Nolan Bushnell and digging up Spacewar!

Nolan Bushnell is simultaneously the most inspiring and most frustrating of people. He’s directly responsible for the vision of Atari and its atmosphere, but yet has chosen to surround himself with personal marketing and stories (and this personality is most likely true of many “larger than life” figures). A good bulk of these did not survive the vetting process. One such example is presented here, and it’s a topic we continued to do exhaustive research on even after the fact.

One of the very first claims we had to vet for the book is when and where Nolan saw Spacewar! for the first time. Besides being important for accuracy, it also sets up the context for several other events and claims, most notably his work relationship with Ted Dabney and his testimony during the Magnavox vs. Atari et al. trial where he used this and other claimed experiences at University of Utah to establish an earlier start date to Ralph Baer and company.

The claim: Nolan has stated he first played Spacewar! at the University of Utah, on a PDP-1 there in ’65 or ’66, sometimes doing all night gaming sessions on it. Nolan was an undergrad in Electrical Engineering at the time. In court testimony during the 70s he also claimed it was either a UNIVAC 1108 or IBM 794. In even later interviews (such as DeMaria and Wilson’s High Score) he claims it was played on various IBM equipment. So right away, we’re faced with conflicting equipment claims.

There’s three things that need to be immediately sorted out: what equipment Utah actually had during that timeframe, whether it was possible for it to run Spacewar! and whether a port of Spacewar! had even been done for it.

spacewarscreen_museumFirst, some background history: Spacewar! was of course written at MIT by Steve “Slug” Russell and several other MIT undergrads, with the first iteration completed in February 1962. In these days, software was hardware specific and even more so in regards to the display. Spacewar! was written specifically for the DEC PDP-1 with a Type 30 display (a point plotting CRT display that’s part of the operator console). It’s code was in assembly, saved on a paper tape stored in a drawer by the operator console. As MIT’s PDP-1 was the first one (considering DEC’s founders were MIT grads as well and the offices were in the vicinity), the undergrads that coded it had a unique timing and location opportunity allowing DEC’s founders to see the game early on. They decided to use Spacewar! as a promotional tool for the PDP-1’s capabilities and later as test software for new PDP-1s. (Note that only about 55 PDP-1s were ever produced, so it’s not like there were hundreds of copies of the game making it’s way around). The game would be started up before shipping the PDP-1, shut down, and then restarted once the PDP-1 was installed at it’s new location. If it played properly, then the PDP-1 had survived shipping.

This sets up some immediate requirements for someone to have played a copy of Spacewar! up through the mid 1960s.

1) They’d need a PDP-1 with a Type 30 display.

2) If they were going to consider porting it, they’d need to take the original 18-bit PDP-1 assembly code and port it the new computer or write a new version from scratch (based on memory after playing the PDP-1 game), both of which would still require a mainframe or minicomputer with a plotting or vector display.

Tracking the PDP-1

dec-pdp-1Luckily, there was a finite amount of PDP-1s produced (about 55 over it’s limited lifetime). We’ll start with Bitsavers’ copy of DEC’s own serial numbers list (http://bitsavers.trailing-edge.com/pdf/dec/pdp1/PDP-1_SerialNumbers.pdf). As you can see, Utah is not on the list. Given that a few serial numbers are in question in this version of the listing, we followed up with former DEC mainstay Gordon Bell. Gordon was a co-designer of the PDP-1 and developed the followup PDP-4 and PDP-6. We asked him if he knew if Utah had a PDP-1 and (as a side note), in the process verifying the story about DEC shipping PDP-1s with Spacewar! pre-installed. His response:

“I don’t believe they had a PDP-1, but I can’t be certain. Records at the Computer History Museum Digital files might show all the machines.

As far as shipping with Spacewar!, that sounds quite plausible, however not all machines had the scope.

There’s no reason that it shouldn’t run when powered up.”

So this is a semi-verification on Utah not having a PDP-1, and another interesting note: not every PDP-1 made had the point plotting display (scope) required to play the game.

