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The Lies That Powered the Invention of Pong




In 1971 video games were played in computer science laboratories when the professors were not looking—and in very few other places. In 1973 millions of people in the United States and millions of others around the world had seen at least one video game in action. That game was Pong.

Two electrical engineers were responsible for putting this game in the hands of the public—Nolan Bushnell and Allan Alcorn, both of whom, with Ted Dabney, started Atari Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif. Mr. Bushnell told Mr. Alcorn that Atari had a contract from General Electric Co. to design a consumer product. Mr. Bushnell suggested a Ping-Pong game with a ball, two paddles, and a score, that could be played on a television.

“There was no big contract,” Mr. Alcorn said recently. “Nolan just wanted to motivate me to do a good job. It was really a design exercise; he was giving me the simplest game he could think of to get me to play with the technology.”

The key piece of technology he had to toy with, he explained, was a motion circuit designed by Mr. Bushnell a year earlier as an employee of Nutting Associates. Mr. Bushnell first used the circuit in an arcade game called Computer Space, which he produced after forming Atari. It sold 2000 units but was never a hit.

This article was first published as “Pong: an exercise that started an industry.” It appeared in the December 1982 issue of IEEE Spectrum as part of a special report, “Video games: The electronic big bang.” A PDF version is available on IEEE Xplore.

The key piece of technology he had to toy with, he explained, was a motion circuit designed by Mr. Bushnell a year earlier as an employee of Nutting Associates. Mr. Bushnell first used the circuit in an arcade game called Computer Space, which he produced after forming Atari. It sold 2000 units but was never a hit.

In the 1960s Mr. Bushnell had worked at an amusement park and had also played space games on a PDP-10 at college. He divided the cost of a computer by the amount of money an average arcade game made and promptly dropped the idea, because the economics did not make sense.

Then in 1971 he saw a Data General computer advertised for $5000 and determined that a computer game played on six terminals hooked up to that computer could be profitable. He began designing a space game to run on such a timeshared system, but because game action occurs in real time, the computer was too slow. Mr. Bushnell began trying to take the load off the central computer by making the terminals smarter, adding a sync generator in each, then circuits to display a star field, until the computer did nothing but keep track of where the player was. Then, Mr. Bushnell said, he realized he did not need the central computer at all—the terminals could stand alone.

“He actually had the order for the computers completed, but his wife forgot to mail it,” Mr. Alcorn said, adding, “We would have been bankrupt if she had.”

Mr. Bushnell said, “The economics were not longer a $6000 computer plus all the hardware in the monitors; they became a $400 computer hooked up to a $100 monitor and put in a $100 cabinet. The ice water thawed in my veins.”

The ball in Pong is square. Considering the amount of circuitry a round ball would require, “who is going to pay an extra quarter for a round ball?”

Computer Space appealed only to sophisticated game players—those who were familiar with space games on mainframe computers, or those who frequent the arcades today. It was well before its time. Pong, on the other hand, was too simple for an EE like Mr. Bushnell to consider designing it as a real game—and that is why it was a success.

Mr. Bushnell had developed the motion circuit in his attempt to make the Computer Space terminals smarter, but Mr. Alcorn could not read his schematics and had to redesign it. Mr. Alcorn was trying to get the price down into the range of an average consumer product, which took a lot of ingenuity and some tradeoffs.

“There was no real bulk memory available in 1972,” he said. “We were faced with having a ball move into any of the spots in a 200-by-200 array without being able to store a move. We did it with about 10 off-the-shelf TTL parts by making sync generators that were set one or two lines per frame off register.”

Thus, the ball would move in relation to the screen, both vertically and horizontally, just as a misadjusted television picture may roll. Mr. Alcorn recalled that he originally used a chip from Fairchild to generate the display for the score, but it cost $5, and he could do the same thing for $3 using TTL parts, though the score was cruder.

The ball in Pong is square—another tradeoff. Considering the amount of circuitry a round ball would require, Mr. Alcorn asked, “who is going to pay an extra quarter for a round ball?”

Sound was also a point of contention at Atari. Mr. Bushnell wanted the roar of approval of a crowd of thousands; Mr. Dabney wanted the crowd booing.

“How do you do that with digital stuff?” Mr. Alcorn asked. “I told them I didn’t have enough parts to do that, so I just poked around inside the vertical sync generator for the appropriate tones and made the cheapest sound possible.”

The hardware design of Pong took three months, and Mr. Alcorn’s finished prototype had 73 ICs, which, at 50 cents a chip, added up to $30 to $40 worth of parts. “That’s a long way from a consumer product, not including the package, and I was depressed, but Noland said ‘Yeah, well, not bad.’”

They set the Pong 2 prototype up in a bar and got a call the next day to take it out because it was not working. When they arrived, the problem was obvious: the coin box was jammed full of quarters.

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Like Human Children, Great Apes Are Inclined to Learn From Teaching




A new study by researchers from Central European University’s (CEU) Department of Cognitive Science, Eotvos Lorand University (ELTE), the University of St. Andrews, and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology look at whether apes are similar to humans regarding learning capacities when someone is trying to teach them something. The study, “Learning from communication versus observation in great apes,” was published on February 21, 2022 in Scientific Reports.

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Missoula Planning Board Approves Rezone Request for River Road Subdivision




The developers are seeking to rezone 2.3 acres off River Road to accommodate a 19-unit housing project. The parcel is located in the center of this photo.

The consolidated planning board on Tuesday night approved a zoning request for a 19-unit subdivision planned on two acres off River Road, saying it aligned with Missoula’s growth policy and goals around housing.

