Forty years ago today, the world's first television video game contest took place in a small lab in Nashua, NH. The place was Sanders Associates, a large defense contractor, and the contestants were Ralph Baer and his technician, Bill Harrison. The inventions of these two men and a third, Bill Rusch, would later appear commercially as the Magnavox Odyssey console in 1972.
History has heard quite a bit from Baer recently, including an interview I conducted with him back in January. But most often overlooked is perspective of the second player in that monumental game, Bill Harrison, who built all of the original Sanders video game hardware by hand. Now 73 years old and retired, William L. Harrison finally gives his side of the story in his first ever interview, and it's exclusive to Vintage Computing and Gaming.
[ For more information on this important anniversary, read my feature, "Video Games Turn Forty," at 1UP.com. ]
Vintage Computing & Gaming: I'd like to start off talking about a little bit of personal history. Where were you born?
Bill Harrison: Sagamore, Massachusetts. That's on Cape Cod.
VC&G: Did you grow up in Massachusetts?
BH: Yes. I left home at the age of 18 when Uncle Sam invited me to join the Army. But they didn't want me for a couple of months, so I found out that, yes, I could join the Air Force. So I joined the Air Force, and that was the best thing I ever did in my life.
VC&G: What year did you join the Air Force?
BH: 1953. The Korean War was still on, but it was almost over. Never left the States. Good for me.
VC&G: So the Air Force was a big influence in your life.
BH: Yes it was. And if it hadn't been for getting married and having a child — and I had just a few months to go, and I knew that if I stayed in I was going to Alaska, and I didn't want to leave a wife and a four month old baby behind, so I mustered out.
VC&G: What did your parents do for a living?
BH: My dad was an electrician and a projectionist at the local theater for years and years and years. My mother was a housewife: eight children. Six brothers, two sisters.
VC&G: How did you get into electronics?
BH: Well, when I joined the Air Force, I went to basic, of course. When I got out of basic, they sent me to Keesler Field in Biloxi, Mississippi and put me in a program to learn electronic fundamentals. And then after that was sets, then it was heavy ground radar. So I was going to be a heavy ground radar repairman.
VC&G: Do you think you chose electronics because your dad was an electrician? Something familiar to you?
BH: I didn't want anything to do with electronics. When I found out I was going to school for electronics, it frightened me, because I didn't like working with them. [laughs] And I got shocked enough times that I didn't want anything to do with it — at that time.
VC&G: At that time. But then you found that you actually enjoyed it?
BH: Well, the way the service taught, I could learn, and I understood. I could see electrons and everything, even today. [laughs] So anyhow, it was a good experience.
Locked in a Lab With TV Games
Together, Bill Harrison and Ralph Baer formed the original dynamic duo of video games. They worked together flawlessly for over five years while collaborating on TV Games at Sanders: Baer came up with new ideas, and Harrison solidified them into hardware. Between them, they chalked up many innovative firsts despite the challenge of squeezing limited 1960s electronics into prototypes of a low-cost consumer product — their ultimate goal.
VC&G: How did you end up working at Sanders Associates?
BH: Well, when I got out of the service and I needed to find a job, I had a cousin, in fact, two cousins, who were married to one of the associates. And the other guy was up there, too; he was, I think, secretary and treasurer of the company. And so, obviously, I went up [to Sanders].
Now, I didn't contact them or anything. I just went up there on my own and went in, and they offered me a job. But I'd gone some place in Massachusetts I can't remember the name of the place — and I interviewed there, too. When I got to Sanders, I got into there. I liked it better, what they were doing and what I would be doing, and so forth.
VC&G: What year did you start at Sanders?
BH: It must've been April or May of 1957 that I started there.
VC&G: When did you first meet Ralph Baer at Sanders?
BH: I can't remember the year, but he was working on a special program that he was in charge of and doing all the design, called BRANDY.
I worked for them for about one week and then he had to let me go, and I had to go back to work on the job I was already working on.
VC&G: What did you think of him when you first met him? Did you have any impressions of his character?
BH: Oh yes, oh yes. You could tell the man was brilliant. And when he went off to do some part of the design, he took me with him and he taught me what he was doing and why he was doing it. He was great.
He's as brilliant a man and as good a man as I've ever known.
VC&G: How did you end up working on Ralph Baer's TV game project?