DavidEvansOur next step is to go through Utah’s own archives to see what equipment they had in 1965 as Nolan entered the University of Utah. With the assistance of Sarah Bell (a graduate teaching assistant in the College of Engineering and winner of a fellowship from the National Association for Computing Machinery History Division for the documentation of Utah’s legendary computer graphics research under Evans and Sutherland) we were able to find the answer quickly. For those not familiar, David Evans was the founder of University of Utah’s computer science department (which he was recruited to start in 1965). He lured MIT computer graphics researcher Ivan Sutherland to Utah in 1968 and the duo performed research in 2D and 3D graphics that became the foundation for the field.

Right now, we’re primarily interested in 1965/1966, which is when Nolan has claimed in some variants of his story that he played it on either a PDP-1 or IBM mainframe. Evans’ research was just getting started at this time and in fact he was at the early stages of procuring equipment. Thankfully, he documented everything in his progress reports required by the grant he was given for his research on “Graphical Man-Machine Communications”. Specifically, this one document from November 30, 1966 states exactly what equipment was there at that time and what had been there previously:

“The Computer Center has replaced the IBM Type 7044 computer
by a UNIVAC Type 1108 computer and has undertaken the system
programming required to interface with the graphics laboratory.”

http://content.lib.utah.edu/cdm/ref/collection/uspace/id/1249

So no PDP-1. However, it does detail when the special graphics display that Nolan had mentioned playing the game on (the “kludge”) was first being developed. Also note that it was a “half-tone” or raster graphics display (which would later be used in the 3D graphics research), making it extremely unlikely it was used for Spacewar! even after it was developed (the reason why the raster based “half-tone” display wouldn’t have worked well is described in more detail in the “Tracking Spacewar!” section).

What the notes also list is a PDP-8 which had recently arrived along with a special “Line Graphics Terminal” or vector display. This looks more promising as a possible lead for playing Spacewar!, at least until it’s stated that the PDP-8 was being used as a graphics buffer for the UNIVAC and that the system would only be able to use one display at a time. Even so, we checked out the possibility of a PDP-8 Spacewar! in this timeframe, which we’ll discuss later in the section on “Tracking Spacewar!“. In the meantime though, let’s look at the IBM computer that was replaced.

In several versions of Nolan’s claim, he’s stated he played it on an IBM mainframe of some sort. For Russel Demaria’s book High Score, Nolan stated “[Spacewar!] was running on an IBM 7900 or something like that. A big IBM machine. Certainly too expensive to be feasible economically.” In his 1978 court testimony from Nutting vs. Bushnell, he states the following:

From the March 2nd, 1978 deposition of Nolan Bushnell (Nutting vs. Bushnell), Nolan was questioned about his experiences with computer games at the University of Utah. Below is an excerpt from that testimony. Note that these statements were made under oath in a court of law and were made within about a decade of Nolan’s attendance at University of Utah, when his memory would have been fresher:

MR. ANDERSON: Q. Mr. Bushnell, in your testimony in January you referred to a Jim Davis or someone with a name like that and then referred to him as Jim D. Have you determined with any great specificity who that individual was?

A. No, I haven’t. In fact, I– No.

Q. This was an individual who you said showed you a game being played on a computer at the University of Utah; am I correct?

A. That’s correct.

Q. Have you made any effort to determine who that individual was?

A. Yes, I have.

Q. What have you done in that regard?

A. I went to the university and went through the rogues’ gallery.They have a listing of the graduates for each school year. I attempted to match a face with a name.

Q. Did you personally go to the university and do that?

A. Yes, I did.

Q. Where is the rogues’ gallery maintained at the University of Utah?

A. On the second floor in front of the Electrical Engineering department.

Q. In what office or department?

A. It’s in the hallway. It’s actually right in front of the computer center.

Q. Did you do anything else to try to establish who Jim D. was?

A. Yes , I did.

Q. What else did you do?

A. I talked to some of the people in the computer center attempting to find some people that had been around at approximately the same time.

Q. Were you able to find anyone?

A. No, I wasn’t.

Q. Do you remember anyone that you talked to at the University of Utah in your effort to establish who Jim D. was, or anyone else who was around at that time?

A. Yes, I do.

Q. To whom did you talk in your investigation?

A. Professor Carl Durney.

Q. How do you spell that? A. D-u-r-n-e-y.

Q. Anyone else?

A. I wrote the names down. I’ve got two names here and I talked to one of them and was referred to the other one and I’m not sure which one was which. One was a guy named Bob Pendleton, and another was a guy named Dennis Stansfield and I don’t remember which one I talked to and which one was referred to by the other. I was unable to contact the
other fellow.