The project, proposed by Robert and Coleen Anderson and represented by the IMEG Corp., cleared the planning board on an 8-1 vote, despite the concerns of the residents in a neighboring development.

While members of the planning board heard those concerns, they agreed the property was suitable for the project and that it met city policies.

“I think this is a good space for a subdivision, both with access to services, access to parks and the slated improvements to River Road coming down the pipeline,” said board member Ellie Costello. “It does feel like we’re putting the cart before the horse sometimes with subdivisions, but the infrastructure does come to those spaces.”

City planning staff also recommended approval of the rezone with four variances, including a narrower street and a longer block length. The property is a deep but narrow lot, not unlike a number of other subdivisions already established in the same area.

“The housing policy, from the growth policy, links housing affordability to the ability to achieve more compact development,” said Joe Dehnert with IMEG. “It’s one of the driving factors for the developer in this project. The property location is ideal for infill development.”

The layout proposed for the 19-lot development.

Without approval of the rezone, Dehnert said the project would likely be unfeasible, or the housing units would cost far more.

“This aligns with the city’s housing goals and the growth policy while still being economically feasible for the developer,” Dehnert said. “Without the proposed rezone to allow for the higher density development and the proposed variances to accommodate the slightly narrower road, the project would become unaffordable for future residents, or undesirable to developers due to the reduced density.”

The project would set next to the Orchard Homes subdivision, which includes 14 housing units on property of a similar size. Residents there oppose the project and have cited concerns over parking, congestion and the poor condition of River Road.

“We understand that development is necessary for Missoula, but bad development isn’t necessary,” one resident said. “The infrastructure for River Road is so horrendous. To shove 19 houses in an area zoned for 10, I don’t know why we have to keep granting variances for homes that destroy other neighborhoods.”

The request for the rezone will now advance to the Missoula City Council for consideration in March.

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Empty Nutrient Standards Rule for Montana Waters Gives Little Chance for Public Comment




Public hearings aren’t very fruitful if a state agency provides little to comment on in order to dodge a deadline.

Tuesday was the Department of Environmental Quality’s deadline for public comment on Rule 1, a vague outline of an adaptive management program that will eventually use narrative instead of numeric standards to manage Montana’s waters.

But the eight commenters who rose during the public hearing – four in support of the rule and four against – had little new to contribute beyond what has been said for the past several months.

That’s because DEQ was facing a March 1 deadline to publish a rule that would switch the state from numeric limits for nitrogen and phosphorus concentration in streams and lakes to narrative standards. The 2021 Legislature passed on a party-line vote Senate Bill 358, which forces DEQ to reject numeric limits and set a March 1 deadline for the rule to be finalized.

However, a nutrient working group – diverse stakeholders who’ve been meeting since May – hasn’t been able to develop a narrative standard they can agree on, let alone one that satisfies the Environmental Protection Agency. If the EPA determines the state rule doesn’t go far enough to protect state waters, the EPA will take over.

So the DEQ hedged by coming up with Rule 1, a “framework” for the rule instead of the rule itself, by March 1, which the public was to comment on. DEQ water quality scientist Michael Suplee said the department would provide the final specifics as part of Rule 2 later this year, by Sept. 1 at the latest. Some question whether that meets the intent of SB 358.

“The rules under consideration are only a first step. Substantive rules setting forth specifics of the adaptive management program as well as the required repeal of numeric standards are not part of this rule-making,” Suplee said. “As the rulemaking deadline approached, there remained a substantial amount of work for the department to complete to fully address the concerns of multiple parties. Rather than move forward with a comprehensive rule package, the department opted to adopt new Rule 1.”

But it’s hard to see only the chassis of a vehicle and know if you want to buy it.

Those who spoke in favor of Rule 1 were the same as those who backed SB358: representatives of extractive industries or municipalities, all of which discharge excess nitrogen and phosphorus into streams and require permits to do so. So they like the chassis, regardless of the rest of the vehicle, because they stand to benefit when the state stops using the numerical limits that have been in place since 2014.

But many of Montana’s less-challenged streams still have narrative standards. Narrative or qualitative standards are words used to describe what water should look or behave like. But often, water quality is already compromised by the time people can see a problem.

That’s why most water quality standards, such as arsenic or copper concentrations, are numeric. With numeric standards, once an activity causes the concentration of nitrogen or phosphorus to exceed a safe amount, it needs to be reduced. That’s because an overload of nutrients – nitrogen or phosphorus – causes algae to grow out of control, robbing the water of oxygen and sometimes producing toxins.

Still, only some of Montana’s streams need numeric standards. They’ve taken 30 years to develop and are a good measure of just how much pollution should be allowed before water quality suffers. But numeric standards sometimes require polluters to either reduce their production or install controls that could be expensive.

Kelly Lynch, Montana League of Cities and Towns executive director, said Montana’s 127 incorporated towns have spent millions to remove excess nutrients from their sewage discharge.

“We’re at the point where further improvements are not financially feasible,” Lynch said. “Reverse osmosis is expensive.”

However, the state of Montana already recognized that and provided variances for up to 17 years for 36 sewage treatment plants.

Because Rule 1 provided so few specifics to argue against, Guy Alsentzer of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper only highlighted the fact the plan mentions no method of enforcement if standards are breached. Other opponents cited the overall problem with SB 358 mandating a process that ignores science and could harm state waters.

“SB358 is the tree that’s giving birth to the rules in front of us. We take objection with SB358 itself, and new Rule 1 and its associated definitions are unequivocally fruits of this poisonous tree,” said. “Narrative standards have been recognized by the department, the EPA and expert scientists across the nation as ineffective and inadequate to protect waterways from nutrient pollution.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at


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