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Pong video game

The eccentric engineer: Thomas Goldsmith, from Ping to Pong

Image credit: Oleksandr Khoma | Dreamstime

This edition of Eccentric Engineer tells the story of a doomed ‘old school’ electronic game and its puzzling purpose: was it to prompt the birth of an electronics games market or to impress military buyers with potential new technology?

It’s fair to say that video games children will get this Christmas are a bit more sophisticated than the one I received, wide-eyed, in 1980 when ‘Pong’ became my new definition of ‘high-tech’.

Even then, 'Pong' lay at the end of an already long history of video gaming, albeit one far out of my reach as a schoolboy. Those origins went right back to before the Second World War, when Thomas Goldsmith was an engineer working on oscilloscopes. Having taken a PhD in oscilloscope design in 1937, he had been employed by a small cathode ray tube lab run by Allen B DuMont. They would prove instrumental in developing the cathode-ray tube (CRT) television as demonstrated by Goldsmith at the World’s Fair in 1939.

The start of the Second World War brought development of commercial television to a standstill, but not advances in CRT technology. During the war, DuMont turned to developing radar and Goldsmith worked on how to use electronic signals to project information onto cathode ray screens. After the war, DuMont decided to try to capitalise on this new industry by finding other uses for controllable CRT displays. One of those would prove to be the Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device, which Goldsmith and his colleague Estle Ray Mann patented in 1947, a full 14 years before MIT announced – what is often considered the first video game – ‘Spacewar!’ to the world.

Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device was perhaps not the most commercial of names for the machine, but the game it played was revolutionary. It consisted of a CRT connected to an oscilloscope with a selection of switches and dials in a purely analogue mechanical set-up. The CRT projected a spot of light on the oscilloscope display-screen which traced a parabolic arc across the screen when the player flicked a switch. With a good degree of imagination, you might imagine the light dot was an artillery shell flying towards its target. At least that’s what Goldsmith hoped. Before firing, the dials could be set to select the angle of fire and for a single shot, or repeated firing. A delay could also be set before the shell exploded on its ‘timed fuze’. As the patent suggests:

“The game can be made more spectacular, and the interest therein both from the players and the observers standpoint can be increased, by making a visible explosion of the cathode ray beam take place when the target is hit.”

This explosion took the form of a defocusing of the screen’s electron beam. The targets themselves were simply plastic overlays of aeroplanes stuck to the screen, so it was for the player to decide if they’d hit their target.

However, the Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device never did hit its target. It worked, and the prototype was still demonstrated by Goldsmith in the 60s, but this very first interactive electronic game never made it to the public, or even into the public’s imagination. The reasons were many. For the later historians of the video game, the Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device simply wasn’t a video game as it didn’t use a computer and operated on entirely analogue hardware. To them, it was more of an oscilloscope trick. It also never made it into public use for some obvious reasons. CRTs in 1947 were extremely expensive and the technology Goldsmith and Mann were using had come straight out of military development. Indeed, it’s not certain whether the idea behind the game was to prompt the birth of an electronics games market, or more likely impress military buyers with potential new technology.

In the end, the machine was never developed beyond the single prototype and Du Mont’s endless financial troubles meant there was never any real chance of this extraordinary idea getting off the drawing board, even if they’d realised they were witnessing the start of what is now a £38bn industry.

Goldsmith eventually returned to Cornell University as a professor of physics, dying aged 99 in 2009. That year, every child was hoping for a PlayStation 3 for Christmas, a machine I could not have imagined when I first switched on ‘Pong’ on our CRT television 29 years earlier. Nor could I then have imagined the journey that began 33 years before that, with the father of electronic gaming and his Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device.

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