Brookhaven National Lab physicists restore original video game

BROOKHAVEN NATIONAL LABORATORY COURTESY PHOTO Technical specialist Gene Von Achen (left) and physicist Dr. Peter Takacs consult schematic diagrams in an effort to restore the first multiplayer video game back to its original state.

Physicists at Brookhaven National Lab are restoring the first multi-player video game ever created.

‘Tennis for Two’ was unveiled in 1958 by its inventor, Dr. Willy Higinbotham, who made the game for people to play at Brookhaven Lab’s annual visitor’s day. The game was a huge hit, as hundreds of people lined up outside of the gymnasium, where the game was located, to get their hands on a computer for what was some people’s first time ever.

“Computers were special things that only scientists and engineers had,” said Dr. Peter Takacs, a physicist in BNL’s Instrumentation Division, who is leading the restoration project. “That was the attraction.”

Visitors faced each other one-on-one, pressing buttons and spinning dials on bulky controllers to volley a green dot back-and-forth over a simple green line representing a tennis net. The game required one analog computer and an oscilloscope screen just five inches in diameter. There were no graphics, not even visible tennis rackets. The game’s equipment weighed several hundred pounds.

For the lab’s 50th anniversary in 1997, each department at the lab created a display representative of its work. Dr. Takacs decided to recreate ‘Tennis for Two.’

“We wanted to see if we could use what we know today to recreate something from 50 years ago, to see whether we could even understand the schematics,” Dr. Takacs said. “It took a while, but we figured it out.”

Dr. Takacs went to work on the game in 1997, identifying the equipment it required from a single black-and-white photograph. After three months, a first version of the restored video game was unveiled.

Since Dr. Takacs didn’t have much of the original equipment for the game, he created a simulation of the game using silicon chips, for example, instead of vacuum tubes. Over the years, he’s collected antique equipment purchased from eBay, and little by little replaced the simulated parts with authentic ones.

The restoration cost approximately $3,000, Dr. Takacs said. The project was collaborative, as he worked with six other physicists and technicians, and received information about the original game from people all over the country.

The authentic version of the restored ‘Tennis for Two’ video game will be on display for the public to play in the lobby at BNL when it’s completed in a few weeks.

[email protected]