The late 1940’s and early 1950’s are the early, early history of video games. The programs created almost 70 years ago are barely even games by todays standards. But they are still games in some respects, and their importance to the history of video games cannot be understated. This video looks at the history of video games from 1947 through 1954, covering a few of the most important “games” and people from those years. This is… The History of Video Games: 1947 – 1954.
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The History of Video Games: 1947 – 1954 (in text form)
Oxford’s definition of a “video game” is “A game played by electronically manipulating images produced by a computer program on a television screen or other display screen.” With that in mind, starting with a game like Pong wouldn’t be fair to the games that came before it. So we have to go back, way back, to the 1940’s. The earliest know interactive electronic game was the cathode-ray tube amusement device, invented by Thomas T Goldsmith Jr and Estle Ray Mann. When it was invented is a mystery lost to time, but a patent was filed in early 1947 for the device. It’s not technically a video games because it uses no actual computing, just analog hardware. Despite that fact, 1947 is when my history of video games officially begins.
A few years later, in 1950, another very basic game was created, called Bertie the Brain, developed by Josef Kates. Bertie the Brain was a tic-tac-toe game with an adjustable difficulty and electronic display, and the user could play against the computer or Artificial Intelligence, as it’s sometimes referred. Bertie the Brain was part of a 2 week exhibition, allowing people to play it. Unfortunately, it was dismantled soon after the exhibition due to Kates not having the energy to spare to preserve it.
Not even a year later, the Nimrod computer was created. Nimrod gets its name from the game it plays, Nim. I don’t know much about Nim, as it’s mathematical sort of game, and I never cared for math. Nimrod was designed by John Bennett, who is notable because was was Australia’s first professor of computer science. The Nimrod is notable due to it being the earliest known computer game to have any sort of visual interface. 3 weeks after being shown in October 1951, Nimrod was dismantled.
Not long after the Nimrod’s untimely dismantling, the first game to use a CRT display was created. It was a checkers game created by Christopher Strachey. Strachey developed the Combined Programming Language in the early 1960’s. BCPL, which originally stood for Bootstrap CPL, was later developed as a much simpler version of CPL. BCPL led to the B programming language, which influenced the C programming Language which is one of the most popular programming languages used today, depending on who you ask.
Strachey’s checkers game was created on the Ferranti Mark 1. The Ferranti Mark 1 was the world’s first commercially available electronic computer. While modern computers can do it in seconds, the Ferranti Mark 1’s chess game analyzed the board to check for every possible move, of which there were thousands. It usually took between 15 and 20 minutes to complete. The game was also not a complete chess game. The Ferranti couldn’t handle that. Instead, the game was what’s known as a “mate in two chess problem”. Mate-in-two is essentially where a checkmate must happen within two moves. The University of Toronto purchased the Mark 1 in 1952 for a measly $30,000, which is almost $270,000 today.
In 1954, the first game to use graphics was created. And by graphics, I mean that the graphics updated in real time as the game went on. It was a pool game created by William Brown and Ted Lewis. It was created solely for demonstration purposes for the MIDSAC computer at the University of Michigan.
That takes us to the end of 1954. By this time, games advanced from simple analog hardware to games with graphics that updated in real-time. In the next episode, we’ll start the more well known early games, starting with Tennis for Two.