Q. When did you make this trip?

A. It was in the middle of January.

Q. Of 1976?

A. Yes. Sometime shortly after the deposition.

Q. Did you prepare any report on your trip?

A. No, I did not.

Q. Any memoranda of any kind?

A. No, I did not.

Q. Were you able to find–

A. Well, memoranda? I wrote the names down in my notebook here.

Q. Nothing other than that?

A. No.

Q. Were you able to find any document that would support your testimony concerning Jim Davis showing you a game played on a computer at the University of Utah in 1965?

A. No .

Q. Did you find any documentation that would support your testimony that a game was played on a computer at the University of Utah in 1965?

A. No.

Q. Did you find anything other than documents tangible, that would support your testimony that a game was played on a computer at the University of Utah in 1965?

A. Yes.

Q. What did you find that was tangible?

A. Oh, tangible?

Q. Yes.

MR. HERBERT: Define what you mean by tangible, Counsel.

MR. ANDERSON: Q. Physical. Something that you could bring back with you or that we could go see there.

A. Excuse me just a second . No.

MR. ANDERSON: Let the record show that you have had a conference with Mr. Herbert on the subject.

MR. HERBERT: The conference with Mr.. Herbert was with respect to your definition of tangible and what it is you actually wanted.

MR. ANDERSON: Q. In your earlier testimony you indicated that you weren’t certain whether the computer was a UNIVAC 1108 or an IBM 794 that you saw a game played on. Do you know which of those two it was?

A. No, I don’t.

Q. Did you make any effort to find out at the University of Utah?

A. No.

Q. Did you make any effort to find out what computer was at the University of Utah in 1965 at the time you say you saw a game played on a computer there?

A. No.

Q. You testified, I think, that about a year later you again had contact with a game played·on a computer at the University of Utah?

A. Correct.

Q. And that you had had to the best of your knowledge no contact with a game played on a computer in the interim between those two events; is that correct?

A. That’s correct.

Q. The second event that you referred to, have you been able to establish when that occurred specifically?

A. No.

Q. Do you believe that it was in 1966 or 1967 or do you have a belief?

A. I believe it was in ’66.

Q. You mentioned in that particular context a Randall Willey, W-i-l-l-e-y.

A. Willey.

Q. Have you been in touch with Mr. Willey since your last testimony?

A. No, I have not.

Q. Have you made an effort to find Mr. Willey?

A. Yes, I have.

Q. Have you succeeded?

A. No, I have not.

Q. Do you know his present location?

A. No, I do not.

Q. What effort did you make to find Mr. Randall Willey?

A. I called a couple of my fraternity brothers.

Q. What else?

A. That’s the extent.

Q. You testified that you obtained a listing of a program from Randall Willey; is that correct?

A. I don’t remember whether it was from Randall or whether one of the other guys. I don’t really remember. I got the lisiting from either him or one of the guys that he named.

Q. Was that listing in some machine language of a particular machine?

A. Yes, it was.

Q. What machine?

A. You mean what machine or what language?

Q. What machine?

A. I don’t remember. It relates to the IBM versus UNIVAC problem.

Q. It’s the same problem? It was one of those two; is that your testimony?

A. The languages for either machine are — I mean, it wasn’t in the language that it was written in I think is the basic language that crosses computer types.

Q. In what language do you say that listing was that you obtained from Randall Willey or someone?

A. It was a higher-level language. I don’t remember whether it was FORTRAN or ALGOL. I understood it so it should have been one of those two.

Q. I understand that there is more than one FORTRAN; is that true?

A. Yes.

Q. Which FORTRAN do you think it might have been in?

A. I have no idea.

Q. I believe you testified that you did not know anything about ALGOL
until after you had taken two computer courses at the University of
Utah; is that right?

A. Yes.

Q. What were they, EE-75 and 175?

A. I believe those were the numbers.

Q. Have you established when you took those courses?

A. No. When I get my transcript I will have that established.

Q. You testified also that there was some type of display used with the computer that you saw on the two occasions at the University of Utah when you played a game on it. Do you now know what the display was?

A. No.

Q. Did you make any effort to check the records of the University of Utah to see what they had in the way of equipment in the critical period of ’65, ’66 or ’67?

