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The Evolution of Video Games: The First 25 Years (1947–1972)

March 1, 2018 • General Interest

Video games keep getting better and more photorealistic by the day. This is thanks in large part to hardware advances and more powerful graphics processing units. At the same time, new-found love for the game consoles of yesteryear also seems to be growing. What is it about games of yore that has spurred such interest? Is it their campy premise? More likely it’s the transition from flat, 2D graphics to awe-inspiring, three-dimensional open worlds.

Join us as we trace the evolution of video games over the last 70 years in this two-part series.

Most people have heard of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Space Invaders and Pong, but few may realize that the earliest evidence of a video game dates back far earlier than the 1970s or 1980s.

Rewind the Betamax even further, friends.

Set the tape counter to 1947, when Thomas T. Goldsmith filed U.S. Patent 2,455,992 for a “Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device.” Inspired by radar technology,  Goldsmith and co-inventor Estle Ray Mann connected a cathode ray tube to an oscilloscope. Knobs controlled the angle and trajectory of the light traces displayed on the oscilloscope. This configuration allowed them to invent a missile game in which screen overlays created the effect of firing missiles at various targets. Goldsmith and Mann had created the first arcade game.

Four years later, in 1951, computer company Ferranti provided a display for the Festival of Britain in London. Known as Nimrod, the computer was one of the first computer games to have any sort of visual game display.

A year later, Alexander Douglas designed one of the earliest computer games, a version of Tic-Tac-Toe. Cambridge University’s mainframe computer would display the game board on a 35 × 15-dot cathode ray tube. Players would use a rotary telephone dial to enter their moves.

In 1958, William Higinbotham conceived Tennis for Two as a way to entertain visitors to the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York. Using the lab’s analog computer connected to an oscilloscope display, the game allowed two players to play tennis on the oscilloscope screen.

Written in 1962, Spacewar! was a space combat video game featuring two spaceships. Each ship had limited fuel for maneuvering and a limited number of torpedoes. Rotation, forward thrust, firing torpedoes and hyperspace were all controlled through a detached control device—essentially an early gamepad. Spacewar! was one of the most important and influential games in the early history of video games: it directly inspired many other electronic games, including 1971’s Computer Space.

Whoa, Nellie! Before we maneuver through the Spacewar! gravity well to travel through space and time, first things first: we need to wrap the TV antenna in tin foil and adjust the vertical hold.

Ah, yes, television!

TV engineer Ralph Baer began experimenting with using a TV to play games. Baer’s first design, the Brown Box, let users play several different games on a standard set—all without the need of a computer, microprocessor or software. Released as the Magnavox Odyssey in 1972, the Brown Box showed the potential of video game consoles. It also marked the beginning of the commercial video game industry. You’re welcome, Atari and Intellivision.

But that’s a story for another day.

Be sure to read the second instalment to learn more.

Do you prefer retro arcade games or today’s open world concepts? Comment on our Facebook page.

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