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PONG is a video game released originally as an arcade coin-op by Atari Inc. on November 29, 1972. PONG is based on the sport of table tennis, and named after the sound generated by the circuitry when the ball is hit. Atari's PONG is spelled in capital letters and is a registered trademark of Atari Interactive, while the spelling Pong is used to describe the entire genre of "bat and ball" video games. Although PONG is often regarded as the world's first video arcade game, Computer Space had been launched a year earlier in 1971. PONG was the first video game to achieve widespread popularity in both arcade and home console versions, and launched the initial boom in the video game industry.

Displaying animated graphics on a television screen and reacting in real time to user input would have required more computing power than 1960s consumer products could deliver. And although technology had progressed significantly by 1970, the simplest tasks performed by a modern-day cell phone still would have required a mainframe computer the size of a small apartment.

Despite this, PONG's creators recognized that technology had evolved sufficiently to make video games a practical proposition: By restricting the graphics to just one line per paddle, a dotted line for the net, and a square for the ball, PONG could be played on the technology available in the early 1970s and console versions manufactured for home use.


The original Atari upright cabinet. As can be seen in the picture, the monitor was an ordinary black-and-white television set.
The original Atari upright cabinet. As can be seen in the picture, the monitor was an ordinary black-and-white television set.

While not the first electronic game, the earliest form of an electronic ping-pong game dates back as a game played on an oscilloscope, by William A. Higinbotham at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1958. His game was titled Tennis for Two.

In 1966, Ralph Baer, then working for Sanders Associates, made a design for running simple computer games over a television set. His ideas were patented, and he created a game resembling PONG proper, except with slightly more complex controls. In 1970, Baer demonstrated his video game system to corporate heads at Magnavox, who became convinced that such a device would help sell more Magnavox television sets. Magnavox and Sanders Associates joined forces, with Baer and his patents at the centre, to develop a stand-alone unit called the Odyssey 1TL200 to be sold to consumers for use in the home.

In the spring of 1972, the Magnavox Odyssey system was on display at a demonstration in Burlingame, California where Nolan Bushnell played the Odyssey's ping-pong game for the first time. Soon afterwards Bushnell and a friend formed a new company, Atari. Bushnell envisioned creating a driving game for arcades. He hired an electronic engineer, Al Alcorn, fresh out of college. Concerned that the game he envisioned would be too complex for his new employee, Bushnell first directed him to build a ping-pong game. The game Alcorn created was so much fun that Bushnell decided to go ahead and market it. Since the name Ping-Pong was already trademarked, they settled on simply calling it PONG. Atari, which in Japanese means "to aim/target" had not been envisioned as a manufacturer but only a developer of arcade games. Bushnell set about demonstrating his new game to several amusement manufacturers. PONG was conceived as a game for two players, unlike pinball which was the dominant arcade game at the time. Amusement industry experts were unsure about PONG's potential, and initially there was little interest in the product There was a need for the game to undergo a field test, and before departing on a trip to Chicago (Bushnell had appointments scheduled with pinball makers Williams and Bally/Midway), he and Alcorn added a coin operated switch to the machine so that it could be used as an arcade game.

The system was initially tested in a small bar in Grass Valley, California and Andy Capp's Tavern, a bar in Sunnyvale, California. Within a day, the game's popularity had grown to the point where people lined up outside the bar waiting for the place to open.

Before long, the unit broke down, and the bar's owner called Alcorn at home to have him remove the game. When he opened the unit to start a game, he quickly discovered the problem - the milk carton placed inside to catch the coins was overflowing with quarters to the point that the coin switch was jammed. Alcorn immediately called Bushnell in Chicago to tell him about the game's outstanding success, and Bushnell decided they should manufacture PONG themselves.

Two weeks later, Magnavox learned of PONG, and notified Atari that they already had a patent on the concept. The two companies went to court. Magnavox was able to produce witnesses who had seen Bushnell playing the Odyssey's ping-pong game, and they had a guestbook from the event which Bushnell had signed. Magnavox and Atari eventually settled when Atari paid the television manufacturer $700,000 to license the patents.

The home version of PONG was conceived in 1973 and designed by Al Alcorn, Bob Brown, and Harold Lee in 1975. Atari demonstrated the unit at the 1975 Summer Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Because of the failure of the Odyssey (the unit was discontinued in 1974), retail outlets weren't interested by Atari's home console. These systems had on-screen digital scoring, something absent from other versions of PONG. However, soon after the show, Atari was contacted by Tom Quinn, sporting goods buyer for Sears. Quinn met with Nolan Bushnell, and asked how many units Atari could produce in time for the holiday shopping season. Bushnell said they could probably produce 75,000. Quinn told them Sears wanted double that many units, and they would pay to boost production to that level. In return, Sears would be the exclusive seller of Atari PONG.

