Saturday, October 25, 2014

William Higinbotham and Tennis for Two

Tennis for Two played on an Oscilloscope
On October 25, 1910, US-american physicist William "Willy" A. Higinbotham was born. A member of the Manhattan Project, he later became a leader in the nonproliferation movement of nuclear weapons. Moreover, he is also known for his development of 'Tennis for Two', the first interactive analog computer game and one of the first electronic games to use a graphical display.

William Alfred Higinbotham was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and grew up in Caledonia, New York. His father was a minister in the Presbyterian Church. He earned his undergraduate degree from Williams College in 1932 and continued his studies at Cornell University. He worked on the radar system at MIT from 1941 to 1943.

During World War II, he worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory and headed the lab's electronics group in the later years of the war, where his team developed electronics for the first nuclear bomb. His team created the bomb's ignition mechanism as well as measuring instruments for the device. Higinbotham also created the radar display for the experimental B-28 bomber. Following his experience with nuclear weapons, Higinbotham helped found the nuclear nonproliferation group Federation of American Scientists, serving as its first chairman and executive secretary. From 1974 until his death in 1994, Higinbotham served as the technical editor of the Journal of Nuclear Materials Management.

The History of video games dates back to the time directly after World War 2. In 1947 Higinbotham took a position at Brookhaven National Laboratory, where he worked until his retirement in 1984. In 1958, Higinbotham created Tennis for Two to cure the boredom of visitors to Brookhaven National Laboratory. He learned that one of Brookhaven's computers could calculate ballistic missile trajectories and he used this ability to form the game's foundation. The game was created on a Donner Model 30 analog computer. The game uses an oscilloscope as the graphical display to display the path of a simulated ball on a tennis court. The designed circuit displayed the path of the ball and reversed its path when it hit the ground. The circuit also sensed if the ball hit the net and simulated velocity with drag. Users could interact with the ball using an analog aluminum controller to click a button to hit the ball and use a knob to control the angle. Hitting the ball also emitted a sound. The device was designed in about two hours and was assembled within three weeks with the help of Robert V. Dvorak.

In fact, when the game was first shown on October 18, 1958, hundreds of visitors lined up to play the new game during its debut. It was such a hit that Higinbotham created an expanded version for the 1959 exposition; this version allowed the gravity level to be changed so players could simulate tennis on Jupiter and the Moon. Higinbotham never patented Tennis for Two, though he obtained over 20 other patents during his career. Largely forgotten for years, critics began to recognize Tennis for Two's significance to the history of video games in the 1980s. Prior to Tennis for Two, there were few computer-based games. NIM and Chess were developed in 1951, followed by OXO or Noughts and Crosses in 1952. However, those games did not display motion or allow dual players to control the action.[3]

Higinbotham remained little interested in video games, preferring to be remembered for his work in nuclear nonproliferation.

At yovisto, you can see the original version of Tennis for Two.

References and Further Reading:
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