A. No, I did not.

Q. Is there any other information of any kind that you gained during your trip to Utah or from any other source since your last testimony with respect to that early activity of yours in 1965 at the University?

A. I just gained the basic statement that, yes, games were still being played at the University of Utah in great abundance.

Q. Well, from whom did you obtain that statement?

A. The fellow I talked to. One of those two. I should have written it down, you know, which guy I talked to.

Q. Well, the fellow that you talked to whose name you can’t remember I gather from your testimony was not there at the critical time?

A. Right.

Q. All right. Any other information?

A. No.

Q. When you obtained this listing that you have referred to from Mr. Willey in what physical form was that, cards or fanfold or —

A. Fanfold.

Q. I think your testimony was that you made some changes the program represented by that listing?

A. Correct.

Q. Physically how did you make those changes?

A. In the margin of the listing in parentheses.

Q. What did you do with the listing with those changes on it?

A. Gave it to the guy who was a custodian and asked him to implement them.

Q. Is it your testimony that he did implement them?

A. Yes, he did.

Q. How did he implement them?

A. I don’t know.

Q. Did you see him implement them?

A. No, I didn’t.

Q. How do you know that he did implement them?

A. I saw the results.

Q. How did you observe the results?

A. On the face of the screen.

Q. What was the physical form of the program when it was put into the machine?

A. I don’t know.

Q. Was it punchcards?

A. That was the normal thing. I don’t know what it actually was.

Q. When you say that it was the normal thing, that was the normal
thing for what.

A. Well, see, there are three or four ways you can access a machine. You can do it with punchcards. You can keep the whole program stored in core or on tape. If it’s a minor change sometimes you just have a listing on the terminal and you make the editing on the program and store it in the computer. I don’t know what was used in this instance. If it’s a permanent change generally you change the card deck and that way you can put it in a file and in case the computer bombs you don’t lose your program. If it’s stuck in the core and the computer goes down, then you would have to start from scratch.

Q. Do you know what input peripherals existed with respect to the computer that you say you used at the University of Utah?

A. Well basically there were card readers, alphanumeric tele-typewriters. There were, you know, card punches. It had a lot of tape storage, a lot of disc storage, a lot of core. It had the whole McGill.

Q. I think you testified that after you made this change in the program you played a game on the University of Utah computer for a period of time thereafter?

A. Correct.

Q. And then for a subsequent period you did not play a game on the computer until the time you left the University of Utah?

A. That’s correct.

Q. What was the first period when you played and then how long was the period between the time you stopped playing any game on the computer and you left the University of Utah?

A. Well, it was a matter that somebody fouled the computer up one time playing games so that the University really clamped down in it. So it was not a matter of not wanting to, it was a matter of just not being allowed to. I don’t remember exactly the time frame. I think the space was about one-quarter that I played several times and then subsequent
to that from that time until the time I left there was no more game playing.

So according to this testimony now, Nolan claims Spacewar! was played on either a UNIVAC 1108 or an IBM 794. Likewise now the claim is expanded to the port of Spacewar! he playing being coded either in FORTRAN or ALGOL, two high level languages it would have been very unlikely to have ported the game over to in those days of limited system resources (which we’ll go over in the Tracking Spacewar! section). We already have established the 1108 had first arrived in November of ’66 and was immediately appropriated for the research and special hardware expansion, both factors making it impossible to have played that game on it in 1965 or 1966. Giving the benefit of the doubt that he meant the IBM 7044, which was available at Utah through 1966 until it was replaced by the 1108, let’s look further at the capabilities of this machine.

IBM7040The IBM 7040 series the 7044 is a part of was introduced by IBM in 1963 (though it was originally designed in 1961) and was on the market for two years before it was replaced by the legendary IBM 360. The 7040 did not have a graphical display available for it. All I/O was through punchcards, magnetic tape, or the accompanying teletype machine (http://bitsavers.informatik.uni-stuttgart.de/pdf/ibm/7040/A22-6649-4_7040princOps.pdf). This once again makes it impossible to have played Spacewar! on, or any other computer based games other the possibility of turn based text based games.

