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Pong was released by Atari 50 years ago

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Two moving lines, a dot that volleys between them and a score display at the top - that's really all there was to the game Pong.

(SOUNDBITE OF PONG SOUND EFFECTS)

SHAPIRO: And that was all it needed to become the first widely played commercial video game. Atari released the original Pong as an arcade game. Fifty years ago this week, to mark the anniversary, we've called up Allan Alcorn, co-founder of Atari and computer scientist who designed Pong. Welcome, and thank you.

ALLAN ALCORN: Hello. Yes, thank you very much. I'm glad to be here.

SHAPIRO: Take us back half a century. You had started working at Atari as an engineer. Where did the idea for Pong come from?

ALCORN: Well, it came from Nolan Bushnell, a co-founder of Atari. The idea was to give me something to practice on because I had never designed a video game before - no one else ever had either, except Nolan. And so he thought of the very simplest possible game that could ever be and never thought it would be a financial success.

SHAPIRO: Wait. So you're saying this wasn't even originally intended to be released to the public? It was just kind of a programming exercise?

ALCORN: Exactly. Yeah. And I was so young. I was 24 years old. I said, OK.

SHAPIRO: And when did you realize that this is actually showing up all over and becoming a massive hit?

ALCORN: Well, when we put the thing on location just to try it out, because I tried to make it as fun to play as I could. And all of a sudden, the thing went nuts.

SHAPIRO: What was that first location?

ALCORN: The first location was Andy Capp's Tavern. It was a bar in Sunnyvale.

SHAPIRO: And those guys had no idea that they were making history as the first people to play an arcade game in a bar.

ALCORN: That's right. Yep (laughter).

SHAPIRO: When did you realize you were making history as the first person to invent such a game?

ALCORN: I don't know. I mean, it just seemed I was - it was just - I didn't think the company would last long because most startup companies didn't. And so I thought it would fail after a while, but it'd be a lot of fun and I'd learn a lot doing it and then go back to work for a real company. But that never happened. And it just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger.

SHAPIRO: Well, given that I work in audio, I have to ask, how did you develop the sounds for the game?

ALCORN: Oh, the sounds for the game. Nolan said he wanted the roar of a crowd of thousands. And I didn't know how to do that. So I said, OK, I'll be right back. And I just poked around in the circuit itself, in the vertical shape (ph) generator for appropriate sounds and piped them out and...

SHAPIRO: Wait. Are you saying that this was not a sound that you found somewhere and applied to it? This was a sound that was actually being produced from the circuitry itself?

ALCORN: Yeah. There were no sounds out there. This is - remember; this was 1972. There was no internet. There was nothing. And so I just poked around. And it took me about two hours, and Nolan said, I didn't like it. I said, well, if you don't like it, Nolan, you do something better. He said, OK. OK.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

ALCORN: That's how the sounds were done.

SHAPIRO: Well, there is a connection here to the early beginnings of Apple. Pong's influence went beyond just video games. Tell us about that origin story.

ALCORN: Well, yeah. We were a rapidly growing company. And I needed a technician. And one day, the personnel lady came in, says, you like to get these strange ones. So here's one, this young guy out in the lobby. I said, sure, bring him in. And he was a dropout of Reed College. He was kind of a hippie, pretty disheveled. But, you know, the kid was really enthusiastic. And when you're hiring somebody - and this was for a technician, the lowest rank in the engineering department - you know, enthusiasm counts for a lot. So I figured, OK, he's got to be cheap. But we didn't have much money, so I hired him.

SHAPIRO: I don't think you've said his name yet.

ALCORN: Oh, it was a guy named Steve Jobs. You may have heard of him.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. OK. Heard of him. That is Allan Alcorn, co-founder of Atari and engineer who helped create the classic game Pong 50 years ago. Thank you so much for speaking with us about this amazing history.

ALCORN: I'm delighted. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Megan Lim
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.