Computer Space and the Dawn of the Arcade Video Game

How a little-known 1971 machine launched an industry.

By  |  Sunday, December 11, 2011 at 10:14 pm

In response to the control problems, Dabney attempted to simplify the control panel design with a cast aluminum handle that a player could turn to steer the rocket ship. It proved even more problematic. “As soon as we got it in the field,” recalls Dabney, “some kids just ripped it off.” The modified controls never made it into production.

Control and gameplay difficulties aside, almost everyone who encountered Computer Space found themselves drawn to it. The sheer novelty of controlling an image on a TV screen attracted many gawkers, some of whom had trouble believing that the machine generated the imagery itself. Bushnell and Dabney regularly witnessed people at test locations searching around the game cabinet for secret wires that might lead to a TV station or some more complex apparatus hidden from view.

“Their whole center of gravity was that TV images came from stations, period,” recalls Bushnell. “The idea that you could generate something locally–remember, there were no VCRs, no DVDs–the only thing that a TV could play was a TV station.”

Dabney recalls the wonder as well. “They were blown away by it. That is something that really boggled their brains. All of a sudden, there’s a TV picture that they have control of. It was totally new to them.”

The Rocket Launches

Computer Space, as seen in Soylent Green.

Computer Space made its public debut in Chicago, Illinois on October 15th, 1971 at the Music Operators of America show, a prominent trade show for coin-op amusements. Not too long before, Nutting had built four Computer Space units (in bold red, white, blue, and yellow cabinets) for display at the show. Bushnell and Dabney accompanied them to Chicago, proud of their new creation.

When it came time to unpack the machines, Bushnell and Dabney made a terrifying discovery: the TV displays in every unit had ripped loose during transport and crashed to the bottom of their cabinets. “We thought we were hosed,” says Bushnell. They had built four Computer Space units to give the appearance that the game was in production or close to production. In truth, those were the only complete Computer Space machines in existence.

With no back-ups to call upon, the two engineers attempted to rebuild the units on the spot. They got three of them working, but the forth one proved damaged beyond repair. Thinking quickly, they made the best of the situation by turning the damaged machine around, opening up the back, and showing off the internal workings as if they had always intended it to be that way.

During the event (which turned out to be the world’s first public unveiling of a commercial video game), Bushnell and Dabney encountered significant skepticism from their colleagues in the amusement industry. “I remember one guy saying, ‘You guys don’t know the point of this. They’ll steal the TVs out of these things,'” recalls Bushnell.

Cover of the original Computer Space flyer, 1971.

While most coin-op manufacturers reacted with puzzlement, the operators that actually bought and placed the machines were ready to try something new. In the coin-op industry, money was king. At the end of the day, if a machine made money, it didn’t matter how crazy it was. “They all thought that it would be a good idea to try a few,” says Bushnell. “We came back from the show with a good order book.”

Gauging operator interest after the show, Nutting decided on a somewhat ambitious production run of 1,500 Computer Space machines; this was at a time when the best-selling electromechanical games rarely sold more than 2,000 units, though a few blockbusters sold as much as 10,000.

Bushnell likes to point out, correctly, that the coin-op industry before video games came along was very small. The industry’s reach had previously been limited by reliability issues with complex electromechanical units, so deploying 2,000 machines out in the field and keeping them all operating properly was a minor miracle.

Nutting Associates shipped the first Computer Space cabinets to customers in November 1971. The game sold fairly well for the first commercial video game–estimates range from 500 to 1,000 units–but it was no blockbuster. Still, Bill Nutting was confident enough in the game’s success that he fired his director of marketing, figuring he no longer needed Ralston to generate sales.

Dabney says that sales of Computer Space seemed disappointing to him at the time, but Bushnell is more upbeat about the results. “I thought it was a great success, but it could have been better,” he says. The machine grossed about $3 million dollars in unit sales, of which the Syzygy partnership received five percent. “For a farm boy from Utah, that was a lot of money,” he says.

That means Bushnell and Dabney earned roughly $150,000 (1971 dollars) to take home between them, plus salaries from their full-time jobs at Nutting. Along the way, the machine they created launched the video game industry. It is hard to look at those facts and come to the conclusion that Computer Space was a commercial failure, as it is commonly portrayed by journalists today.

