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Monday, October 26, 2015

Embarrassed to be the grandfather of video games

He devoted a lifetime to science, serving in World War II as the head of the electronics group as his part in the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Later, he worked for the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, retiring after 37 years in 1984. He also co-founded the Federation of American Scientists, whose stated goal was the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.

But despite his decades of work, we remember physicist William A. Higginbotham for the two hours he spent on a project for the lab's annual open house on October 18, 1958.

The project was an interactive display called "Tennis For Two," which allowed players to simulate a game of tennis. Higginbotham said years later, “I thought it might liven up the place to have a game that people could play, and which would convey the message that our scientific endeavors have relevance for society.”

His idea was right. The rest of the visitors to the research facility that night were bored by the other displays. They waited in line to play “Tennis for Two.”

"It took me about two hours to rough out the design and a couple of weeks to get it debugged and working," he later said. "It didn't take long and it was a big hit."

He explained his inspiration in a 1983 interview with Video Review magazine: "The instruction book that came with the computer described how to plot trajectories and bouncing shapes, for research. I thought,'"Hell, this would make a good game'."

Colleague Dave Potterworked with him in designing it. Technician Robert Dvorak took Higginbotham's design and made it work. After the open house, Higginbotham and Dvorak put the game away. It became an open house Christmas tree, dragged out for the annual event. Other than that, he forgot about it. Higginbotham didn't even bother with a patent, although he held 20 other patents. Even if he wanted to, the patent would have belonged to the federal government.

Fifteen years later, when "Pong" came along, Higginbotham was dragged into the video game spotlight. His game showed the side view, while "Pong" gave a top down view. In the 1980s, video game magazines and writers clamored for interviews, which began to become annoying. He did not want to be known as the grandfather of video games. He had done much more important work.

Botn on October 25, 1910, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Higginbotham graduated from Williams College and did graduate work at Cornell and MIT.

After he died at 84 of emphysema on November 10, 1994, Higginbotham pleaded with Brookhaven's publicity department: "It is imperative that you include information on his nuclear nonproliferation work. That was what he wanted to be remembered for."

Indeed, the Federation of American Scientists named their headquarters Higinbotham Hall in 1994.

But the rest of us will remember him as the grandfather of video games. He wanted to show "our scientific endeavors have relevance for society.”

He succeeded. What's wrong with that?


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  1. "After he died at 84 of emphysema on November 10, 1994, Higginbotham pleaded with Brookhaven's publicity department:. . ."

    Actually, his post-death pleading with his employer's PR department is a much more impressive achievement than inventing the video game.

    It also reflects a neurotic level of concern with his image that is more typical to a politician than a scientist.

  2. Non-proliferation has failed. Obama signed off on that.