Edward Condon

Edward Uhler Condon (1902-1974)
Edward Uhler Condon (1902-1974)

The first gaming computer in the world was Nimatron, designed in the winter of 1939 by Edward Condon, a Ph.D. and professor in physics, then working (since 1937) as Associate Director of Research of at Westinghouse Electric Company. Nimatron was a non-programmable special purpose electromechanical digital computer, playing the Nim game.

Nimatron was shown in April 1940, in the Westinghouse Pavilion at the World’s Fair in New York. The machine was patented in September 1940, to Condon and two Westinghouse engineers from the relay division in Pittsburgh, Gerald Tawney and Willard Derr, who created the device (US patent Nr. 2215544).

Nimatron was designed in the winter of 1939 by Condon for the sole purpose of entertaining, and its logic was built of electromechanical relays, while the output allows the ignition of four lines of seven light bulbs. The idea of making a machine for playing Nim comes to Condon when he realized that the same calibration circuits used in Geiger counters (although built with ordinary electromagnetic relays, not by valves), can be used to represent the numbers defining the state of a game.

The Nim game was played by thousands of people (at least 50000) at the Fair, for the 6 months it was on display. The Nimatron was able to play only a limited number of strategies, which made it easy beatable (in fact, during the fair over 90% of games are won by the Nimatron). Despite this success, Condon considers the Nimatron one of the biggest failures of his career, because he has not grasped the potential of the machine. As Condon recalled “this was a good four or five years before Johnnie von Neumann and Eckart and Mockley and all this digital computer business, and (I) never thought of it in serious terms; I just thought of it as this gag thing, yet the circuitry and all that was exactly what was later used for computers, for programmed computers”. Nimatron was the first gaming-only computer and Nim’s first gaming machine, but its impact on digital computers and computer games was negligible.

The Nimatron of Edward Condon
The Nimatron of Edward Condon

The invention relates to control apparatus and has particular relation to electrical apparatus for automatically making the moves of one party in a game between two opponents. It provided a device for playing Nim and for displaying the arrays and moves while the game is being played.

Nim is played by two opponents with a plurality of sets of like elements. There may be any arbitrary number of elements in each set but it is preferred that no two sets shall have the same number. The players make their moves alternately as in checkers and each player, in his turn, may remove any number of elements from any one set. A player may remove elements from different sets during different moves. The player who removes the last element leaving no elements to be removed by his opponent is the winner of the game.

The machine provided a system in which the like elements used in playing Nim are a plurality of sets of lamps. Any combination of sets may be established by extinguishing certain of the lamps in each of the sets. The lamps are connected in circuits which are controlled by manually operable switches. A player may in his turn extinguish any desired number of lamps in any one set only by operating a switch. Thereafter he may operate another switch, causing certain additional lamps in one of the sets to be extinguished automatically. The operations may be repeated by the player until either he or the machine extinguishes the last lamps. Preferably the number of lamps initially energized is such that the player who operates the control element may win, if, in his first move, he establishes a winning combination and if he maintains the winning combination when making the following moves in his turn. However, if the player makes one incorrect move, the machine sets up the winning combination and thereafter the player is certain to lose.

Interestingly, the Nimatron had a built-in delay before it made its moves. It was thought that human players, who had to think before making their next move, would feel embarrassed if the machine in turn took only a fraction of a second for its own decisions. The machine was made to look like it had to think about its move for a few seconds, in order to not insult its human opponents. Condon figured that this might have been the first deliberate slowing-down of a computer.

Another interesting side-note is that Condon’s son Joseph Henry Condon (15 February 1935 — 2 January 2012), also became a physicist (Ph.D., Northwestern University) and engineer, who worked at Bell Labs on digital telephone switches and in 1983 co-invented the Belle chess computer, the first machine to achieve master-level play, with a USCF rating of 2250.