Ed Smith and the Imagination Machine

September 2nd, 2016 by Benj Edwards

Ed Smith and the Imagination Machine

Just today, FastCompany published my in-depth history of Ed Smith and APF Electronics.

APF was responsible for several video game consoles in the 1970s (like the MP1000) and a personal computer called The Imagination Machine. Ed Smith was the primary electronics designer for the MP1000, and he has quite a story to tell.

I think you guys will really enjoy the piece.

Thirty-seven years ago, New York-based APF Electronics, Inc. released The Imagination Machine, a hybrid video game console and personal computer designed to make a consumer's first experience with computing as painless and inexpensive as possible.

APF's playful computer (and its game console, the MP1000) never rivaled the impact of products from Apple or Atari, but they remain historically important because of the man who cocreated them: Ed Smith, one of the first African-American electronics engineers in the video game industry. During a time when black Americans struggled for social justice, Manhattan-based APF hired Smith to design the core element of its future electronics business.

What it took to get there, for both APF and Smith, is a story worth recounting—and one that, until now, has never been told in full.



10 Responses to “Ed Smith and the Imagination Machine”

  1. Gene Says:

    APF also made calculators, including several advanced scientific models.

    http://www.rskey.org/apf90

  2. Chester Says:

    This was an awesome piece! I read it earlier today, and I *should* have noticed few people can go equally deep on the technical and humanistic side when doing a personal computer history piece. A+, Benj.

  3. Benj Edwards Says:

    Thanks, Chester. I'm really glad you enjoyed it.

  4. Brian R Says:

    It's interesting how few of these early video game pioneers actually ended up staying in the industry.

    Good article though.

  5. Daniel B Says:

    Excellent article! I didn't know about Ed Smith or much about APF's Imagination Machine.

  6. Benj Edwards Says:

    Thanks, Daniel!

  7. Adam Says:

    That's a well-written article. It lacks some balance, but, overall, I liked it. The most remarkable idea, to me, about the Imagination Machine– at least according to the article (for I've read this nowhere else)– is that the Imagination Machine was based on the idea of using the MP1000 after APF saw that Mattel was planning to release a computer upgrade for their Intellivision system. That means that APF got the IM together in a jiffy– and they actually released it.

    The article really downplays just how poor most of the APF games were when released– sorta, but not quite, saying that only Atari could do better: which wasn't true. Rocket Patrol is a truly awful, boring "game" (there's really not much game actually there though, right?). The APF could do some great games (just take one look at Space Destroyers), but it has an even small library than the Bally Arcade/Astrocade. Luckily, just like with the Astrocade system, the APF had a community held together by BASIC and a newsletter. Too bad the article doesn't focus on that at all.

    Did I forget, overlook, or just never know that the "MP" in MP1000 stands for Microprocessor? I should start calling the system the μP1000– as Motorola often referred to the 6800 in their documentation as a μp.

  8. Benj Edwards Says:

    Thanks for your feedback, Adam.

    Ed Smith told me about the Intellivision thing, and in my original draft (before a thinning edit), I mentioned how amazing it was that APF actually whipped up the Imagination Machine and actually shipped it, whereas the Mattel computer add-on was mostly vaporware (barring a minor 4000-unit release to appease the FTC).

    The comment about Atari vs. others in my article was more about Atari's mastery of the culture of creative game programmers rather than the raw quality of their games. Of course, they kind of bungled that themselves in the late 1970s, which resulted in Activision.

    I didn't focus too much on the Imagination Machine, because the article was mostly a profile of Ed Smith with Imagination Machine stuff thrown in — it was already long enough without it (it's a really long piece). :)

  9. Ed Smith Says:

    Dear fellow gamers,

    I would like to firstly thank you for your kind and encouraging replies. I am truly humbled by the response and effort that Benj put into getting this out.

    Some quick comments:

    Yes, we built the Imagination Machine in record time to beat The Intellivision to the market.

    The name "MP1000″ was an engineering term. In those days marketing had no idea how to brand these things.

    The games were not that bad. Robots was rockem sockem and Asteroids held their own (I know cause I had to play them).

    Thanks again for you kind and interesting comments

    Ed

  10. Carl Varnado Says:

    Hi Ed

    I am the chair of the Blacks in Gaming SIG for IGDA. Would you please contact me at cvarnado@gmail.com when you have the chance?

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