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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What Causes Red Tides?

William West/AFP/Getty Images
William West/AFP/Getty Images

Every once in a while, the ocean turns the color of blood and scores of dead fish rise to the surface. The phenomenon might look like a biblical plague, but the source is far more mundane. It's just algae.

Red tides occur when there’s a sudden population boom among specific kinds of algae, which in enormous quantities become visible to the naked eye. They occur all over the world. In the Gulf of Mexico, the culprit behind red tides washing onto coastlines from Texas to Florida is usually a type of microscopic algae called Karenia brevis. It produces toxic chemicals that can cause symptoms ranging from sneezing and eye irritation to disorientation, vomiting, and breathing difficulties. It's often fatal for fish, shellfish, turtles, and other wildlife.

The water appears red because of the particular depth at which the algae live. Light waves don’t penetrate seawater evenly, and certain wavelengths travel farther than others. The algae that cause red tides grow at depths that absorb green and blue frequencies of light and reflect red ones.

Not all algal blooms are red; some are blue, green, brown, or even purple. Nor do all algae harm humans or animals. Why and how certain species of algae multiply like crazy and wipe out entire swaths of marine life is still a scientific mystery.

The worst red tide on record occurred in 1946, when a mass of algae stretching for 150 miles along the Florida coastline killed more than 50 million fish, along with hundreds of dolphins and sea turtles. Tourists shied away from the beaches as the bodies of dead sea creatures washed ashore. Smaller incidents are more common, but just as costly. In the past decade alone, fishing and tourism industries in the United States have had an estimated $1 billion in losses due to red tides—and the cost is expected to rise.

Editor's note: This story, which originally ran in 2015, was updated in August 2018.

Why Do So Many Diners Look Like Train Cars?

iStock
iStock

No matter how many fine dining options you may have in your area, there’s something about sitting down in a diner that can’t be matched. Their menus are models of American comfort food, from meatloaf to patty melts. The coffee cups are bottomless. There’s usually a toothpick dispensary at the register.

Many diners across the country have one additional identifying trait: They’re shaped like a train car, a sleek and narrow compartment that looks like it belongs on a set of tracks. When and why did this style choice become synonymous with diners?

In a piece for Atlas Obscura, Anne Ewbank shed some light on the practice. The early 20th century saw a rise in entrepreneurs who were interested in meeting the need for casual dining establishments for people hurrying to or from work. Their ambitions had evolved from the lunch wagons of the late 1800s, which provided shelter from weather by putting up awnings or letting people sit inside on stools.

City ordinances, however, made such operations a little tricky: Many food wagons needed to be permanent fixtures in order to avoid the narrow operating hours mandated by communities. Rather than hire a contractor or lease an existing commercial space, people opted to order prefabricated, mobile carts that could be shipped to their location by rail or towed by truck. These dining cars became known as “diners.”

Like the pop-up locations of today, the diners could appear virtually overnight. Most were delivered in one piece; others were modular, requiring minimal assembly, and could offer a greater variety of styles and seating capacities. For small business owners, their affordability and convenience made it possible to strike out on their own. Some manufacturers even offered to repair fixtures by having the diner shipped back to the factory.

The look became so intertwined with fast-dining that some owners recycled old train cars to capture the aesthetic. Today, even diners built from scratch often mimic the narrow, elongated shape so familiar to patrons—a design now borne out of choice rather than necessity. It's a curious bit of history, and one worth pondering the next time you grab a toothpick.

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