Interview with Nolan Bushnell, Founder of Atari

     Pinball is dead.  And the man responsible for its death is an athletic looking guy in his late thirties who sports a trim Vandyke beard and a mischievious grin.  His name is Nolan Bushnell.

     This is the guy that thought up the game we all remember as the FIRST ONE.  That game was Pong.  And to market Pong, he formed a tiny company whose name comes from a polite samurai warning to one's opponent that he is about to be attacked:  Atari!

     Sure, Pong seems primitive now.  Sure, we've moved on to better things.  But every video freak has to remember and respect Pong, just as he remembers and respects Edison's primitive phonograph.  Without Pong, there'd be no Space Invaders, no Defender, no Pac-Man.

     In fact, once Pong hit the market, pinball - that game of the ball bearings that worked on (snicker) gravity - just about dug itself a hole and crawled in.  Poor Elton John, letting himself get photographed from an impossibly low angle, wearing stacked silver shoes, slapping clumsily at electro-mechanical flipper controls.  If The Who has asked Nolan Bushnell, he'd have told them where the real action is.

     Who exactly is Nolan Bushnell - this grinning prophet of the video game?  Well, actually he's not that different from you or me.  Just an all-american lover of fun and games, carnivals and pizza pie.

     Bushnell had a proper middle-American upbringing in Ogden, Utah.  His family were Mormons.  His dad was a cement contractor, his mom a housewife.  The young Nolan enjoyed monkeying around with his own amateur radio set, call letters W7 DUK.  Later he would earn pocket money repairing tv's, radio's and washing machines.  He seemed to have a knack for electrical and mechanical devices.

     He showed a rare blend of mechanical talent with a love for sports.  Nolan shot hoops for his high school team, and he loved the more intellectual games as well - he was in the debating team and played tournament chess.

     In the early sixties Bushnell headed off to the University of Utah to study electrical engineering - the magical flow of electrons through wires.  To support himself, he worked nights at an amusements park in Salt Lake City.

     Nolan was fascinated with the carnival and arcade games.  He began to understand the needs of the carnival players.  It seemed wrong to him to hustle teenage couples who strolled the midway into knocking over milk bottles with a baseball.  But those forlorn lovers kept coming back for more, as if they were eternally searching for a game they could really sink their teeth into.


     Back at the school in the fall, Nolan tried out a new game, Space Wars, on the $8 million dollar computer.  It was some rocket/flying saucer battle that had been cooked up in 1962 by a crazed visionary at MIT named Steve Russel.  Wouldn't it be fantastic, thought Bushnell, if you could bring a game like that to the carnival midway?  He recalls: "The problem was that it would take a heck of a lot of quarters to pay for an $8 million dollar machine, so I just filed the concept away in the back of my mind."

     A few years later, while Nolan was east at MIT getting his masters degree, the silicon computer chip was developed, as if in answer to his needs.  This miracle chip - a cluster of miniature circuits on a piece of plastic smaller than a postage stamp - made computers get small.  And it made them get cheap.

     After Nolan finished school, he got a job in Sunnyvale, California with Ampex, the company that is best known for recording equipment, ampifiers and audio tape.  His salary was decent for a guy just out of school in 1970:  $12,000 a year.  But Nolan was married and had a daughter already.  His salary did not permit a champagne lifestyle.  And Nolan wanted to be wealthy.  Very wealthy.

     At Ampex, he got talking to a fellow employee named Ted Dabney about his ideas for video games that everyone could afford.  Dabney was enthusiastic.  They began tinkering with hardware on weekends in an office/shop that Nolan had set up in his daughter's bedroom.  The project grew.  Pretty soon Nolan's daughter had to move out to the living room couch.


     Sure that they were onto something hot, Bushnell and Dabney quit their jobs at Ampex to devote full-time to their project.  Nolan's first idea was to hool up a number of terminals to one minicomputer.  It would be a kind of electronic octopus with player terminals branching out like so many tentacles from a computer brain.  But, though he kept adding more components and circuits, it just wasn't working.

     Then, as if the silicon chip fell out of the sky and hit him on the head, the modern Newton emerged from his lab one day, bleary eyed, rubbing his sore temple and shouting Eureka! - He could make individual free standing terminals with microprocessor technology!  The minute the idea came to him he recalls, "I worked it out and the economics were overwelming."

     In 1971, the first coin-op video game was born.  Nolan dubbed it Computer Space - "A cosmic dogfight between a space ship and a flying saucer."

     His engineering friends went ape over Computer Space and even started camping out in his back yard just to get their mitts on the buttons.  Bushnell and Dabney sold the game to Nutting Associates, the company that was known for its Computer Quiz game.  Then they sat back and waiting for the bucks to come rolling in.

     Computer Space was a flop.   Bushnell now thinks the game was just ahead of its time.  It required players to control a spaceship in a gravity-less environment using "thrust", "fire" and "rotate" buttons.  Bushnell saw too many players slip in a quarter and just stand there dumbfounded while the evil saucer winged over and zapped their drifting spaceship.  He realized that if players weren't going to take the time to read the directions, he'd have to make a game they already knew how to play.,!  Actually, Pong was an accident.  Bushnell had teamed up with an engineer named Al Alcorn to design a driving game.  As a warm-up exercise for Alcorn Nolan assigned him to do a quick ping-pong type game.  The game turned out to be so much fun, they decided to market it.  Nolan knew this one was going to be a hit when he installed a test version of the game in Al Capp's Tavern, and the patrons practically beat each other up for the privilege of dropping quarters into its slot.   In fact, the first Pong broke down because the coin box was jammed with money!

     This time, instead of licensing the game to someone else, Bushnell and Dabney put up $500 apiece from the royalties of Computer Space to form their own company:  Atari.  As Bushnell had expected, Pong and Atari made economic history.  But perhaps the game and the company mean more to the players themselves.  A greying thirty-year-old Asteroids freak remembers playing Pong for the first time on the boardwalk of down and out Coney Island;   "I was with my girlfriend, and I just plunked in a quarter to see what was inside this tv set.  The damn screen lights up and I see what's going on and all I can say is 'wow!'  I had brought five bucks with me, and after a few hours all I had left was thirty five cents for the subway home.  And I didn't care!"

     Atari sold 10,000 Pong games, all told.  It looked like it would be clear sailing for the new company.  But the problem with Pong was that it was easy to imitate.  Pong "knock-offs" (the industry word for rip-offs) began appearing on the market in 1973 featuring slight alterations in design, more paddles, different speeds and so forth.  Over 25 companies made Pong-type games.  And if you count all of the different ones altogether, it'st he most popular coin-op of all time, surpassing even the big three - Space Invaders, Asteroids and Pac-Man - with total sales of more than 100,000 machines.  

But Atari only got one-tenth of the action.  The fledgling company was still a seat-of-the-pants operation, and it was in danger of drowning in a sea of competition.  After the first successful year, Dabney predicted disaster and wanted out.  Nolan, still a believer, bought Dabney's share of the company in 1973.