BH: Well, I was working over in the Ocean Systems Division. That was a little ways across town — I don't know, 10 or 15 minutes. It was out close to where I was living, so that was handy working there. I worked on a sonar buoy program for a couple or three years, went to sea trials and so forth and so on, got seasick… [laughs]
VC&G: You were an Air Force guy, not a Navy guy, right? [laughs]
BH: Yeah. Out in the North Atlantic with big waves and salt water freezing on the deck, and you're in something like an Alaskan parka and stuff like that. Boy, it was pretty rough. But that didn't bother me. I got sick; that's fine. When I threw up enough, I stopped being sick and could work.
Interesting program. Really enjoyed it.
VC&G: So how did you end up working on Ralph Baer's TV games?
BH: Well, I was over in the Ocean Systems one day, and I got a phone call saying that Ralph Baer wanted to see me in his office. So I jumped in my car, ran down to Canal Street and up there, and he took me and showed me what he had started. He had started making something, trying to put a spot on a TV set using vacuum tubes. He had learned vacuum tubes way back. And then he asked me if I'd work on it. And of course, I wasn't going to refuse him; I knew what he was like and I liked him.
VC&G: What did you think about his goals at the time? Did he tell you about what he wanted to do with TV games?
BH: Yeah. He explained that he had a TV set at home and all he could get was one channel. It seemed to him that the TV set sat there most of the time not being used because they had nothing to watch. So he thought if he could make something where people could play games and see them on a TV set, that would make the TV set worthwhile if you buy one.
VC&G: How did it feel to be working on games at a defense contractor?
BH: [laughs] Well, I tell you: he locked me in a little room, and I had a key and he had a key, and no one was to know what was going on in that room — no one. And no one did. So he'd come in every morning and we'd talk about what he thought he wanted me to do for him for that day, and we'd do it.
When he first started, nobody knew what he was doing; he was the division manager and he had a budget to play with. Eventually, of course, he had to get the people higher up involved, but at first, until he thought we really had something. Then he invited — I can't think of his name now, but he was in charge of internal R&D, and he came and looked at what we had.
VC&G: I think it was Herb Campman.
BH: Campman, that's right. Yeah. That's a great guy, too. Really nice guy.
BH: [laughs] I had a desk in there and I had a workbench, and then when Bill Rusch came along and got aboard, I think he had some sort of a desk or something in there. But it's not very clear anymore, because I know when Ralph described it to me, I didn't quite agree with where things were and so forth. Which one of us is right, who knows?
It was nothing special: had a workbench, had a desk. And I think over the time we spent on it, I filled somewhere close to five or six engineering notebooks, because Ralph made me write down everything that was happening, day by day, and every little piece of paper, when he went in there and found it, he saved. Of course, all the stuff now is in the Smithsonian, so I can't get at it.
VC&G: Did it feel cramped in there?
BH: Yeah, but that didn't bother me.
VC&G: Did you have any sense at all that what you were working on with the TV games was important or groundbreaking in any way at the time?
BH: Well, I'd never heard of it before. I'd never seen anybody with any kind of thing that worked on television sets, or TV games.
VC&G: So it was obviously a completely novel thing to you at the time.
VC&G: What do you feel some of your most important contributions to the design of the TV games were?
BH: Well, boy, I built so many boxes, and some had an awful lot of parts in them. But finally, [Baer] wrestled with the idea, and he figured that we've got to come up with something that's got to be cheap and it's got to retail for no more than $100, so the last thing I had to do was reduce the parts count. I found some clever ways to do that, and he thanks me to this day. [laughs] That was really great.
That was almost the last thing I did, other than going on trips with him and taking the stuff to… We went out to Fort Wayne, to Magnavox, and I went off with the technical people to explain and teach them how it all worked and the electronics in it, and he went to the business end of the deal.
VC&G: Have you read Ralph's book, Videogames: In the Beginning?
VC&G: Do you think it accurately portrays the development of TV games?
VC&G: How much of the TV games ideas were Ralph Baer's? Is it true what he says about being the main source of the idea of TV games?
BH: Yeah, that was him. There's no doubt about it. That's true.
VC&G: Do you ever feel overshadowed by Ralph Baer in terms of the history of the TV games and who gets credit for what?
BH: Not at all. He was the brain involved. All I did was design some circuits for him and build stuff.
The only part of the games that I came up with when he was trying to come up with more things to do, I said "target practice." And he quickly sent me to Sears to get a toy rifle and we built a little rifle so we could shoot at a spot on the screen. When you hit it, the spot would go out.
