The Origins of Chuck E. Cheese

Thursday, June 8th, 2017

Nolan Bushnell and Chuck E. Cheese

I mentioned this in my most recent Retro Scan, but I figured this was worth repeating in its own post.

Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre launched 40 years ago last month — on May 16, 1977. To celebrate the anniversary, I wrote a long feature about the origins of the pizza chain for FastCompany that they published last week.

In the piece, you can learn about how Chuck E. Cheese was originally supposed to be a coyote, read about rat-related intrigue, and glean some of the visionary genius of Nolan Bushnell, who saw the chain as a way to bring arcade video games to the mainstream — as well as scratching a fundamental itch of human nature. It worked.

Hope you enjoy it.

The Untold Story of Atari Founder Nolan Bushnell’s Visionary 1980s Tech Incubator

Friday, February 17th, 2017

The Story of Nolan Bushnell

Up now on FastCompany.com is my latest piece in a series of deep-dives into little-known tech history. (I wrote this last year – it’s been simmering on the backburner for quite some time.)

My article is about Nolan Bushnell’s Catalyst Technologies, a pioneering high-tech incubator in the 1980s:

In the annals of Silicon Valley history, Nolan Bushnell’s name conjures up both brilliant success and spectacular failure. His two landmark achievements were founding Atari in 1972–laying the groundwork for the entire video game industry–and starting Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre in 1977. But there’s another highlight of Bushnell’s bio that has long gone undocumented: pioneer of the high-tech incubator.

In 1981, Bushnell created Catalyst Technologies, a venture-capital partnership designed to bring the future to life by turning his ideas into companies. In the era of the TRS-80, Betamax, and CB radio, startups funded by Catalyst pursued an array of visionary concepts–from interactive TV to online shopping to door-to-door navigation–that created entire industries decades later. “I read science fiction, and I wanted to live there,” Bushnell explains.

In researching the history of Catalyst, I found that it was far more successful than most people think, and that Bushnell’s post-Atari track record, despite several high-profile failures, is not as bad as one might assume from the negative media coverage he once garnered. It’s time to reconsider his post-Atari legacy, in my opinion, and this article is the first stop in doing so. Hope you enjoy it.

Ms. Pac-Man Turns 35

Friday, February 3rd, 2017

Ms. Pac-Man Arcade Flier Flyer

35 years ago today, Ms. Pac-Man made its worldwide public debut during a press conference held by Namco at Castle Park Entertainment Center in Sherman Oaks, a neighborhood of Los Angeles. Ms. Pac-Man launched on February 3, 1982.

In 2011, I interviewed three of Ms. Pac-Man’s creators in depth for a planned feature I was going to write about the game’s 30th anniversary. That project fell through, and although many journalists have written about Ms. Pac-Man since then (and its creators began giving public talks years ago), I found that my old interviews still contained fascinating nuggets of information on the game that had not yet come to light.

So I turned all of my source material on Ms. Pac-Man into an oral history, which FastCompany.com just published. It’s likely that just about everything you’d ever want to know about Ms. Pac-Man’s creation is covered there.

On VC&G, I would like to talk specifically about how I discovered the release date for Ms. Pac-Man, since I’d like people to correct the information that’s out there. (Prior to the publication of my article, sites stated the launch date of Ms. Pac-Man anywhere between late 1981 and January 1982. Wikipedia still says “January 13, 1982” as the launch date — I’ve asked Ms. Pac-Man’s creators, and none of us can figure out where it came from.)

While I found evidence in a single newspaper arcade advertisement that Ms. Pac-Man was anticipated as early as January 31, 1982 (possibly from a test location), Bally Midway formally announced Ms. Pac-Man to the world during a press conference on Wednesday, February 3rd, 1982. A key newspaper report confirms this:

Newspaper Article Describing Ms Pac-Man Launch Date

That’s an article from the Los Angeles Times dated Thursday, February 4th, 1982. It mentions the press conference happening on Wednesday of that week — hence, Feb 3, 1982.

Here’s another article Ms. Pac-Man announcement article newspapers reprinted verbatim widely across the US. It is based on the article above and sent out as a wire report for syndication:

Newspaper Article Describing Ms Pac-Man Launch Date

Anyway — what a game, what a story. I hope you enjoy reading about how a band of plucky New England upstarts created the most popular arcade game in U.S. history.

Ed Smith and the Imagination Machine

Friday, September 2nd, 2016

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.

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] NandO.net – My First ISP

Monday, January 18th, 2016

Raleigh News and Observer Nando Nando.net Newspaper Advertisement ISP Internet - 1994The only time I have ever read the term “MUSH” in print.

You are looking at a scan of the actual newspaper ad that got me on the Internet with a commercial ISP for the first time. (Prior to that, I got online through a free dial-up university dataswitch.) It’s an ad for NandO.net, a 1990s-era Raleigh, NC-based ISP originally owned and operated by our flagship newspaper, The News and Observer.

