What Was The First Video Game?

Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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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Why Do We Call a Leg Cramp a Charley Horse?

iStock.com/Jan-Otto
iStock.com/Jan-Otto

If you’re unlucky enough to have experienced a charley horse—a painful muscle spasm or cramp in your leg—then you may have found yourself wondering what this nonsensical phrase even means. Who is this Charley character? Where did he come from? And what does he know about my pain?

Like the words flaky and jazz, this term likely entered the language from the baseball field. While the idiom’s etymology isn’t 100 percent certain, archived newspaper articles suggest it was coined by a baseball player in the 1880s. We just don’t know which player said it first, or why.

According to a January 1887 article in the Democrat and Chronicle, the phrase was well-known to baseball players at the time—but to the average person, charley horses were as enigmatic as “an Egyptian hieroglyphic.” That year, charley horses were mentioned in a slew of newspapers across America, and some attempted to tackle the phrase’s murky origin. “Nearly every sporting journal gives a different version as to how the term charley horse originated in baseball circles,” the Oakland Daily Evening Tribune reported at the time.

The likeliest tale, according to the paper, centered around John Wesley "Jack" Glasscock, a shortstop who at the time was playing for Indianapolis. At some point a few years earlier, the player had strained a tendon in his thigh during a game and afterwards went home to his farm, where his father looked after a lame old horse called a "Charley horse." When the senior Glasscock saw his son limping along, he reportedly exclaimed, “Why, John, my boy, what is the matter; you go just like the old Charley horse?” John supposedly shared the funny turn of phrase with his teammates, and from there it spread. Similar accounts were reported in other newspapers, but they were attributed to various other players.

Other reports say the phrase has nothing to do with a live animal, but rather the fact that an injured player, while running, resembles a rocking horse or a child riding astride a wooden hobby horse.

The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary by Paul Dickson details a few other theories. In two versions of the same basic tale, Orioles or Chicago Cubs players went to the races and bet on a horse named Charlie who "pulled up lame in the final stretch." The next day, a player pulled a tendon in his leg and was said to resemble “our old Charlie horse.”

Alternatively, its origin may relate to an old workhorse that was tasked with pulling a roller across the infield. “Often in the 1800s, old workhorses kept on the grounds of ballparks were called Charley. The movements of the injured, stiff-legged ballplayers were likened to the labored plodding of these old horses, and the injury itself eventually became known as a ‘charley’ or ‘charley horse,'" Tim Considine wrote in 1982's The Language of Sport.

It also appears that charley horse originally implied a much more serious injury—or perhaps there was a bit of hysteria surrounding a condition that seemed new and scary in the late 19th century. The Democrat and Chronicle described a charley horse as a “giving way of one of the small tendons of the leg” and said an injured baseball player might need an entire season to recover. Another article from 1887 said ballplayer George Van Haltren’s relatives were worried he would get a charley horse, “although they do not know what that is.” He was said to have been “very fortunate” because he had “not yet encountered the terrible charley horse.”

For comparison, Healthline.com now says charley horses “are generally treatable at home” by stretching, massaging, or icing the afflicted area, although the muscle pain can linger for up to a day in some cases. So there you have it. We may never know the exact etymology of the charley horse, but the next time you get a sharp pain in your leg, you can thank an old-timey ballplayer for making your struggle sound so silly.

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What's the Difference Between Straw and Hay?

iStock.com/dusipuffi
iStock.com/dusipuffi

The words straw and hay are often used interchangeably, and it's easy to see why: They're both dry, grassy, and easy to find on farms in the fall. But the two terms actual describe different materials, and once you know what to look for, it's easy to tell the difference between them.

Hay refers to grasses and some legumes such as alfalfa that are grown for use as animal feed. The full plant is harvested—including the heads, leaves, and stems—dried, and typically stored in bales. Hay is what livestock like cattle eat when there isn't enough pasture to go around, or when the weather gets too cold for them to graze. The baled hay most non-farmers are familiar with is dry and yellow, but high-quality hay has more of a greenish hue.

The biggest difference between straw and hay is that straw is the byproduct of crops, not the crop itself. When a plant, such as wheat or barley, has been stripped of its seeds or grains, the stalk is sometimes saved and dried to make straw. This part of the plant is lacking in nutrients, which means it doesn't make great animal fodder. But farmers have found other uses for the material throughout history: It what's used to weave baskets, thatch roofs, and stuff mattresses.

Today, straw is commonly used to decorate pumpkin-picking farms. It's easy to identify (if it's being used in a way that would be wasteful if it were food, chances are it's straw), but even the farms themselves can confuse the two terms. Every hayride you've ever taken, for example, was most likely a straw-ride.

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