VC&G: Tell me more about the light gun: whose idea was that originally?
BH: I think that was [Baer's], or perhaps him and Rusch together. I don't know. I don't remember now.
VC&G: But you actually assembled the gun, or the guns, yourself.
BH: I would've done all that; right. I built all the equipment.
VC&G: Did Ralph ever do any building, or did he just manage you and say, "Build this?"
BH: Yeah, he told me to build it. But he was managing a big division: 500 engineers, technicians, and support personnel. He was a busy boy, and he managed the thing.
VC&G: How would you describe Ralph's management style? Was he a good manager?
BH: I would say that if there's anybody out there that's even close to him, I would be surprised. He is excellent. He is an excellent human being. He doesn't abuse anybody. But he doesn't take any crap from anybody either.
He was really something. I admire him to this day, and I'll never stop. I like going to visit him.
VC&G: He told me you guys still visit each other a lot. So your relationship with him these days is great?
VC&G: Did you get along with him well in the 1960s at Sanders?
BH: Absolutely. Absolutely. I was over in the Ocean Systems Division for some time, so I might not have seen him for a while; working in a different division. But whenever he called me, I went right to his office.
VC&G: When I interviewed Ralph back in January, he told me he never really considered himself much of a game player or a fan of games that much. Would you consider yourself a game player, of sports or board games, or others?
BH: I wasn't into games, either. But the TV games, when we were playing it — of course the Ping-Pong game was the biggie — I always beat him. You can tell him I said that. [laughs] But here's the strange thing: in recent times at his home, we go down and play a game, and he beats me now. That's not good. [laughs]
VC&G: Maybe he's been practicing all these years when you haven't.
BH: I think he's 10, 11, or 12 years older than I am. [laughs]
A Little Different: Bill Rusch
William T. Rusch, an R&D engineer at Sanders, joined the TV games project at Herb Campman's suggestion during a creative slump for the team. Rusch brought with him a restless and prolific inventive energy that spilled out into page after page of new TV game ideas in his journal. Rusch's most important contribution to the project cleared the way for the creation of ball-and-paddle games like Ping-Pong. However, unlike the carefully balanced partnership between Baer and Harrison, Rusch's uncompromising genius challenged Baer's authority and brought tension to the group.
VC&G: I'd like to talk about Bill Rusch some. When I interviewed Ralph, he said that Bill Rusch was a pain in the neck to work with. How would you characterize Rusch and Ralph's relationship?
BH: Bill Rusch was very different. To me, in a way, he was a colorful character. But he was, I don't know. I don't want to say anything bad about him. But he was not fair, I guess I'd have to call it, in the way he approached Ralph.
But anyhow; I don't know the real inside. I don't know what might have happened when they were together. I just know that Ralph and him had some problems.
VC&G: How did you feel about Bill Rusch? Did you get along with him?
BH: Yeah, I got along with him all right. He also had a guitar system that he was trying to build up. I got put on that after the games to work with him. I'll just say he was a colorful character.
VC&G: Did he seem like a renegade type in the company, a nonconformist? Whereas most other people were more disposed to following orders?
BH: Yeah, he was different. [laughs] He was a little different.
BH: We had two spots that we played with at first. I think when he game on board, he was the one who thought about a ball being involved. So that made a third spot, and that was the big addition that he added to the system.
VC&G: I saw that he thought of a bunch of game designs too. Did he do any electronics or building himself? Or was that all up to you?
BH: Well, I left the program and then there were some other guys. I forget how I happened to leave the program. But I left. I really don't recall how that happened. I think I got thrown the B-1 program for a while.
VC&G: Bill Rusch died in 1993. Did you keep up with him before that?
BH: I know he died, but I don't remember when. He was up north and I hadn't heard from him. I was hearing from him once in awhile. He'd call me down here in Florida, and I hadn't heard from him in some time. Somewhere along the way I found out that he had passed away.
VC&G: Is there anybody else working on the TV games that you feel doesn't get any credit? Or someone whose contributions you'd like to highlight?
BH: Well the initial patent on the initial game — it was just the three of us when you come right down to it. But after that, Ralph, I think he tried to do some other games or something, I don't know. But I was off the games, like I said, I was down at where they were working on the Saturn program, I guess it was.