As you can see by the handwritten notes on the ad, my dad used this actual piece of paper to sign us up for an account on the service (I modified the credit card number digitally, in case anyone is wondering). I found this rare artifact in my old computer papers recently while researching my early web history for a FastCompany piece I wrote last year. In that article, I explored what it was like to build a website in 1995. Here’s what I wrote about NandO:

As the Internet became more than just a way to access MUDs or look up the occasional novelty on text-based Gophers or web browsers, both of us sought a more robust way of accessing it. One of the first ISPs in our city was called NandO.net. Our local newspaper, the News and Observer, ran it as an extension of its efforts to pioneer online newsmaking processes.

On some day in late 1994, my father signed my family up for NandO.net. What we got in exchange for about $20 a month was an account on an Internet-enabled BBS, which had its own local message board and games, but would allow us to use text-only Internet email, web browsing, FTP, and Gopher. My dad paid extra for a “shell account” so I could log in and get a Unix command prompt. From there I could upload and download files from a terminal program, telnet to other servers, and push stuff from my shell account to remote machines via FTP.

What heady days those were. Incredible to think that I was just dipping my toes into what would eventually become a life-changing deluge — not just for me, but for all of humanity itself.

[ From The News and Observer, December 13, 1994, p.9A ]

Discussion Topic of the Week: What was the name of your first ISP? What year did you first use it?

Virtual Boy Turns 20

Friday, August 21st, 2015

Virtual Boy on a Swing

Nintendo released the Virtual Boy 20 years ago today in North America (on August 21, 1995). I wrote an article about the creation of the Virtual Boy for FastCompany, which was just published today.

I hope you enjoy it.

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Vector Graphic Vector 1

Monday, July 27th, 2015

Vector Graphic Inc. Vector 1 computer system advertisement - 1977NOW AVAILABLE IN RUST

The Vector 1 (1977) was the first complete computer system sold by Vector Graphic, Inc., a California-based firm founded by Lore Harp (now McGovern), Carole Ely, and Bob Harp in August 1976.

The Vector 1 included an Intel 8080A or Zilog Z80 CPU, and it utilized the S-100 bus introduced by the Altair 8800. In an unusual nod to aesthetics, the Vector 1 shipped in two case color options: green or “rust,” which was Vector’s name for orange. It retailed for for $849 fully assembled (about $3,288 today when adjusted for inflation) or $619 as a kit.

It just so happens that I wrote an article about the history of Vector Graphic for FastCompany recently. You may enjoy it.

[ From Byte Magazine, February 1977, p.61]

Discussion Topic of the Week: Have you ever owned an S-100 based computer? Tell us about it.

The Invention of the Video Game Cartridge

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

The Untold Story of the Invention of the Game Cartridge

Three and a half years ago, I started writing a history of the Fairchild Channel F, the world’s first commercial game console to use software cartridges. As part of the research, I first interviewed two Fairchild veterans to follow up on my 2009 interview of Jerry Lawson.

As I kept digging, the rabbit hole of history went deeper and deeper, and the story turned out too complex and nuanced to properly research for whatever venue I was planning at the time. Budgets were tight, and the economics didn’t work out, so I had to shelve it.

Just last year, I picked up where I left off and did the rest of the legwork, summoning primary source documents from around the world (special thanks to ICHEG) and interviewing over 15 people who worked for Alpex, National Semiconductor, Fairchild, Atari, and RCA to piece together the most accurate portrait of the birth of the game cartridge that I could possibly manage.

The result was finally published last night — in a somewhat abridged format — on FastCompany.com with my friend and longtime collaborator Harry McCracken editing the piece.

What I have created sheds light on a heretofore completely unknown segment of video game history (especially regarding Alpex), and it is my hope that I have done so in a way that does justice to the achievement of those involved some forty years ago.

I am grateful to everyone who helped with my research — especially Ron Smith, the mechanical designer of the Channel F, who provided me with countless documents and a patient ear for all of my questions, and Wallace Kirschner and Lawrence Haskel, who decided to talk to the press for the first time ever for my piece.

There is more to the story than could fit in the article, but don’t despair — it will probably end up as part of a book.

I hope you enjoy the piece.

Benj’s Oddities Series Returns with “PlayStation Oddities”

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

PlayStation Oddities

Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the Sony PlayStation’s release in Japan. To celebrate, my old friend Harry McCracken (who now works at FastCompany) asked me if I wanted to bring my long-running Oddities series out of retirement. In short, I said “heck yes,” and the result can be seen over on the FastCompany website.

This latest entry marks a change in format for the series: it is the first that is not a page-by-page slideshow. I made a bajillion slideshows between 2007 and 2012, and while they were fun to make, I am thankful that I have moved on.

So if you’re a fan of the PlayStation, click through and check out some weird variations, accessories, and tributes to one of the most successful game consoles of all time.

All Entries in Benj’s Oddities Series: