(PART 1)


 Codename: "Darlene"
Model # C-100

 

Atari's first consumer product, would be Home Pong.  This product was originally conceived by

Nolan Bushnell as early as 1973 as he had listed "Color Consumer Pong" in one of his Engineering Memo's that Summer.   What should be taken away from this are two very important things:

  1. 1. Nolan was already looking to branch Atari, founded as a video arcade game company into the realm of consumer products.

  2.  

  3. 2. Nolan was always looking to raise the bar, as the only player in the Consumer video game arena at this time was Magnavox with its Odyssey home game console.  The console was only in Black and White and Nolan was setting a focus that if and when Atari did enter the Consumer market, it would be a color product to out do his competitor.

 

In 1974 an engineer by the name of Harold Lee had become burnt out from his work designing arcade game boards and he quit and left Atari.  No sooner had he left then he would receive a call from Allan Alcorn.   Al asked Harold a question - "Could Pong be put on a chip?"  Harold said it could be done and suddenly he found himself now hired back at Atari as an outside consultant. Harold created his own company called MOS SORCERY and setup shop in all places, a cabin at the top of a hill above Los Gatos, California up where he and his business partner ran a Christmas Tree farm that they had purchased together.

 

(CLICK TO ENLARGE)

 

Harold would now work on the new circuits, which took up a total of 9 separate sheets of circuit drawings.  As he finished each portion of the circuits, he would go to Atari and meet with Allan Alcorn to deliver them.  Al would then take the circuit drawings home and his wife Kate would wire wrap that portion of the circuit together.   As any issues were found, Al would report them back to Harold who would make corrections to his circuit drawings.  Finally a wire wrapped prototype was completed.

 

 

 

Now it was time to start work on taking this organized "rats nest" of wires and turning its circuit drawings into a tiny IC microchip that would hold all of the magic of the original 1972 Arcade Pong machine.   This magic would have one additional part to it that the Arcade Pong didn't have...  Color.

 

The reason why Harold Lee was chosen to take all of the chips of the original Arcade Pong machine and squeeze them down into Atari's first ever custom IC chip was the fact that before Atari, Harold had been a chip designer.  He had worked at Standard Microsystems where he had designed approx 12 different IC chips and of those around 5 had been produced by that company. Now that Atari had its own in-house chip designer and he had now created the circuits for their very first custom chip, the next hurdle would be getting these circuits onto a chip design "CAD" machine (CAD - Computer Aided Design.)  Harold had experience on the Applicon system and fortunately there were a small handful of them in the Silicon Valley area. Even more fortunate was that there was one available for hourly rental so Harold was setup for after hours usage of the machine at a rental rate of $80 per hour.

To see the machine in operation - follow this link to a YouTube video showing this highly advanced system which was designed around a DEC PDP-11 Minicomputer and used a vector graphics display:

APPLICON YOUTUBE VIDEO


Now the product was on its way to becoming a reality. In the meantime Atari needed to sell the darned thing. First stop, the New York Toy Faire in January of 1975. Gene Lipkin and Al Alcorn head out to try and get the toy buyers to pick up and sell this great new product, after all its made by the most recognized company in the video arcade industry - Atari.  What could possibly go wrong...

One would think that buyers would've been lining up to get a hold of this amazing new product, but this wasn't exactly the case.  Those that did express interest in a home TV game system from Atari sat down with Al and Gene and discussed terms, conditions and capabilities. This was a problem for Atari, it was an arcade game manufacturer and seller. Atari had no experience in the consumer marketplace, no manufacturing capabilities and they still weren't sure what the product was going to cost to manufacture. One meeting really struck home with them when the buyer from Tandy Corporation, the owner of the Radio Shack chain of stores wanted to purchase Home Pong units to sell in its store chains.  After discussing the product the Tandy buyer said he wanted an "Anticipation Discount."  Neither Al nor Gene knew what the heck that was, when they asked about it the buyer explained - "Its a discount in anticipation of us paying you."  So then Gene responded back "So, your saying you might not pay us?"  With that they kindly declined his offer, to much the shock of the Tandy buyer, after all this was Tandy, which was a national chain and was considered the "McDonalds of Electronic Stores" because they were everywhere, had large inventories of parts and were one of the biggest sellers of the very popular CB Radio's during the 1970's.  So saying no to them, was like saying no to the Walmart of today.