Life After TV Games
Harrison has some trouble remembering exactly which project he did at what time, which is no surprise — it's been thirty to forty years since his days at Sanders, and he's rarely called upon to recount them on the spot. During the TV games period, he periodically had to leave the group to lend his assistance to more pressing projects.
Harrison worked on dozens of different programs at Sanders over the years, contributing his highly-valued talents to many important military and domestic achievements. He's proud of his part in all of them.
VC&G: What did you do after collaborating with Ralph on projects at Sanders?
BH: Let's see. After the games, what happened to me? I was working in Chet Stromswell's group. Some doctor, I forget where he came from, a young doctor. He wanted a little cardio scope with just three leads to it. He was going to sell a million of them to put on an ambulance, every ambulance would have one. There wasn't anything like that at the time, I guess. So I did the electronics in that cardio scope and built it. But I don't know that it ever went anywhere, because I never heard anything about it after we got it built.
VC&G: So after working on TV games, you were assigned to other things in the company?
BH: Yes. And my wife had gone through a radical "hysterical-ectomy," as Dr. Wallick would call it. She was very ill in the hospital because she got phlebitis in her legs. They had to keep her in there on blood thinners for a long time.
She hated the snow and cold up there. She was a Georgia girl. She wanted to leave and go south. Somewhere along the way we decided to move on to Florida. There was a company down there by the name of International Laser Systems. I went in there and met the VP of engineering, gave him a spiel on myself, and he finally asked me what I wanted. I told him, "How about fifty?" And he says, "No, I can't do that." I was making $19,000 a year, I think, when I left Sanders. He said, "We will be calling you and making you an offer," which they did. And I went to work there. I worked there as a Principal Engineer for 17 years. That was a lot of fun too. I mean, a lot of fun. It was lasers. I'd never been around lasers very much before that.
VC&G: What year did you leave Sanders?
BH: 1978, if I remember correctly.
VC&G: And you're still in Florida to this day?
BH: Yep. I was up to [Baer's place in New Hampshire] in January. I'm not doing that again. Boy, it was cold and snow and oh, horrible. Horrible.
VC&G: Other than the TV games, what accomplishments are you most proud of from your time at Sanders?
BH: Well, the Bed Guard system, which is mine. But then, it never went anywhere.
We had a doctor come to town, and he had something like a hundred-bed hospital somewhere in Texas. It must have been a nursing home, because he mentioned that old people are there in the hospital, and they're not really quite sane. They want to go home and they climb out of bed, and on the way out of the bed they fall and cripple themselves. And the hospital gets sued. So he wanted some way to detect a person leaving the bed. I finally came up with a scheme, and I was convinced in my own mind that my scheme was going to be the one that we were going to go with. And it was.
We made a small, working model of it, and I was sent to Simmons bed company in Chicago and showed it to them and everything. They thanked us for our idea, but if they added anything like that to the bed — they were already having trouble selling beds because they were so expensive — they'd never sell another bed, so they weren't interested. That surprised me.
Reflections, Forty Years Later
BH: I've been retired since '91, if I remember correctly. Lost my wife to lung cancer a couple years ago; never smoked a day in her life. That was a kick in the pants, I'll tell you.
VC&G: Ralph's still at his lab bench inventing. Do you build any electronics today, even as a hobby?
BH: No, I don't. [laughs] I've got a nice sailboat over in Titusville in a marina, and that's my toy. That's fun. I do all my own mechanical work in automobiles; I wanted to be a mechanic, if you recall.
VC&G: Do you ever think back about your time working with Ralph and the TV games?
BH: I don't think about the games so much, but when I moved south, I lost contact with [Baer] for a while. But when I got down to International Laser Systems, when I got the interview, I told the President of Engineering that if he needed to know anything more about me, he could call Ralph Baer. And I hadn't even talked to Ralph. And, I don't know, maybe a week or two later or something like that I got a call from Ralph, and he told me that if I didn't get the job it wasn't his fault. [laughs]
VC&G: Something interesting you might not be aware of is that it's actually the 40th anniversary of your building the first video game hardware. Do you have any thoughts or comments on the anniversary?
BH: No. [laughs]
I don't know. It was a fun job to work on, and especially working with Ralph. Boy, those were good years. He took me on trips, and boy, I wish you could have been there to see him in action. He is brilliant, absolutely brilliant.
