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What Was The First Video Game?

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With its simplistic volleying of a tiny pixel between two vertical paddles, 1972’s Pong has come to represent the first generation of video game play. It was simple, it was low-tech, and it was addictive. But it wasn’t the first video game. That honor goes to a game that debuted back in 1958, the same year the hula hoop debuted and Leave It to Beaver was still on television. Its inventor? A nuclear physicist.

In the 1940s and 1950s, attempts to write software programs for amusement purposes were understandably primitive. Towering computer systems sweat virtual bullets trying to compete with human opponents in games like chess or Nim, which involved choosing matchsticks until only one was left for the loser to retrieve. Rarely did these systems have any kind of screen—Nim used flashing lights to signify moves—making the “video” component of the first video game a crucial missing piece.

Inventor Thomas T. Goldsmith came close, filing a patent in 1947 for a proposed device that used a cathode ray tube, or CRT, as a display and allowed players to turn knobs that would control lines on the screen to “hit” paper airplanes glued on top of the glass. But Goldsmith’s idea likely never made it past the patent stage (no evidence of a prototype has ever been discovered).

Just over 10 years later, William Higinbotham had a different ambition: Heading up the Instrumentation Division at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, the nuclear physicist thought that typical science fairs were too static. For their annual visitors day, Higinbotham wanted to create something that would make onlookers active rather than passive spectators.

Drawing on his college experience with oscilloscopes, which display changes in electrical voltage, and CRTs, Higinbotham spent three weeks cobbling together a system that used an analog vacuum tube computer that could manipulate curves on the tube. The instruction manual for the computer detailed how those curves could be made to resemble the trajectories of bullets, missiles, or bouncing balls. Higinbotham liked the idea of the latter and decided to replicate a physical sport on the screen. He called it Tennis for Two.

When visitors to the Lab arrived on October 18, 1958, there was considerable curiosity over Tennis for Two, which featured a side view of a tennis court and a blurry little dot being lobbed over a net using knobs. The display measured just 5 inches, but it proved so intriguing that hundreds of people formed queues for an opportunity to try out what is considered by many to be the first video game introduced to the general public.

The following year, Higinbotham improved on his concept by using a larger screen and giving players the option of adjusting the game’s "gravity," so the ball could travel as though the game were being played on the moon. While still popular, Tennis for Two was not perceived as anything more than a novelty: The device was disassembled and the parts repurposed for other projects. Because he was an employee of the federal government and didn't own anything he created during work hours, Higinbotham didn’t bother filing a patent.

It wasn’t until the flourishing video game industry of the 1980s began looking backwards that Higinbotham was credited with his early and pioneering work in the industry. Although there’s still some controversy over how to define the first video game—the oscilloscope wasn’t actually a video display, since it couldn’t convert electronic signals—it seems fairly clear that Higinbotham had conceived of an interactive amusement using a computer, a screen, and a program, a concept further refined by 1961’s Spacewar! and every game that has followed.

Although Higinbotham needed just three weeks to construct the first video game, future employees of Brookhaven needed a little more time to duplicate his work. To recreate the game in 1997 and again for its 50th anniversary in 2008, a recreation team spent more than three months producing a replica system. If you want to get some sense of what those early adopters in 1958 experienced, another facsimile is on display at the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New York.

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Big Questions
Why Can't Dogs Eat Chocolate?
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Even if you don’t have a dog, you probably know that they can’t eat chocolate; it’s one of the most well-known toxic substances for canines (and felines, for that matter). But just what is it about chocolate that is so toxic to dogs? Why can't dogs eat chocolate when we eat it all the time without incident?

It comes down to theobromine, a chemical in chocolate that humans can metabolize easily, but dogs cannot. “They just can’t break it down as fast as humans and so therefore, when they consume it, it can cause illness,” Mike Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss.

The toxic effects of this slow metabolization can range from a mild upset stomach to seizures, heart failure, and even death. If your dog does eat chocolate, they may get thirsty, have diarrhea, and become hyperactive and shaky. If things get really bad, that hyperactivity could turn into seizures, and they could develop an arrhythmia and have a heart attack.

While cats are even more sensitive to theobromine, they’re less likely to eat chocolate in the first place. They’re much more picky eaters, and some research has found that they can’t taste sweetness. Dogs, on the other hand, are much more likely to sit at your feet with those big, mournful eyes begging for a taste of whatever you're eating, including chocolate. (They've also been known to just swipe it off the counter when you’re not looking.)

If your dog gets a hold of your favorite candy bar, it’s best to get them to the vet within two hours. The theobromine is metabolized slowly, “therefore, if we can get it out of the stomach there will be less there to metabolize,” Topper says. Your vet might be able to induce vomiting and give your dog activated charcoal to block the absorption of the theobromine. Intravenous fluids can also help flush it out of your dog’s system before it becomes lethal.

The toxicity varies based on what kind of chocolate it is (milk chocolate has a lower dose of theobromine than dark chocolate, and baking chocolate has an especially concentrated dose), the size of your dog, and whether or not the dog has preexisting health problems, like kidney or heart issues. While any dog is going to get sick, a small, old, or unhealthy dog won't be able to handle the toxic effects as well as a large, young, healthy dog could. “A Great Dane who eats two Hershey’s kisses may not have the same [reaction] that a miniature Chihuahua that eats four Hershey’s kisses has,” Topper explains. The former might only get diarrhea, while the latter probably needs veterinary attention.

Even if you have a big dog, you shouldn’t just play it by ear, though. PetMD has a handy calculator to see just what risk levels your dog faces if he or she eats chocolate, based on the dog’s size and the amount eaten. But if your dog has already ingested chocolate, petMD shouldn’t be your go-to source. Call your vet's office, where they are already familiar with your dog’s size, age, and condition. They can give you the best advice on how toxic the dose might be and how urgent the situation is.

So if your dog eats chocolate, you’re better off paying a few hundred dollars at the vet to make your dog puke than waiting until it’s too late.

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Big Questions
What is Duck Sauce?
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A plate of Chinese takeout with egg rolls and duck sauce
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We know that our favorite Chinese takeout is not really authentically Chinese, but more of an Americanized series of menu options very loosely derived from overseas inspiration. (Chinese citizens probably wouldn’t recognize chop suey or orange-glazed chicken, and fortune cookies are of Japanese origin.) It would also be unusual for "real" Chinese meals to be accompanied by a generous amount of sauce packets.

Here in the U.S., these condiments are a staple of Chinese takeout. But one in particular—“duck sauce”—doesn’t really offer a lot of information about itself. What exactly is it that we’re pouring over our egg rolls?

Smithsonian.com conducted a sauce-related investigation and made an interesting discovery, particularly if you’re not prone to sampling Chinese takeout when traveling cross-country. On the East Coast, duck sauce is similar to sweet-and-sour sauce, only fruitier; in New England, it’s brown, chunky, and served on tables; and on the West Coast, it’s almost unheard of.

While the name can describe different sauces, associating it with duck probably stems from the fact that the popular Chinese dish Peking duck is typically served with a soybean-based sauce. When dishes began to be imported to the States, the Americanization of the food involved creating a sweeter alternative using apricots that was dubbed duck sauce. (In New England, using applesauce and molasses was more common.)

But why isn’t it easily found on the West Coast? Many sauce companies are based in New York and were in operation after Chinese food had already gained a foothold in California. Attempts to expand didn’t go well, and so Chinese food aficionados will experience slightly different tastes depending on their geography. But regardless of where they are, or whether they're using the condiment as a dipping sauce for their egg rolls or a dressing for their duck, diners can rest assured that no ducks were harmed in the making of their duck sauce.

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