While it may have founded an industry, people forgot Computer Space as quickly as it came. With only 1,000 units sold at most, very few people played the game, and it quickly became overshadowed by the monumental success of Pong, which sold 19,000 units and spawned dozens of imitators the following year.

In the Movies

Ted Dabney tells an amusing story about going to see Soylent Green upon its release and being stunned at the appearance of a Computer Space unit in the film. He told Bushnell he had to see the movie, but didn’t tell him why. Later, Dabney asked Bushnell if he had seen the movie. “Yeah,” replied Bushnell, “It wasn’t a very good film.” Dabney said, “Didn’t you see the Computer Space in it?” Bushnell replied, “No. I came in late.”

The closest Computer Space ever came to mainstream fame was a prominent appearance in the 1973 sci-fi film Soylent Green starring Charlton Heston. Computer Space’s curvy fiberglass cabinet looked so futuristic that the film’s producers had no problem portraying the game as the state-of-the-art of home entertainment in the year 2022.

If one manages to play Computer Space today, it holds up surprisingly well considering the relatively primitive electronics involved (give it a shot with this simulator). For his part, Bushnell is still proud of his creation. “I personally think at the time, and with the technology that was available, it was a tour de force,” says Bushnell. “But time passes on. It had its day, and those days are over.”

The days of Computer Space may be over, but the heyday of the video game, as an art form and cultural force, has just begun. There is little doubt, if our world keeps spinning, that people will be enjoying technological descendants of Computer Space for generations to come.

Coda: The Birth of Atari

Bushnell and Dabney left Nutting Associates not long after the release of Computer Space. Bushnell wanted to create a revised version of the game, but he and Bill Nutting disagreed over who would own the rights. So the Syzygy duo took their earnings, along with some money from a few arcade locations they had acquired, and used it to found Atari, Inc. in June of 1972. Its first product, Pong, set the world on fire.

“I’m still glad I decided to get out of Nutting, because they were not good guys,” says Bushnell. ” It was very clear to me that the video game business was going to go nowhere if I continued to license all my products to them.”

A two-player version of Computer Space, equipped with joysticks, emerged from Nutting Associates a year later, designed by Steve Bristow. It failed to significantly expand the appeal of Computer Space, especially in the face of Pong. (Dabney and Bushnell had no involvement in the two-player version aside from their original contributions to the game.) Nutting Associates continued to create video games, including an unauthorized clone of Pong, until 1976, when the company closed its doors.

After a falling-out around 1973 over Atari management issues that ended in Dabney leaving the company, Bushnell would regularly exclude Dabney from his oft-told tale of Computer Space, Pong, and Atari for at least two decades. As a vigorous self-promoter, Bushnell had no problem soaking in the limelight as the founder of the video game industry when the press came calling. Eventually, probing journalists and enthusiasts of the generation that grew up with video games forced Atari’s proud co-founder to expand the company’s creation story and include a few names he had left out. Today, he gives Dabney, and many other Atari engineers, ample credit for their work.

For all his griping about Bushnell hogging the credit, Dabney insists that he is not bitter about Bushnell and their dissolved partnership. In fact, Dabney is quick to offer hearty praise for the man as a powerful visionary force. “He’s an absolutely brilliant guy when it comes to imagination and ideas,” he says. “We were there because of Nolan, and none of it would have happened without him.”


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16 Comments For This Post

  1. Guan Says:

    What a cool story. Almost Jobsian in its emphasis on vision, focus and intentionality. I was familiar with Pong, but did not know about Computer Space. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. pdr Says:

    I think it's the other way around since Jobs and Woz worked for Bushnell on Breakout. You should say it's 'Bushnellian".

  3. The_Heraclitus Says:


  4. The_Heraclitus Says:

    The 1st time I played "Space War!" was on a PDP-11. I remember running into a Space War arcade game in the '70's that was a clone of the DEC version. Required 2 players as you couldn't play against the computer. This was back when Silicon Valley was actually that. Unlike today.

  5. James Says:

    I worked for Nolan, went out to CA for a couple weeks, he took me to the first Chuck E. Cheese. Atari was like a family back in those days. Very cool times.

