|genre= Sports simulation |platforms= Arcade |input= 2 analog paddles |cabinet= Standard |cpu= Discrete |sound= Amplified mono (one channel) |display= Vertical orientation, black-and-white raster display, standard resolution }}

Pong is a first generation video game released originally as a coin-operated arcade game by Atari Inc. on November 29, 1972. Pong is based on the sport of table tennis (or "ping pong"), and named after the sound generated by the circuitry when the ball is hit. The word Pong is a registered trademark of Atari Interactive, while the term "pong" is used to describe the genre of "bat and ball" video games.

Contrary to popular belief, Pong was not the world's first video arcade game (Computer Space, by Nutting Associates, was released in 1971). However, Pong was the first video game to achieve widespread popularity in both the arcade and home console markets, and it is credited with launching the initial boom in the video game industry. The popularity of Pong also led to a successful patent infringement lawsuit from the makers of an earlier video game for the Magnavox Odyssey.


Origins and development

The earliest electronic ping-pong game was played on an analog computer using an oscilloscope as a display, and was developed by William A. Higinbotham at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1958. His game was called Tennis for Two.

In September 1966, Ralph Baer, then working for Sanders Associates, wrote a short paper outlining a system for playing simple video games on a home television set. Originally, his chief engineer Sam Lackoff asked Baer to build a television set. Baer decided to add the new concept of playing games on a television screen. He developed a computer version of a ping-pong game, and his ideas were patented. Magnavox licensed the technology from Sanders Associates, and in the middle of 1972, the company began selling the Magnavox Odyssey, the first home video game console. The Odyssey was capable of playing a dozen different games, including a basic version of table tennis and a slightly more complex version of tennis.

Displaying animated graphics on a television screen and reacting in real time to user input would have required more computing power than 1960s consumer products could deliver. Although computing technology had progressed significantly by 1970, the tasks performed by a modern-day cell phone would still have required a mainframe computer the size of a small apartment. Despite this, it was possible to create a tennis video game by restricting the graphics to just one line per paddle, a dotted line for the net and a square for the ball.

In May 1972, the Magnavox Odyssey was demonstrated at a trade show in Burlingame, California. Nolan Bushnell attended the event and played the Odyssey's table tennis game. In June 1972, Bushnell and Ted Dabney founded a new company which they named Atari, with a starting capital of $250 each. Bushnell was a keen player of the board game Go, and the word Atari in Japanese has a meaning similar to the term check in chess.

Bushnell was concerned that his pioneering 1971 video arcade game, Computer Space, had been too complicated for some users. In an interview, he said of the game: "You had to read the instructions before you could play, people didn't want to read instructions. To be successful, I had to come up with a game people already knew how to play; something so simple that any drunk in any bar could play." Bushnell envisioned creating a video car driving game for arcades and hired Allan (Al) Alcorn, an electronic engineer who had recently finished college. Concerned that this project would be too complex for his new employee, Bushnell's first request to Alcorn was to create a ping-pong game. According to Alcorn, Nolan decided to have him produce an arcade version of the Odyssey's Tennis game.The game that Alcorn created was fun to play and since the name Ping-Pong was already trademarked, it was called simply Pong. The dominant arcade game at the time was pinball, and unlike pinball, Pong was conceived as a game for two players. Amusement industry experts were unsure about Pong's potential, and initially there was little interest in the product.

The first successful video game

Before Bushnell departed on a trip to Chicago to meet with pinball machine manufacturers Williams and Bally/Midway, it was agreed that Pong should undergo a field test. Bushnell and Alcorn then added a coin-operated switch to the machine so that it could be used as an arcade game. The instructions of the game were simple: Avoid missing ball for high score.

The system was tested initially in a small bar in Grass Valley, California and Andy Capp's Tavern, a bar in Sunnyvale, California. After only one day, the game's popularity had grown to the point where people lined up outside Andy Capp's waiting for it to open.

After a while, the unit broke down, and the bar's owner called Al Alcorn at home to have him remove the game. When he opened the unit he discovered the problem - the milk carton placed inside to catch the coins was overflowing with quarters, causing the coin switch to become jammed. According to the account given by Nolan Bushnell, the Pong cabinet at Andy Capp's broke down the day after it was installed, while Alcorn remembers it working for two weeks before the breakdown occurred. Bally/Midway turned down Pong after watching a demonstration, but the successful trial at Andy Capp's led Atari to manufacture the coin-operated games itself. The games were manufactured in a converted roller skating rink.

