see Tennis for Two years before he came up with the idea for a brilliant invention that would mark the videogame’s debut as a commercial enterprise.

Excerpted from All Your Base Are Belong To Us: How Fifty Years of Video Games Conquered Pop Culture by Harold Goldberg. Copyright © 2011 by Harold Goldberg. Published in the United States by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

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