  6. gargravarr Says:

    I played Pong on holiday in Hawaii in 1973. I was four years old and stood on a milk crate so I could see the screen. Obviously, at the time, I had no idea what a revolutionary thing this was.

  7. Vulpine Says:

    Heh. First video game I ever played–before Pong and, in my opinion, better.

  8. Johnny Says:

    Outstanding story, thanks for posting it. I'm fascinated by video game history, but somehow I knew nothing of this. I've read various histories of Space War and Pong (and played the original arcade versions of both), but the histories didn't mention Computer Space as being the game that came in between and sort of bridged the gap. Impressive engineering by Bushnell & Dabney.

  9. Duber Says:

    great story, thanks for sharing.

  10. miner2049er Says:

    Well researched article that gets the “Dabney” factor across very well.

    Our podcast did the first interview with Ted Dabney where he tells the whole story. We later interviewed Al Alcorn who built the follow up game, Pong.

    We are now trying to get Nolan but he has so far not agreed to come on.

    I hope he does.

  11. Kevin Says:

    Excellent article! I run that website with the simulator on it and I'm happy to see people showing excitement for Computer Space again.
    (and I think I better make my simulator page look nicer if people visit it from this article)

  12. Bill Says:

    When I read The_Heraclitus's comment, it brought back memories of my first playing "Space War", as mine also was on a PDP-11. While working at Johnson's Space Center at Houston, Texas in 1973, one of the many computers I had responsibilities of maintaining was a PDP-11. Its main function was to create vector images displayed on monitors mounted in the window of an early space shuttle flight deck mockup. Of the many programs stored on its dual disk drive platters was “Space War”. While it was very archaic by today’s possibilities, It seemed way ahead of its time back then.

  13. pdr Says:

    Anytime I hear stories about the old days, I get all sentimental. It's sad what happened to Atari and Nolan Bushnell deserves more praise for his contributions. He is a foundational figure in the history of silicon valley and technology as we know it.

  14. GrayGaffer Says:

    In 1967 I started my first job, at Elliott Bros Automation int he UK. I was introduced to Space War running on the Elliott 4130's Vector Graphics display my first week there. I was very impressed, as much by the game as the fact that there we were, occupying 100% of a very expensive machine's time. But doing that turned out to be one of the perks of working for the manufacturer of the computer. I had one that I could call my first "Personal Computer" in that I had control of the power switch, and permission to do whatever I wanted with it after 5 pm. Haven't stopped since…

  15. @Datan0de Says:

    Wonderful, wonderful article. I have vague memories of playing Pong as a small child in the early `70's, and clearer memories of playing the 2-player Space War arcade game a few years later. Being a huge fan of retrogaming, I'd heard of Computer Space (and even played it at a traveling video game exhibit at our local science museum about 15 years ago!), but didn't know the full story behind its development. I'm also delighted by the mention of Sega Missile, which is nearly identical to an electromechanical game called S.A.M.I. that I also played as a small child. Pure joy!

  16. Judith Guertin Says:

    Some of the information in this is self serving. Just after he completed the third generation (the first solid sate coin op game) of Computer Quiz, and a new color question film strip series was ready, Richard Ball, Industrial Designer overseeing the upgrades, went to Bill Nutting and said that his projections for Computer Quiz were that in a little over a year they would be down to a one woman assembly line. Nutting said, "Well do something about it!" The result was a concept, marketing and design brief for a coin op video game "Space Command". A second brief was a form of play station to be used in bars. Shortly after Nutting bought another airplane at company expense. Ransome White, a Stanford MBA, and Ball objected. They were fired, Ball was asked to come back, but went on to cofound Cointronics with Ransome White. Cointronic's audio reward game, the first to have a taped message, Lunar Lander came out about the time the Computer Space was introduced. Nutting found Bushlnell sometime after Ball and White went out on their own. Ball left the Coin Op field when he found out the MAFIA controlled the industry. He went on to found Enrich an educational corporation. When at a later time Bushnell decided to make coin op games for his Chuckee Cheese locations the mob slapped his wrist. After they had put Nutting and Cointronics into bankruptcy the only games available were from Balley, Midway, Atari and Sega. All of these corporations has dubious connections.