The coin-operated Pong games manufactured by Atari were a great success, and by the end of March 1973, between 8,000 and 10,000 of the units had been sold. However, Atari did not obtain a patent on its system until November 1973, and by this time numerous other manufacturers had produced versions of ping-pong video games.

The lawsuit from Sanders/Magnavox

The makers of the Magnavox Odyssey insisted that they held a patent on the concept of a tennis video game, and in 1974 Sanders/Magnavox filed a lawsuit against Atari. This was the first lawsuit relating to intellectual property rights in the video game industry. Lawyers for Magnavox found witnesses who recalled seeing Nolan Bushnell playing the Odyssey's table tennis game at the trade show in Burlingame, California in 1972, and obtained a guestbook from the event that he had signed. Atari settled out of court by agreeing to pay $700,000 to license the patents that Magnavox held on the Odyssey. On January 10, 1977, Judge John Grady of the Federal District Court in Chicago ruled in favor of Sanders/Magnavox on all counts relating to the lawsuit. The ruling upheld the claim that US patent #3,728,480 entitled Television Gaming and Training Apparatus was the pioneering design for a video game.

Home consoles

The idea for a home console version of Pong was conceived in 1973 and a prototype was designed by Al Alcorn, Bob Brown and Harold Lee during 1975. The project was named Darlene after a female co-worker at Atari. Pong had some important differences from the original Magnavox Odyssey, which had been discontinued in 1974. The Odyssey used discrete electronic components as a legacy of its 1960s roots, while Pong was based on an integrated circuit containing many components on a single chip. The chip in the home version of Pong was the most complex developed for a consumer product at the time. Pong boasted on-screen digital scoring, something the Odyssey lacked, but while the Odyssey offered a range of different games through plug-in circuit boards, the first Pong console played the table tennis game only. The original arcade Pong had black and white graphics, while the 1975 console version had color graphics. The Odyssey lacked sounds and Pong made a distinctive bleeping noise through an internal loudspeaker each time the ball was hit. The Odyssey could add spin to the tennis ball through a button on its controllers, while Pong could add eight levels of spin automatically depending on which part of the bat the ball hit. This was a feature found in the arcade version of Pong, and helped to produce varied play. In both the Odyssey and Pong, when the ball hit the top or bottom of the screen it bounced back in, a feature more like squash than tennis. The player gained a point in Pong when the opposing player failed to return the ball. Since domestic televisions in the 1970s lacked audiovisual inputs, the Pong console was connected to the television by converting its output to a radio frequency signal that was fed in through the antenna screws. Some consumers had been confused by the name of the Magnavox Odyssey, believing that it would work only with Magnavox televisions. However, both the Odyssey and Pong were compatible with any make of television that had antenna screws.

The Pong console was demonstrated at the Consumer Electronics Show in June 1975. The buyers from the major retail outlets showed little interest, believing that the public was not sufficiently interested in video games for the home. However, soon after the show Atari contacted Tom Quinn, the sporting goods buyer for Sears, Roebuck and Company. Quinn was familiar with the Pong game found in arcades and bars, and decided to take a chance on the new console. He met with Nolan Bushnell and asked how many units Atari could produce in time for the Christmas holiday season. Bushnell reckoned that they could produce 75,000, but Quinn wanted double that number of units and offered to pay to boost production to that level. In return, Sears would become the exclusive retailer of Pong under the Sears Tele-Games label.

Christmas 1975 turned out to be the most successful period for sales of Pong home consoles, with customers lined up outside Sears stores waiting for new shipments of the game to arrive. The first consoles retailed at $100, the equivalent of around $400 at 2007 prices. The burgeoning popularity of Pong caught the attention of Al Franken and Tom Davis during the first year of the television show Saturday Night Live. The comedy duo wrote and voiced several segments in which no actors were visible, and all that viewers saw was a Pong game in progress looking just as it would if they were playing the game themselves. Franken and Davis would talk to one other as friends, rarely mentioning the game itself, and with the conversation occasionally having a detrimental impact on their game skills.

A consequence of the popularity of Pong was that enthusiasts would play the game for hours at a time on their home consoles, leading to damage to the television screen being used as the display. Since the white lines forming the tennis court were shown constantly, they could become burned into the phosphor coating on the cathode ray tube of the television, causing irreparable damage to the screen. After a number of incidents where this occurred, the instruction books of tennis video games mentioned the risk and advised against extended play, or suggested that the brightness and contrast controls of the television be turned down in order to reduce the risk of damage. Another feature of constant play was the tendency of the paddle controllers to wear out and require replacement.


