Ted Dabney (1937-2018)

Tuesday, May 29th, 2018

Ted DabneyIn Memoriam: Samuel Frederick Dabney, Jr. (1937-2018),
co-founder of Syzygy and Atari

Samuel Frederick (“Ted”) Dabney, Jr., who co-founded Atari with Nolan Bushnell in 1972, died of esophageal cancer just three days ago. He was 81 years old.

I was not close with Ted, but I did interview him at length for articles about Computer Space and Pong back in 2011 and 2012. During our conversations, he was candid, detailed, kind, and very helpful. During my conversations with him, a lot of the details of early Atari history you can now read online were coming out of him for the first time, so he was a vital source of fresh information on that subject.

Ted did critical work as a partner of Nolan Bushnell in the early 1970s. He served as a creative sounding board for Nolan’s ambitious ideas and also as a key implementer of some of them.

Ted met Nolan around 1969 while working at Ampex, where they were office mates. They shared big dreams and secret sessions of the board game go while in the office, and in off-hours, they hung out and scouted locations for a new restaurant idea Bushnell had that involved talking barrels.

With Nolan at Syzygy Engineering, Dabney created the video control circuitry used in Computer Space, built the prototype cabinet for that game, designed its sound circuit, and more. On Pong, Dabney built the prototype cabinet and gave feedback to game designer Allan Alcorn. He also provided ideas for Atari’s third game, Space Race, before he left Atari in 1973.

There is some confusion about the reason Dabney left Atari. Dabney told me that Nolan forced him out. Bushnell commonly cites poor work performance as the reason Dabney left. Absent some documentary evidence, the real answer will always be one of those fuzzy historical points left to interpretation. What we do know for sure is that the two founders were no longer getting along.

(By the way, I have recently read some reports about Dabney that say he left Atari because he was angry that Nolan patented his motion control circuitry without including him on the patent. This is plainly false. Dabney did not even know that Nolan’s motion control patent existed until I informed him about it in a 2011 interview.)

A lot of the key info I gleaned from Dabney can be found in my 2011 piece on Computer Space, which is a primary source for some of the secondhand knowledge you’ll read about Dabney and Atari’s early days on the web. Some day I need to publish my full interview with Dabney on Pong, because it is very insightful.

It’s also worth noting that Dabney remained friends with Nolan throughout the 1970s despite the Atari business acrimony. They were never truly close like they were circa 1969-1972, but they still kept in touch, shared a hot tub or two, and Dabney created a trivia game for Nolan’s Pizza Time chain in the early 1980s.

I will miss talking to Ted. He was laid-back, easy going, and straightforward. He had so much skill and experience from his days before Atari, and I need to write about that some time. I had hoped to interview him again at some point, but life delayed those plans. May he rest in peace.

Andrew S. Grove (1936-2016)

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016

Andrew S. Grove, Former CEO of IntelIn Memoriam: Andrew S. Grove (1936-2016),
Former President, CEO, and Chairman of Intel

Few tech executives have had as monumental an impact on the computer industry as Andy Grove, who passed away yesterday at the age of 79. His stewardship of Intel marked a period of astounding success and growth for the company, including establishing the firm’s x86 microprocessors as a de facto standard for the PC industry — a legacy that continues today. May he rest in peace.

Satoru Iwata (1959-2015)

Monday, July 13th, 2015

Satoru Iwata, President and CEO of NintendoIn Memoriam: Satoru Iwata (1959-2015), President, Nintendo of Japan
CEO, Nintendo of America

What a horrible thing. Iwata will be sorely missed.

These days, few large company CEOs rise up through engineering (in this case, software engineering) to take the top spot at the firm. Iwata did exactly that, and that likely contributed a great deal to his success at leading Nintendo.

Nintendo needs a new rudder now. Who they choose to replace Iwata will make or break the company at this point — Nintendo is in a fragile position, poised at the edge of a transition to a new console business model designed to ensure its survival in a mobile/tablet/smartphone dominated world.

What will happen next is anybody’s guess.

What happened under Iwata was amazing.

Steve Bristow (1949-2015)

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

Steve Bristow in Memoirum[The following news comes to us via video game historian Mary Goldberg, who has allowed VC&G to republish his Facebook announcement here so more people can see it. –Benj]

It is with a sad heart that we announce the passing of Atari legend and friend Stephen D. (“Steve”) Bristow, who died this past Sunday, February 22, 2015 at the age of 65 following a short illness.

