It may be hard for those raised on cinematic video games to conceive of the wonder of watching a plain white dot tracing across a black screen, reflecting off walls and bounced by a little paddle that responded instantly to the twist of a wrist. But there was a time when Pong was all we had, and it was fascinating. People lined up for hours for the privilege of exchanging a quarter for a few minutes of monochrome distraction. In an arcade stuffed with noisy pinball machines with garish artwork and flashing lights, Pong seemed like a calm oasis, and you could almost feel your brain doing the geometry to figure out where to place the paddle so as not to miss the shot.
As primitive as it now seems, Pong was at the forefront of the video game revolution, and that little game spawned an industry that raked in $108 billion last year alone. It also spawned one of the early success stories of the industry, Atari, a company founded in 1972. Just last week, Ted Dabney, one of the co-founders of Atari, died at the age of 81. It’s sad that we’re getting to the point where we’re losing some of the pioneers of the industry, but it’s the way of things. All we can do is reflect on Dabney’s life and legacy, and examine the improbable path that led him to be one of the fathers of the video game industry.
Anything, Even Electronics
Samuel F. Dabney, who preferred the nickname Ted, was born in 1937 – too late to experience the Depression and World War II, but just in time to be influenced by them. A native San Franciscan, he seems to have inherited the values of thrift and shared sacrifice that very much defined the culture at the time. His work ethic and poor grades led him to a trade school where he learned drafting, which served as an entree into the working world while he was still in his teens.
After high school, Ted worked as a surveyor, but it was seasonal work that left him high and dry for the California winters. Looking for a steady paycheck, Ted enlisted in the Marine Corps for a three-year stint, on the condition that he get training in an advanced technical specialty. Ted eventually got into electronics school, a sixteen-week immersion course that gave him the basics and led to him working on complicated systems like multiplex radios.
After the Corps, Ted looked for work so that he could afford to go to college. Jobs in electronics were plentiful in the late 50s in Silicon Valley, and Ted landed an engineering job at Ampex, the audio and video tape recorder company, working on military systems used to view spy plane film images. One day, a suit approached his bench while he was elbows-deep in a project and asked what he was doing. Ted said, “I don’t know if I can tell you about it. It’s all military.” The suit walked off, and Ted only found out later that it was Alexander M. Poniatoff, the “AMP” in Ampex. He had just brushed off the founder of the company.
Big Ideas in Silicon Valley
Ted’s work on military imaging systems would serve him well after meeting Nolan Bushnell, a new Ampex hire. Bushnell, a fellow electrical engineer, had the entrepreneurial spirit that was common in the Valley in those days. Nolan had seen Spacewar! at the University of Utah and decided to commercialize it. He originally pictured a mainframe behind the scenes with coin-operated terminals to play the game, but when that proved too expensive, he convinced Ted to help engineer a cheaper game using the video techniques he had learned at Ampex.
With a $100 investment each, Ted and Nolan formed a company to build games. Their first game would be Computer Space, a clone of Spacewar! in a futuristic cabinet. Despite $3 million in sales, the game was a flop.
But Bushnell and Dabney had enough money to try again, and with the company renamed Atari, a term from the game Go, they set about looking for the next big idea. Nolan wanted a driving game, but Ted dismissed that idea as too complex, so Nolan settled for a tennis game similar to one seen on the Magnavox Odyssey home game console as a practice game. They hired a programmer, Allan Alcorn, to build the game using the video circuitry Ted had built. Three weeks later, they were all addicted to the finished game, and realized they had a product.
They had 12 cabinets built and installed in various bars and restaurants in the area, unsure of what would happen. Then the quarters started rolling in. Amazed at their luck, Nolan and Ted were alarmed to hear that the prototype machine, which had been installed in a local bar, was broken. They dispatched Alcorn to fix it, who found people lined up waiting to play the machine as soon as it was fixed. The problem: they had jammed so many quarters into it that the coinbox overflowed and shorted the machine out. Pong was a bona fide hit.
Pong Goes Poof
Orders for more machines poured in. Ted had to scramble to get cabinets built, convert dime store black and white TVs into game monitors, and put everything together. Atari grew rapidly, moving to a larger space to build their machines, hiring new people, and still only barely keeping ahead of the Pong craze.
But in the frenzy of the young company’s growth, things started going bad. Nolan made management decisions that left Ted out, and fearing that the company was going down, Ted bailed. He stayed on friendly terms with Nolan for a while, even helping him turn his pizza restaurant idea into a reality that would one day morph into the “Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theaters” franchise. But the restaurant fell on hard times in the early 80s, and when Nolan was unable to pay Ted for his work, they parted ways for good.
Free from the video game industry, Ted returned to electrical engineering, working for companies like Raytheon and Teledyne. But the corporate scene chafed, and eventually he just threw in the towel and moved with his wife to the country. They bought a small grocery store, added a deli, and lived a life of well-deserved quiet.
Few people get to claim, “I was there when…”, but Ted Dabney was certainly in the thick of things of an unintentional revolution that started an industry. That following his own path and doing what he loved led him there hold lessons for us all.