Nolan Bushnell (Born 1943)

The Man Who Launched the Video Game Revolution

Perhaps no summer job ever impacted America as the one Nolan Bushnell did while he was attending college.  What did he do at this job?  He fixed arcade games at an amusement park.  That experience sent Bushnell down a path that would see him become a pioneer restaurateur and the man who (almost) single handedly launched the video game revolution. 

The Man Who Launched the Video Game Revolution

While at college in Utah Bushnell loved to play the computer game Spacewar which was made for the DEC PDP-1, a “minicomputer” the size of a closet!  A decade after college, that passion, along with his experience at the arcade and from various tech jobs combined to give Bushnell the idea of creating standalone video games, a digital game to compete with pinball and shooting games.  Bushnell wanted to bring the digital frontier he had experienced on his college’s “minicomputer” to the masses. His first game, developed by his company Syzygy, was a standalone knockoff of Spacewar called Computer Space and was a failure despite achieving $3 million in sales.

In 1972, Bushnell and his Syzygy partner, Ted Dabney, (although Dabney would leave within a year) founded Atari to produce a variety of coin operated video games.  Their first game was PONG, a simple tennis game inspired by a ping-pong game on the Magnavox Odyssey, the first home video game console.  PONG was, in something of a surprise to Bushnell, a tremendous hit, and was followed by Tank the very profitable game that refilled the company’s empty bank accounts.  Seeking to expand on its success in the standalone video game machine market, in 1975 Atari jumped into the home game console market with the introduction of the Atari home PONG console.  It was about this time that Bushnell would turn down an opportunity to invest $50,000 for 33% of a company started by two of his employees.  Those two employees were Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak and the company Bushnell declined to invest in was Apple Computer!

In 1977 Atari would spawn a revolution in the entertainment universe when it launched the Atari 2600 changeable cartridge video game console. Although introduced by the Fairchild Channel F a year before, the technological capacities the 2600 brought to the cartridge console game market made it a smash hit, selling 350,000 units in 1977, a million in 1979 and in 1982, helped by the introduction of Space Invaders, 12 million. Atari had essentially transformed living rooms across America into personalized arcades. 

After selling the company to Warner Brothers in 1977, Bushnell left Atari 1979 after a conflict over direction.  He then put his focus on Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theater, the restaurant chain he had founded in 1977 as a family friendly venue for Atari’s video machines.  Built around a menagerie of cute animatronic characters, including the company’s eponymous mascot, a rat, the goal was a restaurant where kids and families could play games that were previously largely found only in bars, pool halls and bowling alleys.  Eventually the company would grow to include over 500 locations around the world.

While Chuck E. Cheese was groundbreaking in bringing animatronic entertainment into the family friendly casual restaurant space, it was Bushnell’s work at Atari which really changed the face of consumer entertainment.  While Atari invented neither the home game console nor the changeable cartridge game system, its execution was extraordinary and brought about a tidal wave of consumer adoption that set the stage for video game advancements that continue to this day and generated trillions of dollars of revenues worldwide over the subsequent half century.  When all is said and done, not bad for a guy who started out fixing pinball machines!