Bristow was one of the originals, helping Nolan Bushnell out during the development of the world’s first commercial arcade game, Computer Space, while an intern at Ampex.

He then moved to Nutting Associates, the publisher of Computer Space, as an intern. At Nutting, he soon took over for Nolan Bushnell when Bushnell and business partner Ted Dabney left to form Atari.

In the early 1970s, Bristow joined up once again with Bushnell at Atari for a short while before being tapped to form secret Atari subsidiary Kee Games with Joe and Patricia Keenan. There, he lead the creation of several groundbreaking arcade games such as the full-color multiplayer Indy 800 and the seminal game Tank.

Bristow occupied many positions at Atari throughout the 1970s an 80s. Upon the merger between Kee Games and Atari, he oversaw Atari’s Coin Engineering as well as later projects like the Electronic Board Game Division. He later became Plant Manager of Pinball Production at Atari before moving to VP Engineering, Consumer and Home Computer Division, then VP Engineering of Atari’s Consumer Game Division in the early 1980s.

From there, Bristow moved to VP Advanced Technology, then VP Engineering, AtariTel Division (which produced telephone products). Then finally, he joined Atari’s Engineering Computer Division as VP and became an Atari Fellow before leaving Atari all together in February 1984.

Bristow continued with an impressive electrical engineering career afterword, but it’s his time and accomplishments at Atari (and all the fun he brought us) that are the reason we’re all here. He will be sorely missed.

Remembering Ralph Baer (1922-2014)

Monday, December 8th, 2014

Ralph Baer, inventor of TV video gamesIn Memoriam: Ralph Baer (1922-2014),
co-inventor of TV video games and the home video game console

Our dear Ralph. What a man. 92 years old. A life full of technology, audacity, and gumption (with equal measures wise prudence). He died on December 6, 2014 at his home in Manchester, New Hampshire. May he rest in peace.

Just summarizing Baer’s biography with keywords sounds impressive: Germany, Kristallnacht, WWII Service, small arms expert, Lee De Forest, TV technician, Sanders, engineering, Apollo, inventor of TV video games, game console, Odyssey, cable TV, patents, Simon, toy inventor. The list could go on and on. He achieved quite a bit and lived a very full, very fulfilling long life.

Ralph Baer at Sanders, Circa late 1960sOf course, he is most well known for inventing the concept of television video games and co-inventing, with William Rusch and William Harrison, the world’s first video game console during his time at Sanders in the mid-late 1960s. The prototype console that the trio finished in 1968 later became the Magnavox Odyssey (1972), the world’s first commercial video game console.

But there was much more to the man, and I count myself lucky to have known him.

[ Continue reading Remembering Ralph Baer (1922-2014) » ]

Macworld Magazine (1984-2014)

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

In Memoriam: Macworld Magazine, print edition (1984-2014)

Today I found out that Macworld will cease to be a print magazine and that many of my friends and colleagues have been laid off. Macworld.com will continue to exist, albeit with a relative skeleton crew.

It’s very sad to see a day like this come (especially when I still look forward to a new issue of Macworld coming in the mail every month — one of the last print publications I read), but all things must come to an end. It is amazing, in retrospect, that Macworld magazine remained a constant, intelligent voice amid the chaos of a rapidly churning computer industry for thirty years.

Thirty years. Think of all the change that has happened in that time — the tech uphevals, the revolutions, the fall and rise of Apple, the Jobs-as-Phoenix, and rapid spread of the Internet — and through it all, Macworld has been there.

So thank you, Macworld, for serving the Mac community so well. And thanks to its staff in particular. I’d especially like to express my gratitude to Roman Loyola, Jason Snell, Dan Moren, Dan Frakes, Dan Miller, and Philip Michaels (among many others) for their wonderful work on the publication, and their genuine humanity, decency, patience, and fairness (sometimes rare qualities in an editor) through the years.

Roman Loyola, in particular, has been my go-to guy to get my — nay, our — particular brand of Apple history work pushed out to the world, and I am immensely grateful to have worked with him.

