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Who Invented the Computer? The MIT Tech Model Train Club and Spacewar!

GoCertify illuminates the origin story of one of the most consequential inventions in history. In today's installment: A battle beyond the stars.

Spacewar! launched the moder era of video gaming.According to IDC Data, global revenue for the videogame industry in 2020 was a whopping $179.7 billion. That’s larger than the combined earnings of the global film industry ($100 billion) and all North American professional sports leagues ($75 billion).

 

COVID-19 did keep movie and sports revenues down, but there is no denying that people really like video games. The fact that Sony’s PlayStation 4 sold more than 112 million units last year is clear evidence that gaming is popular.

 

Video games have been around since 1950, when Canadian engineer Josef Kates created a computer game of tic-tac-toe in order to demonstrate the functionality of a miniature vacuum tube he designed. The game was a hit at his 2-week demonstration, but largely forgotten afterwards. Kates later said he was too busy with other projects to play a game.

 

For the next 10 years, other engineers also demonstrated the power of their machines by designing and running simple games such as checkers. It wasn’t until 1962, however, that the idea of computer games became widespread when several students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) created a game with real-time graphics and that required continuous interaction between users and the computer.

 

The Tech Model Railroad Club

 

In 1961, the Digital Equipment Corporation (“Digital”) built the user-friendly PDP-1, the first in a line of smaller and less expensive computers that would eventually propel Digital to the industry forefront. While later models were commercially successful, the PDP-1 lacked applications that would make it marketable. Digital donated the device to MIT, hoping the student programmers could come up with a few useful applications for the machine.

 

Members of MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club started tinkering around with the PDP-1. Noting the machine consisted of a large display, a console typewriter for input, and a whopping 9 KB of memory, they hatched the idea of showcasing PDP-1’s real-time computing power through an interactive space combat game.

 

Spacewar! was initially the brainchild of club member Steve Russell, a big fan of science fiction and pulp novels. The game featured two spaceships, the Needle and the Wedge (named for their shapes), that human players could maneuver around the screen. By using toggle switches, players could fire torpedoes at one another.

 

Dueling starships

 

Because the game adhered to the laws of physics, the ships would continue moving after being accelerated by the players. To increase the difficulty, another member of the group, Dan Edwards rewrote the code to display a sun with a gravitational well in the middle of the screen. In addition to watching out for torpedoes and avoiding crashing into the other ship, players also had to keep their ships from being pulled into the sun.

 

Spacewar! was more than just shooting at your opponent’s ship — it required a high degree of strategy. There were forced cooldown periods between torpedo firings, the sun could be utilized for a gravity-assisted boost of ships and there was even a hyperspace option to teleport ships to a random location on the screen.

 

Ships entering hyperspace were always at risk of exploding, with the likelihood increasing each time they entered hyperspace. The students even included a lone asteroid that randomly crossed the screen for players to shoot at.

 

The forced cooldown periods and gravity elements meant that Spacewar! required some strategy to win, rather than just aiming weapons and firing as quickly as possible at the other guy’s ship. There was even a lone asteroid that the players could fire upon.

 

A new computer craze

 

Spacewar! was unveiled to the public at MIT’s 1962 Science Open House. It was an instant hit as huge crowds gathered to watch and take turns playing. (Just like Twitch, only everybody had to present at the same physical location as the players to watch them compete.)

 

While Spacewar! did highlight the computing power of the PDP-1 (1,000 calculations per second), it didn’t do anything to increase sales of the model. Fewer than 50 machines were ever produced and most of those were donated to universities.

 

The game however quickly gained a cult-following on campuses that had a PDP-1 as computer science and engineering students regularly held all-night tournaments to determine the best player. National exposure for the game occurred in 1972 when Rolling Stone magazine sponsored a Spacewar! tournament at Stanford University — the winner received a free subscription to the magazine.

 

Rolling Stone sportswriter Stewart Brand wrote about the tournament as if it were an actual physical sporting event. He described the players like they were professional athletes, dubbing them “those magnificent men with their flying machines, scouting the leading edge of technology.”

 

The opening line of Brand’s article declared, “Ready or not, computers are coming to the people.,” and he was right. More than the computing power of the PDP-1, Spacewar! highlighted the potential interaction between humans and computers leading more people to become interested in programing (and, inevitably, in video games).

 

Still going

 

Spacewar! launched the moder era of video gaming.A number of Spacewar! fans went on to create their own video games. The first mass marketed game was Computer Space, developed in 1971 by Nolan Bushnell. A knock-off of Spacewar! Computer Space was the first-ever video arcade game (I’ve actually played it).

 

Bushnell would also create Pong, as well as found the Atari Corporation. Remember Spacewar!'s single wandering asteroid? That was the inspiration for Atari’s most successful game: Asteroids.

 

If you want to try your hand at Spacewar!, it remains available on the digital distribution service Steam. For many years, this almost 60-year-old game regularly landed on Steam’s Top 50 Games played list. Looking into the game’s enduring popularity, the company discovered that low-level hackers were using the game’s App ID to trick Steam's anti-cheat system into thinking they were playing Spacewar! while they were actually playing a pirated game.

 

 

Calvin Harper ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Calvin Harper is a writer, editor, and publisher who has covered a variety of topics across more than two decades in media. Calvin is a former GoCertify associate editor.