For one Russian man, permanently changing the course of human history took only an hour and forty-eight minutes. On April 12, 1961, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin crammed himself into an eight-foot-wide capsule atop a twenty-story-tall rocket and soon became the first earthling to break through our atmosphere and reach space. Back on the ground, the officials at the Tyuratam Missile Range launch site on Kazakhstan’s desert steppe had prepared three press releases, and it was not until twenty-five minutes after liftoff that they could shred the two announcing Gagarin’s disintegration.
The short and slightly built cosmonaut orbited the earth once, with the automated controls of the vessel locked to prevent a costly human error, and then reentered the planet’s gravitational pull. At 23,000 feet he ejected from the capsule. By the time the parachute landed Gagarin near the Volga River, some five hundred miles southeast of Red Square, he had already rebooted humankind’s relationship to our planet and the cosmos. He was twenty-seven years old. Decades later, the computer programmer Steve “Slug” Russell would cite Gagarin’s achievement as inspiration for one of the most influential video games ever made: Spacewar! “In 1961, something happened,” Russell once told another famed video game designer, John Romero, co-creator of DOOM (1993). “The space race was on.”
The Russians had put a man into orbit and the following month the United States launched its first astronaut in what would turn out to be a suborbital flight. The consolidation of scientific research necessitated by World War II had led to the age of computers as well as new tensions between the United States and the U.S.S.R. Russell’s pioneering video game addressed those current events head-on. For the first time, the medium proved topical and reflective of the evening news.
If Tennis for Two was in a sense born of World War II, then Spacewar! was a child of the Cold War. The connections between scientific work for the military on the one hand, and for video games on the other, persisted throughout the early postwar period. The mathematician Norbert Wiener, for instance, developed new automated technologies for anti-aircraft guns during World War II. Later, after the atomic bombing of Japan, he refused to accept government funding for his research and instead took an academic position at Higinbotham’s former place of employment, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1948, Wiener published a landmark book, Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Not long after Higinbotham introduced Tennis for Two to the world, Wiener revised Cybernetics and updated it, adding new chapters including one titled “On Learning and Self-Replicating Machines.” In it, he proposed a radical idea: “In engineering, devices of similar character can be used not only to play games and perform other purposive acts but to do so with a continual improvement of performance on the basis of past experience.” That is, Wiener sought to quicken the advent of “learning machines” capable of playing “a competitive game like checkers” and even improving in skill with each subsequent game.
As a student at MIT, Steve Russell was among the first to accept the implied challenge. I would like to imagine that he and his fellow proto-hackers of the Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC) student club sought out Weiner for advice and inspiration as they began work on a game that allowed players to control rocket ships and battle in outer space. Housed in the basement of the building where radar was invented, the TMRC geek collective collaborated on the ultimate hack. While today we think of hackers as vandals—and sometimes anonymous do-gooders—who gain illegal access to computer systems, back then the word “hack” referred to a clever modification to an existing program or system. Russell apparently fit right in among those brilliant misfits. Born in 1937 in Hartford, Connecticut, Russell’s interest in computer science began early when his uncle, a professor at Harvard, got him a tour of the university’s IBM-made Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, also known as the Mark I computer. He earned a degree in mathematics from Dartmouth College in 1958 and then joined the Artificial Intelligence Project at MIT, where he received an advanced degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. In addition to inventing Spacewar!, he is also known for writing the first implementation of the previously theoretical Lisp programming language. He has claimed that he doesn’t know how he earned the nickname “Slug.” When Russell arrived at MIT, as he put it, “the biggest computer available was an IBM 704. That machine was a vacuum tube computer that needed about 2,000 square feet of false floor and an extremely enthusiastic air conditioning system to work.” The lab work was funded by the Pentagon. In September 1961, the Digital Equipment Company donated the prototype of its revolutionary PDP-1 computer to the university. Instead of vacuum tubes, the PDP-1 employed transistors. The manufacturers had succeeded in substituting analog parts—such as those Higinbotham had assembled—with solid-state transistors.
The broader transition from analog to digital, promised by the invention of the transistor in 1947, had begun in earnest with that delivery of the PDP-1. Every subsequent computer has relied on variations of the same technology. Those transistors brought an end to the age of vacuum tube machines, like those in Peter Z. Takacs’s childhood television set. Whereas vacuum tubes once controlled the flow of electric currents in a machine, starting with the PDP-1, digital electronics performed the same task. The hackers at MIT could not wait to get their hands on the computer. Today, most user-interface experiences have become so intuitive that we no longer notice them, but the PDP-1 represented the first time a computer had been built with ease of use in mind. The space-age design included a built-in display, which was a major improvement over Higinbotham’s purloined oscilloscope. That might not sound like a big deal to those of us with televisions in every room and electronic devices in every pocket, but throughout the 1960s only three universities in the United States—MIT, Stanford, and the University of Utah—owned computers with monitors. According to Russell, the PDP-1 “was only the size of three or four refrigerators” and came with a staggering 4K of memory. The new computer needed a program that could demonstrate its powers, and Russell proved to be the person for the job. During the 1961 Christmas break, he began work on the first interactive game for a digital computer and spent six months developing the first iteration, which he launched in 1962 in collaboration with the TMRC.
Spacewar! featured a duel between two rival spaceships, presumably representing the United States and the USSR. Given the graphical limitations of the time, one is a needle, the other a wedge. My how things have changed since then. Its like performing SEO on your own without a knowledgeable SEO agency to put you on the right track. Difficult at the best of times.