The talent pool of editorial labor laid off from Macworld today is immense, and other publications would be fools not to snatch them up as quickly as they can.

As for me, I’ve been contributing to the publication since 2008. As long as Macworld.com is still around, I might still write things for it. (Completely gutting a publication of its beloved veteran staff doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the future, however.) Time will tell. Until then, it’s been a great ride.

Andrew Kay (1919-2014)

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

Andrew Kay, founder of KayProIn Memoriam: Andrew Kay (1919-2014), founder of KayPro
and inventor of the digital voltmeter

The Kaypro II (1982), sold by Andrew Kay’s company, was one of the earliest vintage computers I added to my collection (and my first CP/M machine) way back in the early 1990s. Its high-quality components, including its sturdy metal case, its integrated serial and parallel ports, its full-sized keyboard, and its sharp 9-inch green-screen monitor made it a joy to use. And man, it had an 80-column display, which made it a competent word processing machine even in 1994.

With everything integrated, the Kaypro II was a truly plug-and-play machine at a time when other systems required hooking up chains of various peripherals to get things done. With the KayPro II, you folded down the keyboard, plugged it into an outlet, inserted a disk, and flipped it on. It was an island oasis in a sea of endless computer cords.

Andrew Kay’s achievements were great (among his other works, he invented the digital voltmeter in 1952). He will be missed.

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Remembering My Dad

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

Benj's Birthday FaxBenj’s Birthday Fax

In 1993, I was heavily into BBSes and all things telecommunications, so my dad, an electronics engineer, lent me his old fax machine to set up in my bedroom. I hooked it to the second phone line in the house (used for my BBS at the time) so I could send experimental faxes to it from my dad’s office.

On my 12th birthday, just over 20 years ago, this particular fax came in as a surprise. It was a happy birthday note written by my dad. Receiving my very own fax (probably my first one) delighted me at the time, and I tucked it away for safe keeping. It was one of the most thoughtful personal notes my dad ever wrote to me.

Earlier this year, just after my dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I re-discovered the fax in a box of childhood mementos. Being printed on thermal paper, it’s now heavily faded, but the message of love, acceptance, and encouragement it conveys is still strong. It represents some of the best things about my dad.

He is the reason I’m here — both in a literal, existential sense, and also as the enabler of my passion for technology. Growing up, if I wanted to experiment with something, he made it happen. If I was curious, he was curious with me. We shared thousands of tech adventures together, and that made him an awesome dad.

Yesterday morning, my father passed away after a 9 month bout with that terrible disease. There will be no more tech adventures between us, and that breaks my heart. But there’s a new generation coming up, and I will do my best to continue his legacy of encouragement and gentle guidance with my own kids, who already possess a passion for technical and mechanical things like their grandpa.

Thanks, dad. For everything.

Douglas C. Engelbart (1925-2013)

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2013

Doug Engelbart RIPIn Memoriam: Douglas C. Engelbart (1925-2013)
Inventor of the Computer Mouse, Computer Pioneer

MadMaze-II Now Hosted on Vintagecomputing.com

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

MadMaze-II Title Image

In 2006, I wrote about a version of the classic Prodigy game MadMaze that had been adapted for the web by Russell D. Brown, an electronics engineer based in Rome, New York.

Just today, a commenter on that original post (thanks Joshua) let me know that Russell Brown passed away last year on July 1st. That means his implementation of MadMaze-II is now offline.

(Please note that the original author of MadMaze, Greg Costikyan, is still alive and kicking as far as I know.)

Luckily for all of us, I asked Russel Brown back in 2011 to share his MadMaze-II code with me in case his version of the game ever went down. He complied, and I have just now set up a fresh copy of his adaptation on this web server at the following address: http://www.vintagecomputing.com/madmaze/.

The game still requires Internet Explorer 5 or up, and it seems to work in IE 9 for me. Brown programmed the game in such a way that obfuscated its function to prevent cheating (he even incorporated a copy protection scheme), so at the moment I have no idea how to successfully modify it if players find any bugs. But if you encounter any problems, please feel free to let me know, and I’ll have a look.

Have fun in the maze. And may Russell Brown rest in peace.

[ Update – 01/18/2017: Thanks to the work of Brandt Horrocks, MadMaze-II now works in Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox web browsers. Read more about it here. ]