Cloned versions of the Pong home console soon appeared, with the AY-3-8500 chip launched by General Instrument in 1976 offering a range of pong-style games to any manufacturer. By 1977 the market was saturated by both more consoles from Atari and Magnavox as well cloned pong consoles, and demand was in decline. Seeking a quick exit from the industry, many companies sold off their games at discount prices. The result was the first crash in the video game market, an event later echoed by the Video game crash of 1983. The public's interest in pong consoles had waned by the late 1970s, and the units had ceased production by the early 1980s. By this time, more sophisticated games such as Space Invaders and Pac-Man had become available, and the sound and graphics capabilities of pong consoles were seen as old-fashioned. The technology of the home video game market had also evolved in 1976 when the manufacturer Fairchild released its new programmable console, the Video Entertainment System or VES. Unlike the dedicated pong consoles which had a fixed number of built-in games, the VES could offer a range of games via plug-in ROM cartridges. Atari launched its own programmable system in October 1977, the Atari Video Computer System or VCS. This later became known as the Atari 2600, and the use of plug-in cartridges was the defining feature of the second generation video consoles that dominated the market during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Nolan Bushnell says that Atari sold a total of 38,000 coin-operated Pong games, although taking into account the large number of clones, it is estimated that over 100,000 units were sold, making it the most popular arcade game of all time.

Other versions and platforms

Many versions of Pong were released, including Pong Doubles (a four-player variant), Quadrapong (also four-player), Super Pong and Doctor Pong. In 1976 Atari released Breakout, a single player variation of Pong where the object of the game is to remove bricks from a wall by hitting them with a ball. Breakout was updated successfully in 1986 by the Taito Corporation under the name Arkanoid.

Pong has been reissued for a range of modern platforms, including:

  • There is a version for the PlayStation, and it has been included in the recent TV Games collections, which are console-on-a-chip systems featuring classic games from the Atari 2600 era.
  • Pong is also available on Arcade Classics for the Sega Genesis.
  • A simulation of the original version with cabinet art and an updated version of Pong are available in the Atari Anthology video game for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 2 and the Xbox. The original Pong cannot be emulated by today's computing technology because it uses 7400 chips and discrete logic rather than a modern central processing unit.
  • Atari's 1991 arcade game Off the Wall features a competitive bonus round that plays exactly like a round of Pong.
  • In the Atari game Test Drive Overdrive, users can play Pong when the game is loading. In single-player mode the user play against the computer, but in multi-player mode the user can play against the other player.
  • In the PSP game Atari Classics Evolved it can be playable in two versions; a port of the original version and an updated version of the game which includes updated ports of Atari's Pinball, Air Hockey, etc. that were originally available in its "Home Pong" console variations in the 70's.

In popular culture

Pong's role as the first successful video game has led to a number of appearances in popular culture, including:

  • The opening song of Frank Black's album Teenager of the Year is entitled Whatever Happened to Pong? The lyrics detail the story of two brothers who place wagers on Pong competitions in bars.
  • Tennis player Andy Roddick starred in a 2006 commercial for American Express in which his opponent was Pong. His trainer advises him: "He returns everything." Roddick seems stumped as to how to defeat the computer's bat, until he realizes that it has no forward movement. He then hits a drop shot over the net in order to win. The commercial was called Stop Pong and spawned a website where the player, as Roddick, tries to beat Pong in a five minute game.
  • In the 1976 film Silent Movie, Dom Deluise and Marty Feldman tinker with the hospital bedside monitor to which the studio chief is hooked up, causing its display to turn into a Pong game.

  • In an episode of The Simpsons, Treehouse of Horror, the Simpsons are abducted by aliens Kang and Kodos who show off their own version of Pong referring to it as a high-tech version of what humans call table tennis.
  • In an episode of King of the Hill, Peggy and Bobby are busy throughout the entire episode playing Pong. Without a pause button, they fall asleep with the ball bouncing back and forth.
  • In an episode of That '70s Show, Kelso and Red try to make the game more challenging by tinkering with the console and making the paddles smaller.
  • In the 2008 Pixar movie WALL-E, WALL-E attempts to play Pong with EVE, but she has already gone into standby mode.

Further reading

  • Zap! The Rise and Fall of Atari by Scott Cohen ISBN 978-0070115439
  • The Ultimate History of Video Games by Steven L. Kent ISBN 0-7615-3643-4
  • Phoenix: The Fall & Rise of Videogames by Leonard Herman ISBN 978-0964384828
  • Digital Play: The interaction of Technology, Culture and Marketing by Stephen Kline et al. ISBN 9 780773 525917

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