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Down the Hyper-Spatial Tube: Spacewar and the Birth of Digital Game Culture
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Down the Hyper-Spatial Tube: Spacewar and the Birth of Digital Game Culture

June 1, 2007 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[Gamasutra is proud to be partnering with the IGDA's Preservation SIG to present detailed official histories of each of the first ten games voted into the Digital Game Canon. The Canon "provides a starting-point for the difficult task of preserving this history inspired by the role of that the U.S. National Film Registry has played for film culture and history", and Matteo Bittanti, Christopher Grant, Henry Lowood, Steve Meretzky, and Warren Spector revealed the inaugural honorees at GDC 2007. The first history to appear is J. Fleming's history of arguably the first ever video game, 1961 mainframe-based shooter Spacewar.]

Harvard mathematician Howard Aiken expressed the opinion in 1948 that no commercial market for computers would ever develop and that only a handful of the complex and delicate machines would be needed by the United States.

However, even as he spoke, researchers were dreaming up new ways to refine the hardware, making it faster, smaller, and more reliable. Across the nation’s universities students were ignoring the pronouncements of prophets on high, eager to get their hands on the devices, to take them apart and reassemble them in new and more interesting ways, to make them personal playgrounds for the imagination.

The Hingham Institute Study Group on Space Warfare

In 1961 a small group of friends gathered regularly at a small apartment on Hingham Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Steve “Slug” Russell, J.M. “Shag” Graetz, and Wayne Wiitanen shared a common interest in the nascent field of computing, having worked together at Harvard’s Litauer Statistical Laboratory where they ran computations on the IBM 704.

“Wayne and I were roommates and we’d constantly get together at our place. We’d go to see these awful Japanese science fiction movies, the Godzilla movies and American grade-z science fiction,” Graetz remembered.

Along with trashy movies, the group had a special fondness for the pulp fiction of E.E. “Doc” Smith. “We wondered why don’t they pick up on Smith’s novels? They’re terribly written but naturals for the movies,” Graetz said. “You have to let your mind relax a good deal in order to get with it, but he sometimes had some really compelling visual images.”

Russell and Graetz soon left Litauer for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where they would get a chance to work with the TX-0 computer installed at the university. “I wound up working for an old friend of mine, Jack Dennis,” Graetz said. “He was the faculty advisor for the Science Fiction Club and also the faculty advisor for the Model Railroad Club. And he was in charge of the Research Lab for Electronics.”


Throughout the fifties MIT was a breeding ground for computer innovation. In 1951, after eight years of development, the university unveiled Whirlwind, a breakthrough machine that was fast enough to execute tasks in real time rather than in batches. Based on Whirlwind’s design, MIT proceeded to create a smaller, faster version called the TX-0 in 1956, which used more reliable transistors rather than vacuum tubes.

Engineers Ken Olsen and Harlan Anderson left MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in 1957 to start their own computer manufacturing business called the Digital Equipment Corporation. “Its original stated purpose was to build computer modules,” Graetz said. “The idea was to build calculating devices and research equipment. It was not formed explicitly to build a computer. That, it was felt, would frighten off investors.”

Digital’s first commercial computer was the Programmed Data Processor-1 (PDP-1). Introduced in 1960, the machine was a solid-state, general-purpose computer with the ability to make 100,000 calculations per second. It came with a number of peripheral options including a paper tape punch and reader, typewriter, and a cathode ray tube that could accept input from a light pen.

“The PDP-1 grew out of the same research that produced the TX-0 and its architecture was very similar. When Ken Olsen and Harlan Anderson and the others decided to go into business for themselves, that whole approach informed the PDP-1.” Graetz said. Priced at $120,000, only fifty of the computers were produced and in the fall of 1961 the company donated a PDP-1 system to MIT.

“One application being planned for PDP is dynamic simulation of a weapons system…” - from a DEC ad in Datamation magazine, November/December 1959.

As advanced as the TX-0 was, the new PDP-1 pointed the way forward to one-on-one interaction with computers. It was in its own way, one of the first “personal” computers. As Graetz explained, “The TX-0 filled a room with banks of power supplies.

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