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The Scientist Who Co-Created Video Games And Nuclear Bombs

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Tennis For Two on display, also blowing up

Image: Public Domain / Kotaku

As is the case for many a smug pedant, I’ve long enjoyed knowing the very first video game was called Tennis For Two, created in 1958, and played via a computer hooked up to an oscilloscope. But I only just found out the guy who made it, one William Higinbotham, also co-created the first ever nuclear bomb.

Higinbotham, a man who must have spent the vast majority of his life spelling out his last name for people, has a legacy that lives on in many a pub quiz. In 1958 the American physicist learned that the Brookhaven National Laboratory’s fancy new computer, the Donner Model 30, could simulate trajectories with wind resistance. So, like any good scientist, he figured, “Hey, I’ll invent video games.” Teaming up with Robert V Dvorak, three weeks later they’d done exactly that, creating a little tennis sim drawn in green lines on the circular oscilloscope screen. It was a hit at the lab’s annual public exhibition.

But what blew me away was learning that some 25 years earlier, he’d been part of the damn Manhattan Project, heading a group involved in building the first ever atomic bomb. This is like learning J. Robert Oppenheimer created Pac-Man.

During World War II: Germany Strikes Back, Higinbotham was working at the infamous Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he was in charge of the electronics department. He led a team that created the electronic triggers for those first A-bombs. However, as his 1994 New York Times obituary points out, Higinbotham very quickly went on to establish the Federation of American Scientists, a group that lobbied for tight controls over nuclear weapons. He spent the rest of his career campaigning for nuclear nonproliferation.

Tennis For Two on an oscilloscope

Photo: Public Domain

Tennis For Two is the sort of fact that’s excellent to keep in your back pocket, for when you hear some blowhard berating someone talking about Space Invaders with, “Actually it was Pong in 1972…” “Well, ACTUALLY…”

Although what I like best about it is the means of display. Using an oscilloscope was a matter of necessity for Higinbotham, but it still reads to me like something you’d see featured at GDC’s Experimental Gameplay Workshop, presented by a 20-something ‘game developer/conceptual artist’ with complicated hair. “This is my follow-up to last year’s Secluded Guidance Format, a satirical fourth-person shooter played on a Speak & Spell.”

I am now primed to discover that Ernő Rubik created Agent Orange, and how Sir Clive Sinclair pioneered chlorofluorocarbons.

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