Ted Dabney, Atari and Pong co-creator, dies at 81

Legend has it the first Pong machine malfunctioned within a very short time, not because of a breakdown of the technology itself, but because “the coin box got so full of coins, it jammed the coin mechanism.”

Pong was the second game developed and by the co-founders of Atari, Nolan Bushnell and Samuel “Ted” Dabney. The two dreamers wanted to take room-filling computers, simplify the technology and make it fun. Their shared dream of a “carnival-type pizza parlor” for games spawned video arcades and home systems, leading to today’s industries of gaming and esports and virtual reality.

Dabney died recently at the age of 81 from esophageal cancer.

“Dabney invented the early technology that allowed dots to move on a screen without the assistance of an extremely expensive computer, and thereby essentially invented modern video games. It was called Spot Motion Circuit and it allowed a dot to move up, down, left and right on a screen. IT was a different world from the supercomputers that (games like) Spacewar was running on, as it allowed dedicated cabinets to be manufactured at a reasonable cost with built-in boards. It was essentially the invention of the video game arcade cabinet,” IGN explained in 2014.

Pong was a phenomenon and helped Dabney and Bushnell took the quarters and ran with them. They got flooded with calls and orders for the console, soon hiring other employees to help their successful company grow and keep pace with demand.

The partnership was short-lived – Dabney left by the end of 1973 as Bushnell took over more of the company’s direction – but they eventually reconnected when Bushnell bought the pizza parlor in which the two men originally dreamed up their arcade games.

And that’s how the guys who developed and sold Pong turned the Pizza Time Theater in San Jose, California, into the world’s first Chuck E. Cheese.

The first consoles were built in Dabney’s home in Sunnyvale, California, using plywood and fake mahogany paneling, so popular in the 1970s, taking over his daughter’s bedroom as a place to tinker and work. He used television components for the monitors for “Computer Space,” Pong’s precursor by a year, which was something of a flop. Pong was nothing of the sort, showing up in 35,000 bars and game rooms across the U.S. by its peak in the 1980s.

Dabney wasn’t one to sit still or let his mind go quiet. An engineer by training, he developed a program that allowed his wife, Carolyn, to search for recipes by ingredient. He designed another program to help her keep and balance her checkbook in a way she wanted. They later opened Mountain Market, a grocery store in Crescent Mills, which offered movie rentals, fishing tackle and rotisserie chicken.

Dabney got his start in the Marines, serving three years and learning electronics. He then worked for Bank of America and Hewlett-Packard before joining Ampex Corp, a company that made recording equipment, where he shared an office with Bushnell. Atari was originally called Syzygy but the name was changed after they learned another company already used that name. After leaving Atari, Dabney worked for Teledyne Inc. until he and his wife started their grocery store.

He is survived by his wife, two daughters from a previous marriage and countless kids who learned hand-eye coordination by playing Pong on Saturday mornings in their living rooms.

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