At Atari, Dabney Was the Inventor and Bushnell Was the Entrepreneur

(p. B14) Samuel F. Dabney, an electrical engineer who laid the groundwork for the modern video game industry as a co-founder of Atari and helped create the hit console game Pong, died on May 26 [2018] at his home in Clearlake, Calif.

. . .

Mr. Dabney, known as Ted, brought arcade video games to the world with Atari, a start-up that he and a partner, Nolan Bushnell, founded in Sunnyvale, Calif., in the early 1970s.

. . .

He shared an office at Ampex with Mr. Bushnell, a charismatic engineer who had helped pay his way through college as a carnival barker. Mr. Bushnell was struck by Mr. Dabney’s pure love of engineering.

“He was just all about ‘Let’s get it done,’ ” Mr. Bushnell said in an interview this week. “He was the kindest. He didn’t have an ego.”

. . .

They left Ampex together in 1971 and started a company called Syzygy. When the name turned out to be taken, they switched to Atari. They hired Cynthia Villanueva, 17, a babysitter for Mr. Bushnell’s children, as the company’s receptionist and first employee. Mr. Alcorn, an engineer with whom they had worked at Ampex, was another early hire.

Their first game was Computer Space, which was based on Spacewar!, a game that Mr. Bushnell had seen running on a PDP1 mainframe computer at the University of Utah. To create it, Mr. Dabney made his breakthrough video circuitry system.

“A computer was too slow to do anything at video speeds anyway,” Mr. Alcorn said. “So once Ted had invented his motion circuit, this trick, you didn’t need the computer anymore.”

Mr. Dabney’s work space was hardly high-tech.

“I kicked my daughter out of her bedroom and set it up there and got all the stuff working, and sure enough, it was working fine,” he said in an 2012 interview with the Computer History Museum.

Thanks to the circuitry he had developed, Computer Space could be housed in a relatively small cabinet that could be slid in next to pinball machines in bars.

“It was an odd beast,” Mr. Alcorn said, “but it fit.”

The cabinet became an industry standard that endures to this day.

“Atari was fundamentally a hardware company,” said Chris Kohler, a video game historian and features editor for Kotaku, a video game news site. “Arcade machines still look like that now, and that was Ted.”

Although Computer Space flopped, Mr. Bushnell had another idea. Having seen a computerized table tennis game, he directed Mr. Alcorn to build something similar using Mr. Dabney’s circuitry. Mr. Alcorn set to work.

“It’s the simplest game ever made,” Mr. Alcorn said. “One moving spot, two score digits, and two paddles. There’s never been a simpler game.”

It was an instant success.

The first Pong console, in Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, quickly broke down. When Mr. Alcorn went to fix it, it did not take him long to determine the problem: It was so full of quarters that no more could fit.

. . .

Although Mr. Dabney was overshadowed within the video game industry by Mr. Bushnell’s charm and business savvy, his legacy is now being revisited.

“He was the guy that could actually make it work,” said Dustin Hansen, a game developer and the author of a book on video game history called “Game On!” “Where the circuit hits the board, he’s the guy.”

For the full obituary, see:

Nellie Bowles. “Ted Dabney, a Founder of Atari and a Creator of Pong, Dies at 81.” The New York Times (Friday, June 1, 2018): B14.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date May 31, 2018, and has the same title as the print version.)

Dustin Hansen’s book on video game history, mentioned above, is:

Hansen, Dustin. Game On!: Video Game History from Pong and Pac-Man to Mario, Minecraft, and More. New York: Feiwel & Friends, 2016.

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