Play the Pentagon-Funded Video Game That Predates ‘Pong’
A couple of grad students messing around on Washington’s dime launched an entertainment revolution
This story originally appeared on July 27, 2014.
Before Call of Duty, before Mario and even before Pong there was Spacewar!
The brainchild of six graduate students at MIT in the early ‘60s, Spacewar! was the first true video game.
A few guys had done cool tricks with oscilloscopes in the ‘40s and ‘50s, but those were just glorified versions of board games. Spacewar! was the first shoot-em-up, the first multiplayer video game, the first video game to get hacked and the first video game to go viral.
And the Pentagon paid for the whole thing.
The Department of Defense invested a lot of money in computers after World War II. There were many of reasons for this. More complicated missile systems required advanced mathematics that were better calculated by machines than man.
The Pentagon also knew that technological dominance would lead to modern military dominance. When Russia launched Sputnik in 1957, many in the Pentagon felt that America was lagging behind. In 1958, Pres. Dwight Eisenhower established the Advanced Research Projects Agency—the precursor to DARPA.
Washington began funneling more money into technology. It underwrote any reputable project or university that had anything to do with computers, including the electrical engineering labs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In 1961, MIT’s lab acquired a Program Data Processor-1. The PDP-1 was about three refrigerators wide—tiny compared to the giant room-spanning computers typical to the ‘60s. Steve Russell, a graduate student working in the lab, fell in love with the machine the moment he saw it.
Russell gathered his study group together: J. Martin Gaetz, Alan Kotok, Peter Samson, Wayne Wiitanen and Dan Edwards. They called themselves “The Hingham Institute Study Group on Space Warfare.” This motley group of proto-hackers would create the first video game.
Dan Edwards and Peter Samson playing Spacewar! MIT photo
Inspired by the space opera books of E.E. “Doc” Smith, the group decided to use the PDP-1 to make a space simulation.
In the spring of 1962, Russell took the lead and coded a simple rocket flying program that involved steering ships around a collapsed star. Samson—unhappy with the randomly generated star pattern Russell had used as a background— programmed the actual night sky into the simulation.
The rest of the group took turns polishing, hacking and tweaking until the program was a video game. Two ships, controlled by two humans, maneuvered around the collapsed star’s gravity well. The ships fired rockets in an attempt to obliterate each other. The ships could thrust, turn and move through hyperspace.
Russell and his crew never thought anyone would ever pay for interactive entertainment like Spacewar! That seems crazy now, but in 1962 computers were uncommon. Household computers were unheard of. The PDP-1 cost more than $100,000. Video games weren’t ready for the consumer market.
With nothing to lose and nothing to gain, Russell gave away the code to anyone who asked. Within a year, Digital Entertainment Corporation—PDP-1’s manufacturer—was including the game with every PDP-1 it shipped. It got so popular on college campuses that Stanford University banned it during business hours.
Spacewar! had gone viral.
At the University of Utah, a young Nolan Bushnell spent hours playing Spacewar! He went on to found Atari and bring video games into the homes of millions. But that would have never happened if the Pentagon hadn’t been writing blank checks to computer nerds in the early ‘60s.
The Hingham Institute Study Group on Space Warfare all graduated and took different jobs in different fields. A few of them went to work for Digital Entertainment Corporation. Dan Edwards—pictured above alongside Peter Samson—decided to keep taking government money. He became a cryptography expert and worked for the National Security Agency.
Spacewar! still exists today in many forms. There are countless knockoffs available on the computer, tablet and mobile platforms. The original is still the best.
The Pentagon budget is ridiculous. The Department of Defense wastes billions of dollars on projects that catch fire or flat out don’t work. Yet sometimes the funding gets to the right people with some far-out ideas, and the world gets something cool.