And what of the UNIVAC 1108/PDP-8 research system starting construction in late 1966? It was constantly involved in very slow, methodical incremental research all of which is documented in Evans’ notes such as :

http://content.lib.utah.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/uspace/id/2332/rec/5

and

http://content.lib.utah.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/uspace/id/4973/rec/4

Note that we’re not interested in any of the reports past 1968, since that’s when Nolan graduated from Utah and moved out to California to work at Ampex. This is also despite the fact even going to 1968 is giving even more benefit of the doubt, since the claimed time period was ’65-’66. Regardless, as is clearly shown by the documentation (of which more is available in the Utah archives), by February of 1968 Evans was still involved in the research of getting the system to display basic shapes on the “kludge” and vector displays. This once again makes it highly unlikely that at any point it would have been appropriated to play Spacewar! for an undergrad EE student. And as Sarah has verified, there is zero mention of Spacewar! in any of the archive documentation.

Tracking Spacewar!

All roads start at the PDP-1, the platform that Spacewar! was specifically created on and tied to. For the game code to spread to other platforms from there, you’d need two qualifications:

1) The original PDP-1 18-bit code to somehow alter for the new platform.

2) A point plotting or vector display.

The importance of these two qualifications is simply an unequivocal fact. In point plotting and vector computer displays, the software is directly controlling the beam to draw the shapes on the screen. That means the code is uniquely tied to the hardware it’s running on. To play the actual Spacewar! game, from 1961 to 1965, you’d need a PDP-1. So when did the Spacewar! make it’s jump off the PDP-1?

SAIL 1968

For that we went to the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL) and two important people involved with the lab: former SAIL Executive Officer Les Earnest and Spacewar!‘s creator Steve “Slug” Russell. Why start at Stanford? That’s the place where Nolan took Ted Dabney to see Spacewar! running at in 1969 and the place where Spacewar! creator Steve Russell had moved to after leaving MIT’s labs for a brief stint at Harvard. The lab had been started by former MIT professor John McCarthy in 1963 and then moved to it’s historic DC Power Station location which formerly opened on June 6, 1966. They already had a copy of Spacewar! running on their PDP-1, but in that same month, they also received a PDP-6. A 36-bit computer, the PDP-6 made the porting of the 18-bit PDP-1 code a bit easier – which Steve did in late 1966. As Les explained:

It was actually in late 1966, done principally by Steve Russell with some help from others.

The PDP-6 at that point was a timesharing system running a flock of Model 33 Teletypes and with zero storage – all stations used a DECtape unit for i/o and storage. Whereas the original Spacewar! ran on a PDP-1 with no competition, when it was initially run under the PDP-6 timesharing system on the operator console it ran unevenly, depending on system load. To get around that, system hackers created a real time service called “Spacewar! mode” that allowed programs to get serviced at a specified multiple of 1/60th of a second, which was used to make the rockets move smoothly.

Spacewar! mode turned out to have a number of useful applications including synthesizing music and debugging hardware using an oscilloscope. Of course it could also easily be abused, which could bring the system to its knees, but whenever that happened the wizards would quickly figure out who was doing it and go beat up on them.

With that information, we now have the first verifiable port of Spacewar!. Further ports of the game to DEC hardware appear in the very early 70s as verified by the DECUS catalogs (DEC’s official catalog of available software for the platforms, which was primarily community driven). This includes the PDP-7, PDP-8, PDP-10 and PDP-12. We further verified with Les that the PDP-10 version was a port of the PDP-6 version.

While Nolan and Ted were working on Computer Space, Bill Pitts ported a version of the Spacewar! code to the just released 16-bit PDP-11/20 in ’71. Placed inside a coin-operated cabinet, it started it’s run at Stanford around the time Nolan and Ted were testing Computer Space.

Likewise, the 1977 arcade version of the game (Space Wars) by Larry Rosenthal and Cinematronics also ran the actual computer game. In this case Larry had created a hardware emulation of the PDP-8 and licensed the PDP-8 version of the game from MIT for commercial use. All of these are of course outside the timeframe in question though.

What that does leave us to cover though are the “inspired by” versions such as Nolan and Ted’s Computer Space. These versions of the game, while not based on the actual code, were certainly meant to impart a version of the game. “Inspired by” versions of the game were created on the Imlac PDS-1 vector graphics computer for example, whose PDS-1 display was released in 1970.

