Play Stuff Blog

Following The Bouncing Ball: Tennis for The Strong!  

On October 18, 1958, a curious object appeared at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) during its annual Visitor’s Day. Unlike the static (mainly photo and text) displays arranged to showcase projects from BNL’s different lab divisions, this unnamed object from the Instrumentation Division consisted of a 5½ inch DuMont cathode ray tube X-Y graphic oscilloscope connected to a Donner Scientific Company Model 30 (vacuum tube) analog computer. Upon the small screen, visitors witnessed images of a “net,” “court,” and “ball” comprise a computer simulation of tennis. Best of all, the general public could actually interact with the simulation via two external controllers to manipulate the trajectory of the ball—serve, return—in the form of a two-player game of tennis. This was most likely the first time the general public had the chance to play a video game.

Instrumentation Division members William A. Higinbotham, designer of the game, and technicians David Potter and Robert V. Dvorak Sr. developed the game to entertain guests visiting the federal institution. Enthusiasm for the game resulted in its return at the 1959 Visitor’s Day, this time accompanied by the name “Computer Tennis” and with a larger oscilloscope so crowds could have a better view of game play. After the 1959 Visitor’s Day, the game was disassembled. The oscilloscope and Donnor analog computer—federally funded equipment not officially rubber-stamped for public entertainment—were repurposed for other projects at BNL. The game was seemingly lost to history.

For me—an academic interested in the material history of electronic games and their life histories beyond the conventions of development, consumption, and play—this is where a mere curiosity slips into blinding fascination. The game received no publicity during its Visitor's Days installation. Publications devoted to the history of electronic games typically offer no more than a paragraph about it, if that. The computer simulation of tennis that once commanded crowds extending outside of BNL’s gymnasium, where it was installed, has mainly been a blip on historical timelines that chronicle the evolution of games. How then am I able to write about the game if so little is known and so little physical evidence of the game remains? The answer resides in what we might dub as the living biography of a game we’ve come to call “Tennis For Two” (a title that Higinbotham never used but derives from his description of it as a “tennis game for two to play”).

The challenge posed by the game’s disassembly in 1959 is that no intact original Tennis For Two exists. Higinbotham conceived of the game with a specific intention in mind: a novel means to “liven up the place” (in his words), so there was little incentive to preserve its original components. To add to this, he saw no personal interest in developing the game for financial gain because BNL held the patent.

The game’s subject also doomed its preservation. Unlike Spacewar!, developed a few years later at MIT, Higinbotham introduced a game that had nothing to do with warfare to a local public living in the long shadow of a nuclear reactor during the height of the Cold War.  In his notes on the game entitled “The Brookhaven TV-Tennis Game” (circa early 1980s), Higinbotham writes that “among the examples” in the Donnor Model 30 instruction manual “were the trajectory of a bullet subject to gravity and wind resistance, ICBM trajectories and a bouncing ball. The latter suggested the tennis game.” The decision to make a playable simulation of tennis rather than plot trajectories of ICBMs made it less relevant to the work of BNL, which after World War II became a U.S. Atomic Energy Commission facility to research peaceful uses of atomic energy. For Higinbotham, a physicist who was part of the Manhattan Project, his research on radar displays, work on the Atoms for Peace project, and advocacy for nuclear arms non-proliferation was of much more significance than this game that bounced a ball across a 5½ inch screen.

These factors made it difficult to document the game or pursue a restoration project—after all, there were no surviving components to restore. The only existing materials we have to document Tennis For Two’s installation at BNL in the late 1950s consist of a few photographs, engineering schematics, and hand-written log entries (project titles and dates). We also have depositions that Higinbotham wrote in the 1970s and the 1980s during a series of video game patent disputes, as well as his notes mentioned above and his interview with the short-lived periodical (only two issues) Creative Computing Video & Arcade Games (1983).

The game was brought back to life in part due to a commemorative celebration. In 1996, Robert D’Anglo, manager of Human Resources at BNL, sent an internal memo inviting division personnel to contribute to the lab’s 50th anniversary in 1997 by hosting an open house for visitors. Sound familiar? In response to the call, physicist Peter Takacs said, “Why don’t we recreate Higinbotham’s game?” He and his colleagues Scott Coburn and Gene Von Achen would again “liven the place up” by recreating Higinbotham’s game, now dubbed “Video Tennis.”

