Happy Birthday, Pong

Today is the official fortieth anniversary of Atari's Pong, the video game which introduced the world to video games. (There were earlier ones, but Pong, which was created by Al Alcorn and Nolan Bushnell, was the first big hit.)

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Today is the official fortieth anniversary of Atari’s Pong, the video game which introduced the world to video games. (There were earlier ones, but Pong, which was created by Al Alcorn and Nolan Bushnell, was the first big hit.) Atari is celebrating with a new version. BuzzFeed’s Chris Stokel-Walker came up with a fine history of the game’s origins. And me, I was moved to dig into the TIME archives and check out our original Pong coverage. Actually, as far I can tell, we didn’t take note of Pong until our issue for April 1, 1974, well after its success had spawned a burgeoning video game industry. In an article quaintly titled “Space-Age Pinball,” an uncredited TIME scribe reported:

Typical of the new games is Pong, a popular version of electronic table tennis manufactured by two-year-old Atari, Inc. (estimated fiscal 1974 revenue: $14 million) of Los Gates, Calif. Atari sold some 8,500 games to U.S. amusement parlors and other businesses last year, in addition to a substantial overseas trade. Pong is played on a standard television to which a simple circuit board has been added. This device projects images representing a “ball,” two “paddles”—four for doubles—and a “net” onto the screen (actually, all are beams of light). By turning knobs, each player can use his paddle to strike the ball and send it back across the net. The rules are similar to those for standard table tennis, but have one crucial difference from standard pinball: players soon learn how to manipulate their paddles so that the ball travels faster or veers off in unpredictable directions. [snip] Video games seem to have caught on fastest with college students. On some campuses, playing them is the second most popular pastime after streaking. They are popular, too, at bowling alleys, skating rinks and the like. But they also appeal to the proprietors of staid businesses that would never have permitted a standard pinball machine through the door, including some high-class restaurants and hotels. The reasons: despite a high purchase price (about $1,100), the machines are cheaper and easier to maintain than mechanical games. They are also more profitable. Atari executives report that Pong games frequently take in $200 to $300 per week. Each game costs a quarter, v. only a dime for most pinball machines; the total take from all the machines now in play is estimated at more than $900 million annually.

If you’re a TIME subscriber, you can read the whole story. A few thoughts:

  • In 1974, video games were still unfamiliar enough to TIME readers — or at least TIME editors — that we had to explain that Pong‘s “ball,” “paddles” and “net” were actually beams of light. Imagine how cumbersome things would be if we needed to do that for, say, a new version of Call of Duty?
  • I love the fact that we said that streaking was more popular than playing video games. Streaking turned out to be an, um, flash in the pan; video games are still with us.
  • In the early arcade era, relatively few machines had an outsized impact on the culture. Who knew that Atari only sold 8500 arcade games in the U.S. in 1973?
  • It never occurred to me that one of the early advantages of Pong and other video games over more conventional arcade fare of the time was that they were more reliable.