How the first video game owes its origin to the atomic bomb


In the previous article, what was the very first video game? I took a look at the arcade-like juggernaut “Bertie the Brain” and the argument that this ultra-hard Tic Tac Toe game was the very first video game. The thing is with arguments; there are always two sides. And for every fearless and passionate fan of Bertie the Brain as the originator of all things video game – I know for sure that there are at least two, maybe three, adamant and passionate believers in this argument – there is an equally ideological obsessive who would like to know that “Tennis for Two” launched the era of video games.

“Tennis for Two” – or, as it is sometimes called, Computer Tennis – was developed in 1958 by American physicist William Higinbotham. Early in William’s career, during World War II, he held a position at the Los Alomos National Laboratory. There, William and his team developed the ignition mechanism for the first atomic bomb. It was a role that, by all accounts, Willy regretted. He was there to witness the infamous “Trinity Test”, the explosion of the first atomic bomb. On July 16, 1945, at 5:30 a.m., William witnessed a searing explosion of light resulting in an incredibly vast ball of fire and a huge mushroom that was approximately 40,000 feet in diameter. The steel tower that was the target of the test was swept from the surface of the Earth by the explosive equivalent of 21,000 tons of TNT. It was an event that forever changed the path of William’s life.


Shortly thereafter, convinced of the vital importance of a strong nuclear anti-proliferation movement, William co-founded the Federation of American Scientists, an organization that succeeded in stemming the inexorable tide of the nuclear arms race. It was around this time that William took a job at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, and it was there that he established Tennis for Two.

It wasn’t exactly a pretty game, as the limited, but functional, visuals were displayed on an oscilloscope screen. The game consisted of a horizontal line to represent the court and a smaller vertical line in the center which replaced the net. The player would use the stick and button of an aluminum joystick to dictate the angle of the “ball” – that is, a tiny ball of light – and attempt to hit it over the net. If the ball hits its target – it could also bounce off the net or fall out of bounds – the second player could attempt to return the ball. The game was a huge hit at the Laboratory’s public exhibition, attracting hundreds of visitors and returning the following year with a bigger screen and the ability to change gravity levels.

Tennis for Two’s influence on video game history is obvious. Here was a game that offered both a competitive multiplayer experience and one of the first examples of a controller to boot. There was even physics! No wonder Tennis for Two is considered the great-granddaddy of video games – the parallels between this one and 1972’s Pong are obvious.

Playing with History is our ongoing series highlighting video games and the real-world people and events that inspire them. From walking with dinosaurs in Jurassic World Evolution and talking about real-life zombies in Days Gone, to learning about the Peaky Blinders and discussing Ghost of Tsushima with a samurai expert, there’s many things you may not have known about your favorite video games.



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