Alan Alcorn was desperate when he hired a young college dropout named Steve Jobs.
Atari, the fledgling computer game company he worked for, was scrambling for business after the surprising success of its first game, Pong. Now, a little hippie in sandals was waiting at the front desk asking for a job as a technician.
“It was 1973 and there was a kid, maybe 18, who was really excited about technology – he said his name was Steve Jobs“So I hired him,” Alcorn told the newspaper. “
But there were two insignificant problems with the new hire—big enough that Jobs started the day shift.
“He was kind of a pain to work with and he had a real problem with body odor, so we had him work at night,” recalls Alcorn, the man who would go on to build Apple computers. “It was the best of all,”
November 29th marks 50 years since Pong, the groundbreaking PC game designed by Alcorn, was first released across California, and later worldwide – taking PC gaming from the labs to the main game.
Pong pioneered the home video game explosion, but Alcorn is pretty modest about his accomplishments.
“I don’t know, I think I created the simplest game you could ever think of,” said the 74-year-old. “I mean, what is a bong? Two paddles. A net. A moving object…and wildly addictive.”
An electronic engineering graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, paid his way through college by working as a TV repairman before landing a job at Ampex, a large engineering firm in Redwood City, California.
This is where he met Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, the duo who would form Atari. They recruited Alcorn, then 24, in June 1972, making him the company’s third employee. (He still has his worker badge with employee number 003 to prove it.)
We had no money, no manufacturing capacity, nothing. But I just thought, “I’m going to keep at it until it blows,” said Alcorn, who was making $250 a week. “It looked like it might be fun.”
It was so low budget that it was a one-man operation.
People ask me, “Who did the voice on Pong?” I did. Or “Who did the graphics on Pong?” he said. “Back then I was on my own, and I was left to my own devices for a couple of months and there was Pong at the end of it.”
Next was his own form of beta testing. In September 1972, with the game’s programming complete, Alcorn purchased a black-and-white Hitachi television from Walgreens and wrapped it in a tabletop box containing all the circuits. He installed a coin box from a sink, with a plastic milk jug sawn below for the cash.
Next stop was Andy Capp’s Tavern, one of Team Atari’s local taverns in Sunnyvale, California – about 10 minutes from Cupertino, the future headquarters of Apple. Alcorn left the game between the pinball machine and the jukebox and waited. “I just wanted to see if anyone would play the darn thing,” he recalled.
A few days later, the innkeeper called the Atari office. Pong was wrong.
“It didn’t surprise me that it was broken because it wasn’t built to last,” said Alcorn, who went to the pub to check it out.
The next day, he swung by Nolan Bushnell’s desk and threw a large sack on his desk. “I said, ‘I’ve found the problem—the goddamn thing makes a lot of money,'” he recalls. The coin collector was full.
Alcorn He replaced the milk jug with a larger bread pan, and Atari got to work. Soon after, the first set of 12 coin-operated pong machines were installed in bars across California. It cost $500 and Atari was selling it for $1,000 cash up front. The business grew rapidly and spread abroad.
By 1975, the company was selling the home console version of Pong—and its rapid success put Atari on some major companies’ radar. But he was too presumptuous to ask Alcorn for help.
When longtime employee Steve Jobs co-founded a new home computer company, Apple, in 1976, with his friend Steve Wozniak, they offered Alcorn stock in exchange for solving some technical issues.
“I told them to just give me one of their computers instead,” he recalls of his costly misstep.
CareersWozniak and the entire Apple team came to his Alcorn home to install the new Apple II.
“There were about ten people there and they set it up and showed me how to play it on TV,” he recalls. After they left, I told my wife I could make this computer do anything. She said, “Great, make her do the dishes.” When I told her she couldn’t do that, she just said, “Okay, get the damn thing out of the living room. I want to watch TV.”
Meanwhile, Warner Communications made a deal to buy Atari for $30 million in 1976.
And I was like, ‘Holy! R! I have 10 percent of the shares! Alcorn said.
Although the move to Warner made good financial sense, it didn’t quite work out the way Alcorn, Bushnell, and Dabney had envisioned. Atari love to gamble. Warner had no desire to take the risk.
“They had the money and the marketing expertise but they didn’t understand gaming — they didn’t understand Silicon Valley,” Alcorn said. “You know, we had a bunch of failures at Atari that aren’t very famous, but if you have to get them right every time you’re never going to be creative.”
By 1981, it was clear that Alcorn was no longer in demand at Warner, although Atari now exceeded $1 billion in sales annually and they controlled about 75% of the home video game market with hits like Space Invaders and Asteroids ad Centipede.
Warner placed him on paid leave for two years. “They put us on the beach. They paid us full salary and everything. I had a company car so I wouldn’t go in,” Alcorn said, laughing.
In 1985, he was appointed to the Apple colleague by Steve Jobs, for his work in digital video compression, but Alcorn admitted he had reservations about working with Jobs again.
“I didn’t really want to work with the guy. He could be a real bad guy to work for,” he said. “But it sounded interesting and, you know, it was Apple.”
One of the last things he worked on at Apple was a project to compress video into a data type, making it smaller and more versatile.
“Little did I know it would end up filling the internet full of videos of puppies and kittens,” he said.
Now retired, Alcorn’s prowess is properly recognized for the role it played in creating the global video game industry we know today.
Meanwhile, Pong remains enduringly popular.
In March, Alcorn sold the original model of the home version of Pong at auction in Boston, Massachusetts for $270,910. “My wife told me to vacate the garage and he was just sitting there,” he said, shrugging.
“I keep a few things but if someone wants to give me a quarter of a million dollars for something like that, go ahead and be my guest.”
Recently, research scientists at Cortical Labs in Melbourne, Australia, were able to teach networks of brain cells in a petri dish how to play Pong, in an effort to demonstrate “artificial biological intelligence.”
And half a century later, people are still playing the game, too.
“I was at a gaming convention and there was a kid playing himself on an old pong machine,” Alcorn said. So I went and played with him.
“When I beat him, I said, ‘You know, years ago I was the best pong player in the world. “
“Bulls-t,” said the kid.
What Alcorn never told the kid: “Actually, for a few months I was the only pong player in the world.”
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