Christmas 1975 was the most popular season for PONG, with customers lined up outside Sears, waiting for shipments to arrive. That season's popularity caught the attention of Al Franken and Tom Davis during Saturday Night Live's first year; the comedy duo wrote and voiced several segments for SNL in which no actors were visible; all viewers saw was an active Pong game display, looking just like it would if they were playing the game themselves. As the game proceeded, Franken and Davis would talk to each other as friends, commenting only occasionally about the game itself (though the conversation of the players clearly had an occasional detrimental impact on their game skills).

By 1977 the home version of PONG had become so popular that it was copied by other manufacturers until the market was overrun with cloned machines. The flooded market could not absorb more Pong systems -- real or cloned -- and the resulting "crash" in demand contributed to Fairchild's decision to exit the market.

By the end of March 1983, Atari had sold between 8,000 to 10,000 coin-operated PONG systems.


Many versions of PONG were released, including Pong Doubles (a four-player PONG), Quadrapong (also four-player), Superpong, and Doctor PONG. Aside from Atari's arcade units, there were many PONG clones as well. In their rush to market, Atari did not wait to file for copyrights or patents on their unit. Despite Atari's success, only one in five Pong style games in arcades were actually made by them. To reduce this problem, Atari purposely mismarked the chips in genuine Pong units to confuse anyone who tried to clone one. As video game technology improved, home console versions of PONG appeared with colour graphics, and the later consoles often included additional games such as Breakout, which is a variation of PONG.

A consequence of the popularity of PONG was that enthusiasts would play the game for hours at a time on their home consoles, leading to damage to the television screen being used as the display. Since the white lines forming the tennis court were shown constantly, they could become burned into the phosphor coating on the cathode ray tube of the television, causing irreparable damage to the screen. After a number of incidents where this occurred, the instruction books of video tennis games mentioned the risk and advised against extended play, or suggested that the brightness and contrast controls of the television be turned down in order to reduce the risk of damage. Another feature of constant play was the tendency of the control paddles to wear out and require replacement.

The Pong consoles remained popular in the US until the late 1970s and in Europe until the early 1980s.


Beyond the home versions, Pong has also been remade several times, including a version for PlayStation. It has been included in the recent " TV Games" collections, which are console-on-a-chip systems that feature "classic" games from the Atari 2600 era.

PONG also served as a source of inspiration for Atari's game Breakout (1976) which was itself updated successfully ten years later by Taito under the name Arkanoid.

PONG is available on Arcade Classics for the Sega Genesis.

The original version (with Cabinet Art) and an updated version of PONG is available in the Atari Anthology Video Game for the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox.

The original PONG is challenging to faithfully emulate because it uses 7400 chips and discrete logic rather than a CPU for game logic.

Atari's 1991 arcade game Off The Wall features a competitive bonus round in two- and three-player games that plays exactly like a round of PONG.

Popular culture

  • The opening song to Frank Black's album Teenager of the Year is titled "What Ever Happened to Pong?" The lyrics tell a story of two brothers who scam older men by placing wagers on Pong competitions at bars.
  • Tennis star Andy Roddick starred in a commercial for American Express in which his opponent was Pong (his trainer advised him "he returns everything"). Roddick seems stumped as to how to defeat the bar, until he realizes the bar has no forward movement, and hits a drop shot over the net. The commercial Stop Pong also spawned a website, where the player, as Roddick, tries to beat Pong in a five-minute game.
  • In the film Wayne's World, the character Noah Vanderhoff tells Wayne he got into the video game business after watching some kids in an airport pump about $50 worth of quarters into PONG.
  • In an episode of King of the Hill, Peggy and Bobby are busy throughout the entire episode playing PONG. Without a pause button they fall asleep with it still bouncing back and forth.
  • Al Franken and collaborator Tom Davis did many sketches in the first season of Saturday Night Live which involved playing a home pong system and conversing in zany and odd conversations.
  • In an episode of That '70s Show, Kelso and Red try to make the game more challenging by tinkering with the console and making the paddles smaller.
  • In the hospital scene in Silent Movie, Dom Deluise and Marty Feldman tinker with the monitor to which the Studio Chief is hooked up, and cause its display to turn into a Pong game.
  • In the film Airport '77, children can be seen playing a cocktail cabinet version of PONG Doubles.

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