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Screenshot of the Pong arcade game

Pong, an adaptation of table tennis to the video screen, was the first widely popular video game. "Pong" was first released by Atari in 1972, although other video games in the form were created previously.

History of Pong

The earliest form of an electronic ping-pong game (perhaps the first video game ever) dates back as a game played on an oscilloscope, by William A. Higinbotham at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1958. His game was titled "Tennis For 2".

In 1966, Ralph Baer, then working for Sanders Associates, made a design for running simple computer games over a television set. His ideas were patented, and he created a game resembling "Pong" proper, except with slightly more complex controls. In 1970 Baer demonstrated his video game system to corporate heads at Magnavox, who became convinced that such a device would help sell more Magnavox television sets. Magnavox and Sanders Associates joined forces, with Baer and his patents at the epicenter, to develop a stand-alone unit called the Odyssey 1TL200 to be sold to consumers for use in the home.

In the spring of 1972, the Magnavox Odyssey system was on display at a demonstration in Burlingame, California where Nolan Bushnell played the Odyssey's ping-pong game for the first time. Soon afterwards Nolan and a friend formed a new company, Atari. Nolan envisioned creating a driving game for arcades. He hired an electronic engineer, Al Alcorn, fresh out of college. Concerned that the game he envisioned would be too complex for his new employee, Nolan first directed him to build a ping-pong game. The game Alcorn created was so fun that Nolan decided to go ahead and market it. Since the name Ping-Pong was already copyrighted, they settled on simply calling it Pong.

Atari had not been envisioned as a manufacturer but only a developer of arcade games. So Nolan set about demonstrating his new game to several amusement manufacturers. Initially there was little interest in the product, primarily because the unit had not undergone a field test. Soon before departing on a trip to Chicago (Nolan had appointments scheduled with pinball makers Williams and Bally/Midway), he and Alcorn rigged a coin switch to the unit for a location test.

The system was initially tested in Andy Capp's Tavern, a bar in Sunnyvale, California. When the system was first put into place in this bar, only two people took notice of it and started playing. By the next day, however, its popularity had grown to the point where people literally were lined up outside the bar the next morning waiting for the place to open. Before long, however, the unit broke down, and the bar's owner called Al at home to have him remove the game. When Al opened the unit to start a game, he quickly discovered the problem - the milk carton they had placed inside to catch the coins was overflowing with quarters to the point that the coin switch was jammed. Al immediately called Nolan in Chicago to tell him about the game's outstanding success, and Nolan decided they should manufacture Pong themselves.

Two weeks later, Magnavox learned of Pong, and notified Atari that they already had a patent on the concept. The two companies went to court. Magnavox was able to produce witnesses who had seen Nolan playing the Odyssey's ping-pong game, and they had a guestbook from the event which Nolan had signed. The judge found in favor of Magnavox, and Atari had to pay $700,000 for use of the patents. This turned out to be a very worthwhile investment. By the end of March 1983, Atari had sold between 8,000 to 10,000 coin-op Pong systems.

Many versions of Pong were released: Pong Doubles (a 4-player Pong), Quadra Pong, Doctor Pong, etc. Aside from Atari's arcade units, there was a slew of Pong clones as well. In their rush to market, Atari did not wait file for copyrights or patents on their unit. Despite Atari's success, only 1 in 5 Pong style games in arcades were actually made by Atari.

The home version of Pong was conceived in 1973 and designed by Al Alcorn, Bob Brown, and Harold Lee in 1975. Atari demonstrated the unit at the 1975 Summer CES. Because of the failure of the Odyssey (the unit was discontinued in 1974), retail outlets weren't interested by Atari's home console. These systems has on-screen digital scoring, something absent from other versions of Pong.

However, soon after the show Atari was contacted by Tom Quinn, sporting goods buyer for Sears. Tom met with Nolan Bushnell, and asked how many units Atari could produce in time for the holiday shopping season. Nolan said they could probably produce 75,000. Tom countered by saying that Sears wanted 150,000 Pong consoles, and they would pay the costs necessary to boost production to this level. In return, Sears would be the exclusive seller of Atari Pong. Christmas 1975 was the most popular season for Pong, with customers lined up outside the stores waiting for Pong shipments.

The Pong systems remained popular in the US until the late 1970s and in Europe until the early 1980s. Pong is still considered today to be the game that shaped the console market.


The original concept of Pong was as a simple ping pong (table tennis) simulator, hence the name of the game. In ping pong two players stand on either side of a ping pong table and bat a small ball back and forth between them, and this basic concept is carried through to Pong. A small "ball" moves across the screen, bouncing off of the sides, and the two players each control a "paddle" that slides back and forth across their end of the screen. If the ball hits the paddle, it bounces back towards the other player's side; if it misses the paddle, the other player scores a point. The "ball" would be reflected in different ways depending on how the ball collided with the paddle. Pong can be played by a single player, with the opposing paddle being controlled by the computer, or by two players, each controlling a paddle. On arcade machines the paddle would usually be controlled by a wheel or knob, responding with variable speed depending on how fast the player turned it.

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