Choose your language:

Hong Kong
New Zealand
United Kingdom
United States
video games

Technology Throwback Thursday: The first video games

June 25, 2015
By Alexander Lucas

While nearly all of us can look back to our adolescence to see how video games have evolved, not all of us know how far back the history of video games goes.

And then there was “Pong”

Most people have heard of “Pong” and, unsurprisingly, consider it the first video game. While it was the first video game to be massively successful, it was not the first tennis-type game, nor the first home console game.

“Pong” was hugely successful in its introduction into commercial bars. How successful? The initial technical problems in the “Pong” prototype were caused by too many quarters filling the coin mechanism.

As successful as “Pong” was, it was merely an improvement on an already existing game and gaming system, the Magnavox Odyssey. 

The electronic game of the future

In 1967 Ralph Baer, along with two assistant engineers, began working on a home video game console known simply as the "Brown Box." By 1971 the console was licensed by Magnavox and in the following year was released as the Magnavox Odyssey.

The Odyssey did not feature much in terms of onscreen graphics, but the system was released with plastic overlays for your television, playing cards and poker chips. The Odyssey boasted 27 games on 12 removable circuit board cards and included a light gun peripheral. To see what this looked like in real terms, please watch this television ad from 1973.

The original system sold 325,000 units, proving that it could become a viable product. Critically, the major downfall of the Odyssey was not the technology but the marketing of console in local stores. Sales personnel mistakenly gave customers the impression they would need a Magnavox television to play the system. Whether intentional or not, this meant that far fewer customers purchased the system under the misconception that it wouldn’t work on their existing televisions.

As a final side note, Ralph Baer is also widely credited with developing the colorful handheld game, Simon.

A simulated space battle

While the Magnavox Odyssey predated “Pong” as a home console game, there was an arcade game that predated both. Released in 1971, “Computer Space” had a simple premise of a space war between two saucers and a user-controlled rocket. “Computer Space” was the first commercially sold, coin-operated video game, selling around 150 units.

The game itself was based on the first* computer game, “Spacewar!,” which was developed a decade earlier and had gameplay revolving around two user-controlled ships locked in a space battle. This game became very influential with early computer users and spawned innumerable clones and related games.

As a personal note, one of the first games I remember playing on a 1986 era IBM was a clone of “Computer Space.” I thought it was the coolest thing in the world, until I began playing the family Intellivision console.

*Depending on how you define a computer game, variants of tic-tac-toe predate anything else in this article. However, as tic-tac-toe only has a limited variation of actions, I did not go into those games in this article.

Button, dial and oscilloscope

If you are looking for some really old-school gaming, you need to look back to 1958. William "Willy" Higinbotham created a game called “Tennis for Two” using an oscilloscope for the Brookhaven National Laboratory's annual Visitors’ Day. 

As cool a story as it is, I can't do a better job describing it than this quick retrospective on Higinbotham's amazing invention. 

What was your first video game or console?  Have you ever played on a Magnavox Odyssey or “Pong”?  Please leave us a comment and check out one of our recent Technology Throwback posts:

All about the bass, no cables
Laser guns and supersonic tubes
IT Then and Now

A self-styled storyteller, Alexander Lucas loves to share his vast knowledge of tech, innovation and design trivia. TEKsystems’ resident video designer is also an avid history buff and writes about technology innovation through time.

Blog Archive