Flashback 1972: Atari Tests Pong

Pong, one of the earliest arcade video games, had an inauspicious start 45 years ago this week when gaming pioneer/Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell and game designer Allan Alcorn wheeled a prototype of their first coin-operated game machine into Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, California to see how the bar’s patrons would react. It was an instant hit.

Walter Issacson recounts the story in his book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution:

To test out Pong, Bushnell and Alcorn installed the prototype at Andy Capp’s, a beer bar in the working-class town of Sunnyvale that had peanut shells on the floor and guys playing pinball in the back. After a day or so, Alcorn got a call from the bar’s manager complaining that the machine had stopped working. He should come fix it right away, because it had been surprisingly popular. So Alcorn hurried over to try to fix the machine. As soon as he opened it up, he discovered the problem: the coin box was so filled with quarters that it was jammed. The money gushed out onto the floor.

Bushnell and Alcorn knew they had a hit on their hands. An average machine made $10 a day; Pong was taking in $40. Suddenly Bally’s decision to decline it seemed like a blessing. The true entrepreneur in Bushnell came out: he decided that Atari would manufacture the game on its own, even though it had no financing or equipment.

He took the gamble of deciding to bootstrap the whole operation; he would fund as much as possible from the cash flow he made on sales…

…Only Wells Fargo came through, providing a credit line of $50,000, which was far less than Bushnell had requested. With the money, Bushnell was able to open up a production facility in an abandoned roller-skating rink a few blocks from Atari’s Santa Clara office. The Pong games were put together not on an assembly line but in the middle of the floor, with young workers ambling up to stick in the various components…

Pong went on to become the first commercially successful video game, marking the beginning of arcade and home video gaming, industries Atari would dominate into the early 1980s.

Atari went on to introduce the iconic Atari Video Computer System (VCS), later renamed the 2600, in 1977. The VCS wasn’t the first home videogame console — that distinction belonged to Magnavox Odyssey — but it is credited with popularizing microprocessor-based hardware and ROM game cartridges. Even though Pong was old news by the time the VCS was introduced five years later, it was still one of nine games available at launch.

Read more about the origins of Pong in this excerpt from Walter Isaacson’s 2014 book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.