5 Things You Didn't Know About Nolan Bushnell

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His name may not ring any bells, but if you were born after 1970, chances are Nolan Bushnell had a hand in shaping your childhood. Let’s take a look at five things you might not know about this inventive businessman.

© Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS (1985)

1. He Invented Pong

Yep, Bushnell’s the man behind the video game revolution. He first debuted Pong, which he developed with Allan Alcorn, as an arcade game at a Sunnyvale, CA, bar in 1971, and tavern patrons loved it. In fact, the machine was so popular that first night that it broke down when its coin receptacle became overloaded.

That’s not to say Pong was an immediate success on all fronts, though. When Bushnell took the first consumer version of Pong to a toy show, he moved a whopping total of zero units. Bushnell later reminisced, “One of the most successful consumer products of the time, and we sold none.... Innovation is hard.”

Of course, Bushnell’s home version of the game eventually became a smashing success, and his company, Atari, became a household name. Atari, by the way, took its name from the board game Go. In Go, "atari" is a term that indicates that a player’s stone (or group of a player’s stones) are in immediate danger of being captured by their opponent.

2. He Wasn’t Done. He Also Founded Chuck E. Cheese’s

If you’ve ever enjoyed watching a band of animatronic animals play a tune while you eat decidedly average pizza, tip your cap to Bushnell. In 1977, the whole arcade concept was still fairly young, and Atari was having an odd problem: it couldn’t get pizza parlors to buy its games.

Bushnell couldn’t wrap his head around pizza joints’ reluctance to buy his units. Sure, a Pong machine cost around $1,000 in up-front costs, but by his estimates a machine took in between $150 and $300 per week. Why were so many people passing on what seemed like a pretty easy cash cow? Bushnell then realized what he needed to do. If other people didn’t want to reap the rewards of operating these arcade games, he’d do it himself.

Bushnell opened the first Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre in San Jose, CA, in 1977, and the chain now has over 500 stores around North and South America.

3. He Had Some Pretty Famous Employees

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak are famous for founding Apple, but they used to work for Bushnell. When Atari was booming in the late 70s, the two programmers worked on the company’s games. Apparently Wozniak was pretty affable, but Bushnell later described the young Jobs as “abrasive.” Rather than just canning Jobs because he didn’t always play well with others, though, Bushnell put the young programmer on a night engineering shift…by himself. Problem solved!

Wozniak and Jobs actually worked together to create at least one Atari game you’d probably recognize. Bushnell gave the duo the idea for a paddle-based game where players tried to destroy bricks. Wozniak took the lead and played a significant role in designing what would become Breakout.

4. He Got His Start at the Carnival

Bushnell may be known for his technological breakthroughs, but he got his start on the midway. When Bushnell was a young man working on his degree in electrical engineering at the University of Utah, he had a job at Salt Lake City’s Lagoon Amusement Park. He started out as the barker and operator of the game where one tries to knock down a stack of milk bottles with softballs, but he later became the manager of the entire midway.

Bushnell later told Wired that even though the carnival games were blatantly rigged, he didn’t think they were all bad. He remembered liking the social interaction he saw among the players and the crowds, and he liked to stack the weighted bottles in creative ways so that seemingly wimpy players would be able to knock them over and win a prize easily.

5. Robots Haven’t Always Been Good to Him

Bushnell struck gold with Atari and Chuck E. Cheese’s, but his investments haven’t always performed so well. During the 1980s he moved on to a project called the Catalyst Group, which was basically one of the world’s first business incubators. The Catalyst Group ended up sinking a lot of money into a company called Androbot, which produced a three-foot-tall robot named Topo.

Topo wasn’t a very big robot, but it nearly broke Bushnell. The basic idea behind Topo was that it could be programmed to do small household tasks and walk around a room. Unfortunately for Bushnell, the robot never really worked all that well, and it was potentially dangerous and destructive when it went on the fritz. Bushnell later told Inc., “If a computer crashes, it doesn't break anything, but when one of these went haywire, it was not a pretty thing.”

The failure of Topo cost Bushnell over $20 million from his personal fortune, and he had to give up his Lear jet and his $6 million home. Lately he’s worked on a company called uWink that built on the Chuck E. Cheese’s model to allow restaurant patrons to used digital touch screens to access a variety of entertainment at their tables. It didn't do so well, either; in September uWink announced it was closing its three outlets.

If there's someone you'd like to see profiled in a future edition of '5 Things You Didn't Know About...,' leave us a comment. You can read the previous installments here.

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November 5, 2010 - 5:43am
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