In 1958, William Higinbotham, the head of the Instrumentation Division at Brookhaven National Laboratories in Long Island, New York, decided to create an interactive display for Brookhaven's annual visitors day to show visitors that science could be interesting and fun. So Higinbotham took a Donner 30 analog computer used for solving mathematical equations. In the manual were instructions on how to plot ballistic missile trajectories and simulate a ball bouncing. He realized that these features would lend themselves perfectly for a tennis game. It took Higinbotham two hours to draw up the original plans and less then three weeks to assemble and debug the game with the help of Brookhaven engineer Bob Dvorak. An oscilloscope provided the players a 4 inch in diameter display of a horizontal line with a shorter line perpendicular in the middle, creating a horizontal view of a tennis court. The game would generate a ball and players would serve the ball and across the net. Each player had a controller with a button and a nob that allowed them to controller the angle of their return and when they would return it. As long as the ball was on your half of the court, you could return the ball at any point.
The game was a hit on visitors day as people crowed around the game's display. A year later, Higinbotham would present an improved version of the game at Brookhaven's visitors day. After that the game was disassembled and the parts that made the game went on to fulfill other uses around the lab.
In 1996, in preparation for the fiftieth anniversary of Brookhaven, the laboratory undertook to put on some public programs to showcase different contributions it had made in fields of science. The Instrumentation Department, having played host to Higinbotham and lawyers interested in patent litigation against Magnavox (see below), realized that they most interesting thing they could present would be Tennis for Two. This interest would lead to an effort to reconstruct the game starting in 2008. Lacking access to a Donner 30 machine, physicist Peter Takacs oversaw the construction of a problem and logic board. The group would eventually acquire a Donner 3400 in excellent working condition but lacking a manual, forcing them to rely on a Donner 3000 manual. In 2011, the Instrumentation Department acquired a Donner 30 analog computer from Ebay with its problem boards. The logic board is still an in-house construction based on Higinbotham's original schematics.On October 1st 2011, a reconstructed Tennis for Two was put on display at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City, this being the only time the game has ever left Brookhaven National Laboratories. The reconstructed machine currently resides in the Instrumentation Department basement at Brookhaven, on several large carts. As of July 2012, the Donner 30 purchased by the Division remained in unworking condition after replacing the vacuum tubes and performing more delicate restoration work.
Position in Legal History
The argument has been made that Tennis for Two was the first video game. This is at least literally incorrect, as the game relies on an oscilloscope for display, over a rastered television image. It is arguably incorrect from a chronological perspective as well, predated by the likes of OXO, Nim, and the Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device patented by Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle R. Mann in 1948. Its position, however, as the first two-player implementation of a controller-based tennis game is indisputable. As to Higinbotham's ownership of Tennis for Two, he attempted no patent on his device. He would later write that, while he should have applied for a patent,
I would not have been any richer. The patent would have belonged to Uncle Sam. At the time it did not appear to me to be more novel than the bouncing ball circuit in the analogue computer book. [PDF]