William Higinbotham

Technology is anything invented after you were born.
Alan Kay

William Higinbotham (1910-1994)
William Higinbotham (1910-1994)

The American physicist and a leader in the nonproliferation movement William (Willy) Alfred Higinbotham (1910—1994) is credited with creating the first computer video game to display motion and allow interactive control with hand-held controllers in the middle of 1958.

William Higinbotham earned an undergraduate degree from Williams College in 1932 and continued his studies at Cornell University. During WW2 he went to work on the radar system at MIT. In the later years of the war, he worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory (where the first atomic bomb was developed) and headed the lab’s electronics group.

In 1947 Higinbotham entered the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York as a senior physicist and later as head of the Instrumentation Division. When in October 1958, the Lab organized its annual Visitors Days, Higinbotham realized how static and non-interactive most science exhibits were at that time and tried to change that, introducing a game as an element of entertainment. He wrote later it might liven up the place to have a game that people could play, and which would convey the message that our scientific endeavours have relevance for society.

Higinbotham decided to create a game—Tennis for Two, and despite the fact, that he had only two weeks for this purpose, he managed to make it, with the help of two of his colleagues—David Potter and Robert Dvorak Sr. They created a unique way to alternate among the computer’s outputs with the transistor switching circuit, creating the image of a tennis court and allowing players to control a movable ball seen on a screen, just like a modern video game. In 1983 Higinbotham recalled—It took me about two hours to rough out the design and a couple of weeks to get it debugged and working. It didn’t take long and it was a big hit.

A recreation of the original Tennis For Two, constructed for the 50th anniversary of the game's first appearance
A recreation of the original Tennis For Two, constructed for the 50th anniversary of the game’s first appearance

The Tennis for Two was first introduced on 18 October 1958, at one of the Lab’s annual visitors’ days. Two people played the electronic tennis game with separate controllers that connected to an analog computer (Systron-Donner Model 30) and used an oscilloscope (5-inch in diameter DuMont cathode-ray) for a screen (see the nearby photo).

Visitors playing Tennis for Two saw a two-dimensional, side view of a tennis court on the oscilloscope screen, which used a cathode-ray tube. The ball, a brightly lit, moving dot, left trails as it bounced to alternating sides of the net. Players served and volleyed using controllers with buttons and rotating dials to control the angle of an invisible tennis racquet’s swing.

Liven up the place it did! Hundreds of visitors lined up for a chance to play the pioneering electronic tennis game. And Higinbotham could not have dreamed that his game would be a forerunner to an entire industry that some sixty years later, in 2022, would account for $97 billion in sales in the USA alone, while the global games market reached $211 billion!

William Higinbotham’s "Tennis for Two". 1958 - Brookhaven National Laboratory
William Higinbotham’s “Tennis for Two”, 1958, Brookhaven National Laboratory

On the next 1959 year’s Visitors’ Day, an improved model of the game was presented, as the modifications included a larger monitor, a button to increase the force of a serve, and changeable gravity effects to show what it would be like to play tennis on another planet 🙂 Though the game was again the highlight of the exhibition, this was its final appearance. Higinbotham soon forgot about his game, moving on to pursue more important scientific endeavors.

Higinbotham had more than 20 patents on electronic circuits to his credit, but he never patented his video game, which associates said was the forerunner of the early 1970s video game “Pong”. Higinbotham, discussing in 1983 his decision not to seek the patent, said, “It wasn’t something the Government was interested in” and that he “didn’t think it was worth it”.

Biography of William Higinbotham

William Alfred Higinbotham (1910-1994)
William Alfred Higinbotham (1910-1994)

William Alfred Higinbotham was born on 22 October 1910 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He was the firstborn of Rev Robert George Higinbotham (1880-1937), a son of a respected merchant of Irish origin, and a pastor of the Presbyterian Church, and Dorothea Schauffler Higinbotham (1885-1968), a daughter of a teacher and musician of German origin. They married on 11 January 1910 and became the parents of six children: William, Robert, Philip, Frederick, John, and Dorothy Anne (sadly, Philip and Frederick were killed young during World War II).

William grew up in Caledonia, New York, where the family moved in 1917. His interest in science started at the age of 14, when he tinkered with radio sets, trying to pick up the frequency transmissions of the first commercial stations. At 16, he enrolled in a high school physics class and quickly discovered that he had a natural affinity for the subject, leading to his undergraduate degree in physics at Williams College, Massachusetts in 1932, before progressing to Cornell University. Higinbotham was a graduate student in Physics at Cornell University during the outbreak of World War II. He was invited to join research at the MIT Radiation Laboratory, where he worked from 1941 to 1943 on an advanced and important technique known as radio detecting and ranging, later shortened to RADAR. During World War II, he was working at Los Alamos National Laboratory and headed the lab’s electronics group in the later years of the war, where his team developed electronics for the first atomic bomb. Following his experience with nuclear weapons, Higinbotham helped found the nuclear nonproliferation group Federation of American Scientists, serving as its first chairman and executive secretary. From 1974 until his death in 1994, Higinbotham served as the technical editor of the Journal of Nuclear Materials Management, published by the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management. In 1947, Higinbotham took a position at Brookhaven National Laboratory, where he worked until his retirement in 1984.

William Higinbotham was married three times. He married Julie Ann Burritt on 9 June 1949, in Bellport, New York, and they had three children: Julie Eileen (1951-2021), Robin, and William B. After the death of Julie, in 1976 he married Margaret (née Gray) Miller (1909-1982).

William Higinbotham died on 10 November 1994 (aged 84) in Gainesville, Georgia, US. The cause was emphysema.