from San Jose Mercury News, Thursday, March 7, 2002, page 3E
Forty years ago, a small group of pioneering computer programmers led by Steve Russell designed "Spacewar," which became the world's first video game. "Spacewar" demonstrated that sheer fun would become a driving force underlying progress in computing technology.
First video game programmers had a blast but didn't cash in
By John Markoff
Not long ago, Steve Russell sat in a darkened movie theater watching the army of credits roll by after a computer-animated Hollywood blockbuster.
There was a time, he recalls, when a cutting-edge computer-generated fantasy could be conceived, written, tested and packaged for distribution in a few months, just through the part-time efforts of a small group of friends.
To be precise that time was 40 years ago, with the result played out on a computer screen at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Two tiny spaceships were locked in mortal combat as they swung around a simulated sun. The duel was called "Spacewar."
Designed by a small group of pioneering computer programmers led by Russell, then 24, it was the world's first video game. It was an early hint that a powerful new entertainment medium was on the horizon, one that would ultimately bond Silicon Valley to Hollywood. Perhaps most significantly, "Spacewar" demonstrated that sheer fun would become a driving force underlying progress it computing technology.
Over the years it played a crucial role in inspiring the creators of companies like Apple and Atari, said Henry Lowood, the curator of Stanford University's collections on the history of science and technology. "It set off a chain of events that created companies and led to a whole idea of what Silicon Valley would be," he said.
It certainly established at least one stereotype of the high-tech age: a few frenzied geeks in their 20s obsessively laboring after hours in a computer lab on a creation that combined play and programming.
Now those 20-something gecks are near or past retirement age. Unlike more recent generations of computing and Internet pioneers, "Spacewar's" six programmers did not find fortune from their invention. Their achievement has made them legends only among a fraternity of the world's original computer hackers.
"The only money I made from `Spacewar' was as a consultant for lawsuits in the video game industry in the 1970s," said one of the game's creators, Alan Kotok. "I have all this fame, but it's in a very narrow circle."
Kotok and the other members of the original team all remained part of that circle, pursuing careers in computers. Several became hardware designers, several went on to write software, one became a professor and one joined the secretive National Security Agency.
Designed to take advantage of Digital Equipment's brand-new PDP-1 minicomputer and the advent of a cathode-ray display screen, "Spacewar" was written before software was patented, and the original programmers' instructions were shared and freely modified by a small group of software designers.
Introduced some months later at Decus, which was then a Digital Equipment users' group, "Spacewar" immediately attracted a cult following It became so addictive that at the MIT laboratory, where it was designed, play was soon banned except during lunchtime and after working hours.
Original 'twitch' game
"Spacewar" was the original "twitch" game, requiring lightning reflexes. Each player used keyboard controls or a joystick to maneuver a tiny ship capable of firing a stream of torpedoes as it slid across the screen Before long a "hyperspace" option was--added so that a player could make his ship vanish and reappear at a random place on the screen, avoiding certain death.
The group was led by Russell, known as Slug, and Martin Graetz, known as Shag, both devoted science fiction fans who wondered why better science fiction movies weren't being made.
Another contributor, Peter Samson, then a 21 year-old undergraduate studying engineering at MIT, added a crucial component called "expensive planetarium," an accurate scrolling star field that portrayed the night sky over Cambridge.
Both Russell and Kotok said it was never their intent to create a new digital entertainment medium. After the new Digital Equipment computer with its display was installed in late 1961, the group simply began thinking about what might be the best way to demonstrate the power of the new machine and hit on the idea of a graphical simulation of a battle between two spaceships.
Spacewar was an obvious choice, but no one in the group sensed what impact the program would have over a decade and a half of popularity.
After agreeing to be the lead programmer on the project, Russell said he procrastinated until Kodak drove to Digital Equipment and returned with a paper tape containing necessary math subroutines. He then set to work by entering code on a Flexowriter, a typewriter device that translated commands into holes punched in paper tape.
Perhaps the most impressive feat was that "Spacewar" worked at all. The processor for the PDP-9 ????? minicomputer ran at about 100,000 instructions per second, snail-like in comparison with the speed of today's fastest microprocessors, which exceed two billion instructions per second.
Moreover, the computer, which was built from discrete transistors, had to make the most of about nine kilobytes of random access memory, unfathomably little compared with the RAM of today's desktop machines, which can boast as much as one gigabyte - a million kilobytes.
Moreover, the "Spacewar" program became an integral part of a spreading hackers' culture as it was carried on punched paper tape to the dozen or so research centers and universities that had the early PDP minicomputer.
Pong's founder inspired
One of those inspired by the game was Nolan Bushnell, who went on to found Atari. He was first seized by the idea of commercializing video game technology when he came across a version of Spacewar while a graduate student in engineering at the University of Utah.
In 1971 he introduced an arcade version of Spacewar called Computer Space, which was a commercial flop. Bushnell kept at it, though, and soon introduced the more successful Pong.
The game also made an impression on two other entrepreneurs-to-be, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the founders of Apple Computer, who as teenagers would ride their bicycles to Stanford's artificial intelligence lab, where the
But credit for the first commercial video game actually goes to Bill Pitts, a Stanford graduate named who with a high school friend, Hugh Tuck, installed "Galaxy Game," a coin-operated version of "Spacewar," in Stanford's student union several months before Bushnell introduced "Computer Space."
It became a huge hit and was played by students for more than six years, allowing Pitts to pay back the $60,000 he had invested in the project. Today his version of "Spacewar" can be found at the Computer Museum History Center in Mountain View, where it has been restored for play on a vintage Digital Equipment PDP-ll.
For his part, Russell, now 64, is only an occasional gamer. He visits arcades to keep up with video game technology and spends a couple of hours a month playing at his own PC. But his tastes, like the times, have changed. Now it is solitaire, not spaceships, that keeps him coming back.