Born in 1943 in Clearfield, Utah, the founder of the modern video games industry, Nolan Bushnell, always loved playing games.
“I can remember playing monopoly and clue with my neighborhood friends, chess incessantly. I played tournament chess. I played #2 board at Utah State University. I’ve always been a game player, period”
He also loved science. His world was upended in 3rd grade he was given a science assignment by his teacher Mrs. Cook.
“The spark was ignited when I was assigned to do the unit on electricity and got to play with the science box,” he recalled, “I remember constantly making stuff as a kid that amazed my friends using electricity.”
With a love of play, and a love of science, an engineer entertainer was born.
Bushnell’s love of electricity led him to Utah State University where he studied for a BS degree in Electrical Engineering. While in the engineering department, Bushnell was exposed to a DEC PDP-1 computer, and Steve Russell’s game “Space War”. He fell in love with the quirky little one on one space battle game, and was fascinated by the impact it had on the other students, especially in how much free time the other students spent playing it.
At the same time, Bushnell was working his way through college by working at Lagoon Amusement Park in Farmington Utah. There, he worked the midway games like a master carnival barker.
“I think that working at the amusement park gave me a sense that I had a special knack for that. I was able to have a lot of people have fun and spend their money while doing it. Those were two good characteristics”
Near the midway was a small arcade that featured mostly pinball machines. Bushnell envisioned the day that the pinball games would be replaced by machines playing games like “Space War”. He noted how much free time his classmates were spending on the game. He realized that if he could figure out a way to monetize that time, he could be very successful. However, after much pondering, it seemed impossible. A DEC PDP-1 computer cost $120,000, and there was no way someone could break even on a game that cost that much create.
“When you divide 25 cents into an $8 million computer, there ain’t no way,”
He put the notion aside so he could start a career as an engineer.
After graduation from Utah State as a “Distinguished Fellow” in 1968, Bushnell moved to California where he continued his graduate education at Stanford University. He wanted to work for Walt Disney, because he felt they were doing very interesting things with technology. Even though Bushnell thought of his endeavors as technical feats, he still felt the need to entertain people.
“I always considered myself an engineer. A guy who used technology to solve problems. I was fascinated with Disney who used technology to entertain people. I felt technology was truly magically.”
However, since, Disney did not hire engineers straight out of school, so he had to look elsewhere.
“When I graduated from college, my vision of the perfect job was to work in the research section of Disneyland. But they weren’t hiring new engineering grads. ”
Bushnell found a job at Ampex Corp, in the Silicon Valley and started working as computer graphics department research designer. He worked at Ampex for a couple years, where he met fellow engineers (and future Atari employees) Al Alcorn, and Steve Bristow. However, Bushnell was never able to settle down as a line engineer. The need to entertain people kept biting at him. Soon after, he was introduced to a free-standing version of Space War named “Galaxy Game” designed by Bill Pitt, another Stanford graduate. “Galaxy Game” was a full version of the DEC PDP version of Space War, right down the mini-computer that was necessary to run it. While the technical feat of a free-standing Space War game was impressive, the $40,000 cost associated with basing a game on mini-computer was not. Bushnell knew he could do better. His day dreams of electronic games replacing pinball machines from working at Lagoon were rekindled. He felt he could engineer a machine that could entertain people, and still make money at the same time.
- Steve Fulton interview with Nolan Bushnell, August 2007
- Salon.com, The adventures of King Pong By David Pescovitz