Resurrecting One of the World's 1st Video Games

This guest post is written by Peter Takacs, a physicist in Brookhaven Lab's Instrumentation Division. Takacs, who earned his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University, joined Brookhaven in 1979.


Peter Takacs

More than a half-century ago, Brookhaven Lab nuclear physicist Willy Higinbotham sought to "liven up the place" with an experiment in entertainment. At BNL's annual open day in 1958, Higinbotham created what is often credited as the world's first video game. Hundreds waited in line for a chance to play "Tennis for Two," an interactive game made from an analog computer, two chunky controllers, and an oscilloscope screen just five inches in diameter.

The visitors, some of the world's first gamers, saw a two-dimensional, side view of a tennis court on the oscilloscope screen. They served and volleyed using controllers with buttons and rotating dials to control the angle of an invisible tennis racquet's swing.

Never patented, Tennis for Two was dismantled about a year after its debut, a silent frontrunner in the industry that now brings in more than $10 billion per year in the United States alone.


The only known photo of the original version of the game, taken in 1958. The analog computer is mounted in the small electronics rack in the lower left, the oscilloscope is on the platform on the right, and the hand controls are on the table below.

Fast forward to 1997: I was among a group of scientists and engineers who recreated the game for Brookhaven's 50th birthday celebration using the original circuit schematics. We thought it would be fun to try to travel back in time to get an idea of the look and feel of the first computer game. But the replica was a bit short from authentic because we couldn't locate a vacuum tube analog computer (a Donner Model 30) that powered the original game. Instead, we had to assemble an analog computer circuit using more modern solid-state operational amplifier devices.

TableTop display.jpg

The 1997 recreation. The solid-state replica computer is mounted on the small circuit boards in the lower left and center of the game board.

Although our recreation worked, it had some glitches. Solid-state devices are easily damaged by voltage spikes, and the constant switching of the game's relays caused them to blow out.

Over the past several years, however, we have found a few Donner computers and parts online. After some painstaking restoration work, we now have a working version of a Donner Model 3400 analog computer that essentially does the same thing as the original model used in Tennis for Two. We are now integrating the Donner computer into our 1997 game board. This requires removing the extra components that belong to the solid-state devices and restoring the circuit to its original 1958 state.


BNL technical specialist Gene Von Achen (left) and physicist Peter Takacs restoring Tennis for Two back to its original state.

After the OK from Brookhaven's electrical safety inspector, we will be ready to power up the board and plug it into the Donner operational amplifiers. Then we will truly be able to travel back in time.

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