Sons of Pong
In September 1972, Atari’s Nolan Bushnell and Allan Alcorn installed the prototype Pong machine at Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, California. The idea was to make a computer game that was “so simple that any drunk in any bar could play.” And boy, did they ever.
Now, was Pong a hit because America loved Ping Pong so much that they wanted to play it on TV too? Or as media theorist Douglas Rushkoff has said, was it empowering because finally anyone could control what was on the TV? Either or neither way, people lined up for their chance to “Avoid missing ball for high score,” as per the machine’s only instructions. Within just a few months, the Pong clone wars had begun.
Atari didn’t have the patent on the technology and very quickly the vast majority in the machines eating quarters around the country were knock-offs. Of course, Pong itself was “inspired” by an electronic ping pong game that was in the Magnavox Odyssey home system. To keep up, Bushnell continued to innovate, as did everyone else. Call it a volley between King Pong and his brethren, while an invasion from space was on its way.
For a sense of the absurdity of the era, we present you with this gallery, the Sons of Pong. These “of-the-moment” images were drawn from Everything You Know Is Pong: How Mighty Table Tennis Shapes Our World, a delightful new hardcover history of the sport by Roger Bennett and Eli Horowitz. In its pages, the authors, joined by guests like Jonathan Safran Foer, Nick Hornby, and Davy Rothbart look at the game’s impact on global politics, its place of pride in suburban rec rooms, the seductive power of an ace, and the many celebrities who are proud of their paddle skills. The book ends with a chapter that includes many of the images seen here, in which ping pong moves to the screen and then, ultimately, back into the blended reality of today.
Everything You Know is Pong is available at Amazon.