Even earlier there was the version of Spacewar! shown on the Data General NOVA Data at the 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco. (Ironic given Nolan and Ted first considered doing Computer Space on this computer but chose not to because it’d be too cost prohibitive for use in mass produced coin-ops). Founded by two ex-DEC employees, Data General was showing off it’s new NOVA computer due to be released the following year. Creating a version of the game to run on the NOVA’s “spacious” 5″ Tektronix Type 602 vector display they showed it off, though it was probably far overshadowed by Douglas Engelbart doing his “mother of all demos” at the same show (introducing the concept of GUI based computing with a mouse among other things).

Lastly, Steve Russell informed us that “Jim Burroughs wrote a version for the IBM 1620, one of the slowest computers of its day. The output was on a Calcomp plotter, and the version was not playable because of it’s excruciatingly slow pace.”

In Conclusion

So we’re left with the fact that in the claimed time period of ’65-’68 there was no equipment available at Utah during ’65 and ’66 for playing the PDP-1 version, and no available equipment for playing the PDP-6 version from ’66-’68. Nor was the IBM 7044 the University of Utah replaced in ’66 capable of running a graphics display. The PDP-8 version had not been created yet, and even then the PDP-8 on location at the university was immediately tied in to the UNIVAC 1108 as a graphics buffer and display controller. Finally, with how system resource-intensive the game was, it would be highly unlikely it was ever done in a high level programming language like FORTRAN at this time (every other known version from the 1960s was done directly in assembly).

Furthermore, in several interviews, Ted Dabney was adamant that Nolan did not see Spacewar! until he went to the SAIL lab in ’69 and saw it there, bringing Ted back with him to see it as well. What’s more, the given facts seem to support this. We’re left with one final bit of evidence that supports this as well, Nolan himself:

From the documentary Games Computers Play and filmed in early 1973, it’s the earliest known video interview of Nolan. Only a short five years after graduating from Utah, one would expect his memory to be very fresh when he states here he first saw it at Stanford. It’s also importantly pre-Magnavox lawsuit. When Magnavox filed it’s lawsuit against Atari and several other companies in April 1974 over the early landmark patents of “video games,” the “I saw it in Utah” claim started to appear. This leaves us to wonder if the change in story was coincidence or simply part of the long ongoing feud between Nolan and Ralph Baer that has resulted in Nolan constantly changing various stories to put himself earlier. The fact that it’s a tactic seen frequently in Nolan’s interviews over the last several decades, seems to point to the later. An example is it’s more recent application towards Ted and Ted’s development of the spot motion circuitry.

In recent interviews Nolan has expanded his backstory to claim that he was fixing televisions as a 10 year old (such as hist interview at the Startup Grind conference in Mountain View in February 2013 – http://startupgrind.com/event/startup-grind-silicon-valley-hosted-nolan-bushnell-atari-chuck-e-cheese/). On it’s own, it seems an interesting tidbit of info. That is until more of its context was provided through an email exchange between Devin Monnens (Assistant Course Director of Game History at Full Sail University and former Adjunct Professor at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs teaching Game Design and Critical Game Studies) and Nolan dated June 3, 2013. Devin had emailed Nolan asking him about what sort of technical background not mentioned in Steve Kent’s book The Ultimate History of Video Games would have contributed to his success as an inventor and game designer as well as Nolan and Ted’s inspirations in creating the spot-motion circuitry for Computer Space. Specifically the passage from Business Is Fun where Nolan asks Ted, “Why did the vertical hold button on the television move the screen up and down?” Nolan provided this response:

“There are numerous inaccuracies in “Business is Fun”. Curt and Marty have rewritten history in several instances. I was repairing television sets when I was 10 so I knew exactly what vertical hold did. I never asked Ted that….in fact I did 100% of the digital engineering myself.”

Devin presented us with Nolan’s claim to verify its accuracy, and not wanting for Devin to just take our word for it (even knowing he knew the research we had done and our research methodology as presented in the last blog post), we directly brought Ted into the email discussion with Devin. Ted once again presented his side and details (including about their early partnership involving pizza parlors and not video games), and called the TV repair story bunk and that there’s no way a child of 10 or 11 could safely remove dangerous high voltage picture tubes by himself. He also CC’d Nolan directly on the response, bringing Nolan into this email conversation, to which Nolan responded on June 6 with the following in regards to the TV repair story:

“By the time I was 13 I had a full amateur setup costing more than couple of month of adult pay. The money had to come from some where. My folks didn’t have that kind of money.