Their desire to recreate the game using as many vintage parts as possible led them to discover that the original engineering schematic they relied upon was incorrect. The original technicians, Potter and Dvorak Sr., had encountered problems in 1958 while assembling the game based upon Higinbotham’s design, but although they had made corrections to make it work, they had never amended the schematics. Takacs, an experimental physicist, experimented to solve the problem. It worked. Visitors to BNL played a recreated version of Higinbotham’s game in 1997 via a Donnor analog computer and oscilloscope. In 2008, Takacs and his colleagues recreated it again in 2008 to mark the 50th anniversary of the game.

While it’s fair to say that these series of recreations reintroduced Tennis For Two to the public, its reach was still limited and confined again to a federal institution reminiscent of the late 1950s. I took an interest in the game upon my arrival at Stony Brook University in 2008, first through the teaching of Game History and then through the development of the William A. Higinbotham Game Studies Collection founded with Kristen Nyitray, Head of Special Collections and University Archives. Our mission was to document Tennis For Two and serve as advocates for its significance to the history of electronic games. With the help of Laine Nooney, we made the documentary When Games Went Click: The Story of Tennis For Two and collaborated with Takacs and the Museum of the Moving Image to demonstrate the game publicly in October 2011 (sadly, it did not work on the day of the demonstration). I wrote about the game’s peculiar history in my book Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife (2014) and served as a consultant to the New York Historical Society Museum’s exhibition, “Silicon City: Computer History Made in New York” (November 15, 2015—April 17, 2016), where the game was reproduced.

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Tennis For Two’s presence at the Silicon City exhibition marked the first time the general public had the opportunity to experience the game outside of BNL. Visitors were able to play an emulated version of the game housed within a custom-made prop of an enlarged DuMont oscilloscope that concealed an iMac “scaling-up” of its Cold War era analog predecessor. Adjacent to the emulated version of Tennis For Two, visitors beheld the vintage DuMont oscilloscope that Takacs and crew used on their recreations. BNL partnered with the New York Historical Society Museum to construct the exhibit and now is partnering with The Strong to provide a long-term home for these materials.

At The Strong, the same DuMont oscilloscope that displayed Takac’s recreated version of the game is part of the museum’s Tennis For Two display in the eGameRevolution exhibit. While it’s not the original oscilloscope that Higinbotham and his team used for the game in 1958, Takac’s replacement is the same model. This may run contrary to the traditional mission of a museum: to collect and display original objects. But let’s remember why those particular objects did not survive. Moreover, if our knowledge of Tennis For Two hinged on access to “the original” game, we would be staring at an empty display case. To gain a sense of the game’s hardware, we have to be willing to accept surrogates and understand the ways they help to evidence the past. Takacs, through his personal recreation efforts of utilizing vintage analog technology, collected the array of objects that impart a history of Tennis For Two and also sustain the life of Higinbotham’s game. We have then two physicists to thank for making contributions to the history of electronic games: one for creating the game in 1958 and another for scavenging analog hardware to recreate the game since 1997.

The story of Tennis for Two extends much further than its original 1958 installation. We will never experience the “original” Tennis For Two. Even by 1959, it was different than the unnamed version displayed the first year, with a larger oscilloscope and the title “Computer Tennis.” The versions created in 1997, 2008, and 2015 extended the living biography of Tennis For Two, broadening its reach from a series of Visitor's Days at a federal institution to a temporary exhibition at a public museum. And in 2016, The Strong makes the latest contribution to Tennis For Two’s living biography, offering stability to a transient game: a public home for these objects to manifest the history of an obscure (perhaps, “elusive” is a better word) analog computer game, while widening our access to as well as our understanding of the history of electronic games.

Raiford Guins is a Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at Indiana University and author of Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife (MIT Press, 2014). Guins served as Curator to the Higinbotham Collection from 2010 to 2016. His current book project, Atari Modern: A Design History of Atari’s Coin-ops, 1972 – 1979, draws heavily from The Strong’s Atari Coin-op Divisions Collection, 1972-1999, archival collection.