Time for Al and Gene to head back to California and rethink the product, as it really wasn't a toy and shouldn't be sold through toy sellers so the next idea is tried.  It's a device for TV's so Gene Lipkin begins calling TV sellers, no one is interested.  Finally in a stroke of pure luck Gene talks to a man by the name of Tom Quinn at Sears, but he's not in the TV department, he's in their Sporting Goods Department. Quinn was what many described him as being a "maverick."  He thought outside of the box, did a lot of research and saw the potential.  What Gene, Al and Nolan didn't know when it came to retailers, especially in a company such as Sears - you can't cold call them to sell them something.  The buyers in the departments, they watch trends, look for products that will fit their need and buying trends and they go out and call on companies for products.  So it was a bit backwards.  However this time around instead of reaching someone who would say "no" and hang up, Gene connects with Tom Quinn.  He is very excited about this, Atari says they have the real deal, and they can deliver it.  Up to this point Tom had managed to get Magnavox out of the deal of selling its Odyssey with its TV's.  This was an important step, but Magnavox was not delivering enough Odyssey's to meet Quinn's sales volume.  Now these Atari guys call him up and they say they can.  He's interested and it looks like there might be something to this.

So Gene Lipkin lets Al and Nolan know they might have a possible buyer from Sears, this is great but more calls need to be made until they can find someone who will commit and buy their product.  Well two days after the call to Sears, bright and early that morning Gene's secretary says there is someone waiting in the lobby for him, his name is Tom Quinn. Gene tells his secretary, no you must be mistaken, Tom Quinn is the guy I called from Sears a few days ago.  She says yes... and he's waiting out in the lobby. So Quinn meets with Gene, Nolan and Al and discusses his interest in Sears selling their Pong product, he will arrange for a meeting at Sears Corporate Headquarters in Chicago at... the Sears Tower, of course.   So Nolan, Joe Keenan, Gene Lipkin and Al Alcorn set off to Chicago for the meeting.  They arrive the day before, so that night, fearing that the Home Pong prototype Al had carried with them might be stolen, they called on an old friend - Stevie Kauffman (who later would become an Executive at Stern in Chicago) to keep the prototype in his apartment overnight for safe keeping.

 

Time for the big demonstration.  Nolan, Joe, Gene and Al are setup in the Executive Conference room at the top of the Sears tower, a TV set is in the room for them to connect to, Al sets things up, time to wow them with their Pong for your home TV.  Power goes on and...    nothing, no screen, no display, no score, nothing. Al Alcorn turns off the Pong prototype and turns it over and begins changing some connections among the wires underneath in the organized chaos that only he would understand and be able to decypher.  Some quick changes to make the Home Pong unit display on a different channel and suddenly the TV came to life!  The all too familiar Pong playfield appeared, the game played perfectly and now it was time to talk terms.  There was nothing actually wrong with the Home Pong prototype, what the problem really was, was that they were sitting underneath the largest and most powerful transmitting antenna's in the area, their signal completely overpowered the tiny little built in broadcasting system within the Home Pong circuitry that would transmit a TV signal over the wire into the TV set.  Some fast and skilled thinking on Al's part, changed the channel setting to one that would not be occupied by a TV station signal and suddenly the Home Pong prototype was able to get its signal through to the TV in the conference room.  This bit of difficulty is most likely what resulted in Atari including a channel select switch on its home console and all those that would follow, to allow the game owner to set it to an alternative channel (3 or 4) if they found that channel didn't work with their game console.

 

 With the demonstration past them and Sears more interested than ever, further meetings are arranged between Atari and Sears. One such meeting was in regarding to the Elephant in the room, in this case - Magnavox. There was concern over Atari's product and the Magnavox product and any legal and patent issue's that may put a stop to this new business relationship.  During the meeting, Nolan assured Tom Quinn that the Atari product and the Magnavox product would not be an issue.  The following year when Magnavox sued Atari for Patent Infringement, Nolan Bushnell would have to testify to this account.

 

(CONTINUE TO PART 2...)