The only logical way that I could have made that much money at that age 11,12,13 was through some sort of entrepreneurial activity.

Which is easier to believe:

1. Nolan was interested in everything electrical and loved ham radio and purchased the hundreds of dollars of parts by fixing TV’s for his own little company and later for Barlow Furniture (The only appliance and furniture store in Clearfield) throughout high school adding washing machines to his list of skills.

2. Nolan was interested in only ham radio and drew the line at TV sets. They were too scary and had way too much voltage. He would pay for his transmitters through working endless hours at odd jobs in a world of $.50 cents per hour and clearly not do anything entrepreneurial it is just not who he is. “

Ted’s response seemed to once again provide a different light to Nolan’s new claim:

“First of all, Nolan never was “repairing television sets”. This is something he just made up to support the other stories he tells. A 10 year old would need a lot of help to replace a picture tube. They have a lethal voltage even when they’re removed from the TV. Changing vacuum tubes in TV sets in 1953 was not an easy job. You would have to know what the problem is and which tubes may cause it. Sometimes a burned out filament can give you a clue but too many had the filaments wired in series. Only the glass tubes could give you a hint (12BA6 Remote-cutoff pentode) but the metal ones couldn’t (6F6 Power pentode) which were sometimes used to drive the deflection yokes. I did a lot of this when I lived on Shotwell St. in SF. My friend Art called it ‘easter-egging.’ I don’t think a 10 year old could have access to as many vacuum tubes as one would need to do this stuff. I know I didn’t and I was 17. Art and I would just go buy what we thought we might need. Art was pretty good at diagnosing a problem.”

Nolan also stated (in his June 6 e-mail) in relation to Ted’s claim on creating the spot motion circuitry prototype:

“So according to you Ted, you calculated the clock frequency, designed the clock circuit, designed the counter circuits and the boolean logic for creating the sync. Then the motion circuits and graphic manipulations so that a Rocket could be displayed. And basically did it all while I was bouncing off the walls thinking about pizza parlors. “

To which Ted had also responded:

“I don’t know where you come up with this stuff that you say I said. What I said was that I bread-boaded a circuit that did digitally that which you wanted to do when you noticed that the v-hold on a TV could make the video move. I also said that I had to explain to you why the TV did that. That’s all I said and it is totally true. Way before any of this video game stuff came up, you and I were running around to restaurants and taverns to see how to create your idea of a game-playing establishment. Your whole total focus was on that project. Video games weren’t even a glimmer.

I feel, from your remarks, that you think I’m bitter over all that’s happened. I am not. I know that you are telling people that the only reason that I’m saying what I’m saying is because I’m bitter. Quite the contrary, I am now, and will always be, extremely grateful to you for me being a part of this great adventure. I am also grateful for the recognition that I am now getting. Selling to Warner was your choice. Getting rid or me was also your choice. Any animus is on your side only.

Two things that you and I both know: 1) you never repaired television sets and 2) you never had a notebook on your ideas for video games. Saying this kind of stuff is self-defeating. But unfortunately, you have become addicted to it.”

In conclusion to the television repair claim, upon further checking we noticed this particular back story about repairing TV’s first started turning up in interviews in 2009 about a month after the release of Leonard Herman’s groundbreaking first article on Ted and his contributions to Computer Space and Atari. (Edge #200, April 2009). Specifically, the article is the first to present Ted’s version of the events including his creation of the original spot-motion circuitry used in Computer Space.

It’s a timing that comes off as far more than coincidental given the above, and brings us back to the original topic of this post. Nolan is simultaneously the most inspiring and the most frustrating of people. Inspiring because of his vision and all that he was able to accomplish with Atari. Frustrating because of all the stories and tall tales (“waxing philosophical” as Al Alcorn and Steve Bristow have put it) that he’s in turn surrounded these accomplishments with. Once again, our process of research has been entirely neutral. If a story turned out to be true, then great. If it didn’t, great as well. Nolan has a lot to be proud of, and we’re certainly thankful to him and his role with starting Atari with Ted and everything he accomplished through Atari. We have no animosity towards him what so ever, and remain fans of all things Atari – including Nolan.