The story of what many consider to be the world’s first video game – the cathode-ray tube amusement device.
For over half a century, there has been debate over what the first video game was, and the truth is it mainly depends on what you would define as a “video game”. Some would say that for something to be called a “video game” it should be run on a computer programmed with graphics, but some would say that it’s just simply any electronic game that is displayed using a video output device. If you agree with the second option, then you would say that the first video game was the Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device.
The Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device was an electronic game that used an oscilloscope as its video output device, but it did not use any programming, computer-generated graphics or any type of memory device to store data.
However, whether or not you agree to class it as a video game the Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device is the first patented electronic game and despite being labelled as nothing more than an ‘oscilloscope trick’ by some it still deserves its place at the beginning of video game history.
Despite all of this, the device is seldom mentioned in the debate due to the fact that it’s an abundant source of mystery and unanswered questions, and since there is no longer a working prototype and the creators have both passed away, it will most likely stay that way.
Who Were The Creators?
The creators of the device were two men named Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann. Sadly, not much is known about Estle Ray Mann, his story seems to have been lost in time. But Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr.’s history is very well documented.
Born in 1910, he got his start in electronics when he was only ten years old and by the time he reached high school was obsessed. He studied undergrad at Furman University, later attending Cornwell to do his PhD in physics. It was here he began his research on a device that was becoming more and more prominent in electronic communications, the cathode-ray tube.
He graduated and went on to become director of research at DuMont laboratories in New Jersey. It was there he met Estle Ray Mann. During the war, the two were working to improve the quality of cathode-ray tube signals for radar applications.
Of course, the war eventually ended meaning there was less of a demand for the advancement of radar tech, but they continued to experiment with controllable CRT displays. This led to the development of the Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device.
Around 1947, they submitted a patent for this device, naming it the Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device, and a year later they were awarded the patent. Officially making it the first-ever patented electronic game.
There is no working model left of the Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device, the only evidence of its existence is the patent documentation and some prototype schematics.
How The Game Worked
The game was based on the World War II radar displays (So, this is not just the first video game but also the first video game based on WWII), the player used control ‘knobs’ to adjust the trajectory of light beams (missiles) in an attempt to hit printed targets the user places on clear screen overlays beforehand.
Before firing the dials could also be set to toggle between single shot and repeated firing. The player could also set a delay time delay for the shell to explode.
Once the dot was over a plane the player would press a button shooting the missile at the plane and after each successful hit, the dot would become harder to control increasing the difficulty of the game. The aim of the game was to hit all the targets within a time limit.
“The game is of such a character that it requires care and skill in playing it or operating the device with which the game is played. Skill can be increased with practice and the exercise of care contributes to success.”
— 1947 Patent for the Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device
Ok, But How Did The Actual Machine Work?
Before we go into more detail about how the machine actually worked let’s give a little run down of some of the components so you’re up to speed.
Cathode-Ray Tube: This is a vacuum tube that contains one or more ‘electron guns’ and a phosphorescent screen. They are designed to modulate, accelerate and deflect electron beams to create images using an output device. They were instrumental in the early stages of electronics. The problem with these devices is that they were expensive, large, fragile and often imploded.
Oscilloscope: These devices are used to display the change of an electric signal over time. Usually, these devices are used for analysing the waves properties but in the case, it was manipulated to act as a type of proto user interface.
Screen Overlays: The graphics of the game were displayed using an overlay that is attached to the oscilloscope screen.
Controller Knobs: As mentioned before these were used to control the angle and the trajectory of the light beams on the Oscilloscope.
The cathode ray tube was connected to an oscilloscope which then visually represented the electronic signal on its monitor as a beam of light. The control knobs adjusted the strength of the electronic signal output by the cathode-ray tube. Which in turn changed the angle and trajectory of the light beam that was traced onto the monitor.
Transparent screen overlays with planes painted onto them were placed on the oscilloscope screen. The player then adjusts the ray to deflect onto the target. The player would move a dot around the screen using the different controls in order to shoot beams at the targets.
To simulate explosions, when a target was hit, a relay switch was used to overpower a resistor in the cathode-ray tube displaying a signal so powerful that it made the display go out of focus making the spot making blurred giving the appearance of an explosion.
The thing that makes little sense about the description included in the patent documentation is that the player had to do this manually by deciding they hit the target and sliding the relay themselves. This would no doubt interfere with the gameplay as the player battles against the clock.
This reinforces theories that this technology was far from being finished. Although, without a prototype, it’s hard to say for sure how this would have worked in an end product.
Was it Cancelled? Why?
Was it cancelled? Was it ever intended for release? The Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device is shrouded in mystery and these questions are hard to answer without asking the people who were involved. Which sadly, is no longer an option since they are all no longer with us.
But it seems there are two prevailing theories. Either it was planned to be the first foray into the then unchartered territory that was the video game industry, or it was a device created for the purpose of showing off their radar technology to military benefactors.
Who knows? but we do know that the machine was never developed beyond its original demo. Some say this was due to DuMont’s seemingly infinite financial troubles combined with the high manufacturing costs of the device this would make it extremely hard to get past the drawing board stages. In 1947, cathode-ray tubes were very expensive
If this was the case and they did plan to birth the video game industry it’s a shame they didn’t realise that they were on the cusp of something that would go on to change the entertainment industry forever.
There is someone who seems to have a lot to say on the subject, Alex Magoun, a historian at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, he says there were never any actual prototypes made, just a single demo. Whether this is true or not we will never know.
What Happened Next?
Thomas T. Goldsmith went on to become one of the pioneers of the television as the Vice-President and Director of Research for DuMont, the world’s first commercial television network.
However, in 1960, after years of financial troubles, Allen B. DuMont sold his remaining shares to Fairchild camera bringing DuMont labs’ short story to a close. However, the work they did lived on, influencing many future advances within the technology world.
Goldsmith eventually returned to Cornell University as a professor of physics dying at age 99 in 2009 and as mentioned before it’s unknown what became of Mann.
As for the video game industry, the next real advance was ‘Tennis for two’ a simple tennis game developed in 1958 by William Higinbotham. Like the Cathode-Ray Amusement Device, this was also played on an oscilloscope, the difference being that this device was powered by an actual computer (Donner Model 30 analogue computer).
So if you don’t class the Cathode-Ray Amusement Device as the first video game then Tennis For Two is the other option.
After this, in 1962, the first digital video game, ‘Spacewar!’ was developed at MIT. It was ran on the DEC PDP-1 minicomputer and was never actually sold to the public. Instead, it was an open-source game made available to anyone who contacted Steve Russell (one of the creators) and asked for it.
Then, finally, in 1966, a small team lead by Ralph H. Baer began to develop the first games console. They created seven prototype consoles. The seventh, dubbed “the brown box” was shown to multiple manufacturers before the company Magnavox agreed to produce and distribute it in 1971.
In September 1972, the Magnavox was released in the US and in the following years, it saw its launch in multiple countries worldwide.
As time has progressed, so has technology we’ve seen the birth of Atari, Nintendo, Sega, Gameboy, PlayStation, Xbox and the Nintendo Wii. Which brings us to today, where we are currently awaiting the release of the next-gen consoles, PS5 and Xbox series X.
It’s amazing to think that all of this started with a simple machine that never even made it to the market.