Nolan Bushnell graduated from the University of Utah's electrical engineering program in 1968, when computer graphics research was a very innovative field. Like many other students in his program, Bushnell played the Spacewar! video game on DEC mainframe computers, a concept he'd build on later with his Computer Space video game. Working at the Lagoon Amusement Park in Salt Lake City, he saw how video games had a place in the larger entertainment arena. His creation of Atari and the pizza-and-games chain Chuck E. Cheese's were built on this idea.
Bushnell and co-worker Ted Dabney formed their company Syzygy in 1971 to create their Spacewar! adaptation Computer Space. The technology they used in the machine would dominate video games until 1975, when microprocessors became the go-to format. Though Computer Space would go on to earn $3 million in sales, Bushnell and Dabney felt the lack of marketing by Nutting Associates (the company that build the fiberglass case for the game) led to sales lower than could have been.
In 1972 it was learned that the name "Syzygy" was in use, so the company changed names to Atari, referencing a position in the board game Go, Bushnell's favorite game. Soon after, Atari would incorporate and move to Sunnyvale, California under the sole ownership of Bushnell (who bought out a reluctant Dabney). After seeing a demonstration of the Magnavox Odyssey console, Bushnell assigned his chief engineer to build on the tennis concept by incorporating scores and sound. The result? Pong. Bushnell's inspiration led to a successful patent infringement lawsuit by Magnavox. Later, Bushnell was approached by Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak with a design for a personal computer, though Bushnell declined, preferring to focus on video games instead.
By 1976, in the process of creating the Atari 2600, Bushnell was contacted by Warner Communications (Time Warner today) and sold Atari for $28 million. This gave Bushnell and Atari enough money to launch the Atari 2600; a year later in 1978, Bushnell was forced out of the company due to a lack of unity with Warner in the future direction of Atari.
In April 2010, the former founder made a dramatic return to Atari as an Non-Executive Director at the company, filling the place on the board left by the departing Phil Harrison.
Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theater
Always a fan of Walt Disney and his animatronic characters and rides, Bushnell created Chuck E. Cheese's during his time at Atari as a venue for families to bring their kids to and additionally, play Atari games. In 1977 Bushnell bought back the Pizza Time Theater from Warner Communications and in 1981 turned day-to-day operations over to a business executive. In 1982 and 1983, despite Chuck E. Cheese's downward financial turn, Bushnell took loans out of the company to finance other ventures.
uWink was an "entertainment and hospitality software company" that was founded by Bushnell in 2000. uWink's original purpose was to design interactive entertainment for restaurants, bars, and mobile devices, though later stuck to their uWink Bistro concept of "entertainment dining experience". uWink's later goal as a company was to allow customers to come to one of the uWInk Bistro-enabled restaurants and order their food through a touchscreen video terminal at each of the tables. As the food is being prepared, the customers can then play social games, watch short videos, or view ingredients and nutritional information of the menu items.
Most of the restaurants were located in California with a few in Florida, though a majority of them had met little success and closed between a year or two after opening. Unfortunately, on September 12, 2010, uWInk announced they would be closing all their restaurants and selling their computer services to the company Tapcode.
- Catalyst Technologies Venture Capital Group companies:
- Etak: First to digitize world maps, paving the way for ventures such as Google Maps and other navigation programs. Sold to Rupert Murdoch in 1980s and later in 2000 to Tele Atlas.
- Sente: Video game publisher. Founded by Bushnell in 1984. Titles include the one-on-one hockey game Hat Trick (1984)