A recent e-mail inquiry from a researcher in Finland gave me a great opportunity to mine our vast trade catalog collection for information about the prehistory of electronic games. The researcher wanted to know more about the origins of pre-computer electric quiz games of the 1940s and 1950s.
Most books on the history of electronic games start the story in the 1960s, with Steve Russell’s creation of Spacewar! (1962). Others begin with Ralph Baer’s development of television-based video games. Some discuss the evolution of pinball machines in the context of the development of arcade cabinets, but few discuss electric quiz games. It’s not surprising, then, that the researcher wanted more concrete evidence. Fortunately, Strong’s collection of more than 10,000 trade catalogs provides plenty.
Revisiting our collection, I found catalogs from the 1940s and 1950s that showcased numerous types of electric games for sale. Football games, baseball games, and even one called, Robot Sam the Answer Man all harnessed electricity to drive game play. Furthermore, our trade catalogs point to a much earlier origin for these games. A 1949 Electric Game Co. trade catalog notes that Jim Prentice Electric Baseball has “The Electric Twirler,” which the catalog says is the “greatest feature ever to be incorporated in an electric game since their creation 20 years ago.” This indicates that these games dated back to at least 1929.
Trade catalogs from the twenties and thirties confirm that time frame. A 1933 trade catalog from the distributor Butler Brothers advertised two Electric Questioners games—Ripley’s Believe It or Not and Knapp. And Butler Brothers’ Christmas catalog from 1928 promoted an Electric Questioner featuring the face of a fortune teller. The 1928 Butler Brothers’ catalog trumpeted that “Now—for the first time—an item of this kind is offered as a possible $1.00 retailer—the biggest buy in the country.” Clearly these items were still novelties, but they must have been around for a few years to allow the price point to descend under a dollar.
Electric Questioners are clearly not computer-powered games but they form an important part of the prehistory of electronic games. Games like these acclimated people to playing games powered by electricity in their homes and paved the way for the popular embrace of home video games in the 1970s. For these reasons you’ll see some of these games in future NCHEG exhibits here at Strong.
By Jon-Paul Dyson, Director, International Center for the History of Electronic Games and Vice President for Exhibits