VC&G: Do you remember the first time you played Ralph Baer in the "pumping game" with the buttons you push really fast?
BH: Do I remember it? No. You know, I can picture it, but remembering exactly what it was, and when we did it, I don't remember that. But I know I did. It would have been him and I, because nobody else was allowed to know anything for a long time.
VC&G: According to your journal from Sanders, it was on May 15th, 1967 that you guys played the first two player TV game ever. It was the Bucket Filling Game.
VC&G: How does it feel to be one of the two players in the first electronic game ever played on a television set?
BH: It's nice, but it doesn't…I don't know.
VC&G: It doesn't mean that much to you?
BH: I mean, there's other work that I did that's much more important than games, so…
But I'm certainly grateful for [Baer] having chosen me to do it with him because I learned a lot from the man and he treated me good.
VC&G: Of all the games you, Ralph, and Bill Rusch created, do you have a favorite one?
That was an action game, and you're playing against each other, so one guy's going to win, one's guys going to lose, so it was competitive. And you know, the pumping game and stuff like that — he was thinking of little kids. You know, pressing on the button, and one's pumping the water up, and one's emptying it. And I think you had to use a little timer or something like that to at least find the end to the game.
VC&G: Did you enjoy playing the other games you guys made?
BH: I played that Ping-Pong game so much that I didn't care if I never saw another game. [laughs]
VC&G: You got tired of it?
BH: Yeah, I did. Think of it: every day, you're trying to improve the circuitry, trying to do this, trying to do that, and it just got old. And I wasn't a game player to begin with.
VC&G: So, whose idea was the Ping-Pong game, do you know?
BH: I think it was probably Rusch's, I'm guessing, but that's what I think it might have been.
VC&G: It seems like it was, from the documents Ralph has. But I wasn't sure if you or Ralph contributed to the design of it in any material way.
BH: I don't recall. I know if they came up with the design, I would have built the stuff.
VC&G: Have you paid any attention to the development of video games over the years since then?
VC&G: Did you play any video games during the 80′s or late 70′s?
BH: No, I didn't.
VC&G: Not at all?
VC&G: How about your kids, did they ever play video games?
BH: I'm trying to think. How old my kids were when we left? I guess my daughter, the two boys were grown up, one was in Ohio State University for a while, going to be an aeronautical engineer.
VC&G: I guess they were pretty old already by the time video games were big, right?
BH: Yeah, my oldest boy was born in '56, the next one in '58, and my daughter in '65.
VC&G: Do you have any grandchildren?
BH: Yes, I do. My daughter has a daughter who is, I think, either five or six years old, and she lives in Australia. My grandson is three, going-on four. The oldest boy has a son who has a son, so I'm a great grandfather.
VC&G: Do you think they appreciate your contribution to video game history?
BH: I don't know if they think about it now. [laughs] I don't think about it, so…
VC&G: Did you never talk to them about it?
BH: Back when [my children] were kids, I took the game home with me. Ralph told me, "Take it home and play with the kids, and see what they think about it." Of course, they liked it.
VC&G: Do you ever feel like you and Ralph don't get enough credit, just in general, for what you did with TV games, in history?
BH: Oh, I don't know. There again, I don't even think about it. I mean, it was a job to me, and I worked with a great guy, learned a lot from him. He treated me good. That's the part I think about. The games themselves, what it was, doesn't really make any difference.
VC&G: So to you, it's more about the people and the experience than the material things you created.
BH: Exactly. Exactly. There were a lot of nice people.
VC&G: Is there anything else you want history to remember about the development of TV games that we haven't covered or touched on, or any stories you want to recount?
BH: I can tell you one little story. My hours were 8:30 AM to 5:30 PM. And so, 5:30 PM, I'm coming out of the room and Ralph's coming in. He asked me if I would be willing to stay and help him for about an hour. He had a little experiment he wanted to do. He explained it to me and said "I think we could do it in about an hour," and I said, "Of course. I'd be glad to, Ralph."
Well, at midnight, we got the greasy sweats, and oh…tired, you know. And I said, "Ralph, if you would have left me here to do this tonight, and you would have gone home and I was to call you and tell you the pile of crap I was in, would you believe it?" And he said, "Hell no. You know, nothing comes easy." And I think I've been able to use that phrase every day of my life since.
VC&G: Nothing comes easy.
BH: "Nothing comes easy." He coined that phrase for me, and I have never forgotten it.