Last year, the world of computing lost one of its great pioneers, Ted Dabney. He was the founder of Atari and the creator of Pong, one of the most iconic video games made.
Dabney is known in the industry as the man who brought video games to the world and launched the video gaming industry.
In the early 1970s, video games were only available on commercial computers, which typically cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and, hence, were too expensive for home use.
Dabney decided to use his knowledge and skills as an electrical engineer to make a low-cost gaming computer that was affordable enough for an average household.
He started by converting his daughter’s bedroom into a makeshift laboratory and gathering some cheap television parts. He then began creating his gaming machine and succeeded shortly afterwards. He housed the circuitry in a box made out of plywood and mahogany laminate and created the world’s first commercial video game, Computer Space.
Dabney partnered with Nolan Bushnell to launch the company Atari, and took the newly-built consoles to market.
The first game was not a commercial success, but Dabney followed it up with a second game, Pong. The game was extremely simple by today’s standards: two vertical lines on the left and right edges of the screen were the paddles, while the ball was just a dot bouncing between them. Players used the device’s controllers to move the paddles up or down to block the movement of the ball and hit it back towards the opponent’s side.
Despite its simplicity, the game was fun and engaging and became a massive commercial success, launching Atari into one of the biggest gaming console and computer companies in the world.
Pong has a personal, sentimental value to me. It is one of the first video games I ever played, and I have the fondest memories of playing the game with my dad on an Atari 2600 console when I was around 8 or 9 years old.
Not many people have ever heard of Dabney, but with the creation of the Atari console he has earned his place in computing history.
Like him, there are countless others who have laid the foundations for the computing technology that is an integral part of our lives today.
One such person is Muhammad Ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, an 8th century Persian mathematician who laid the foundations for modern maths and pretty much every modern programming language by developing concept of the algorithm.
Al-Khwarizmi observed that people struggled to perform calculations, and calculations were often fraught with errors. He set out to develop simple algorithmic formulae where people simply needed to plug in values, and they would get the desired results.
A simple example is the formula for calculating the area of a room: “Area = Length x Breadth”.
To calculate the area of a rectangular room of any size, one had to simply measure the dimensions of the room and plug them into the formula.
This may seem simple enough to us because we’ve been taught those formulae from a young age. In al- Khwarizmi’s time they did not exist.
So significant was al-Khwarizmi’s contribution that his name became synonymous with algorithms. The word “algorithm” is actually derived from the word “al-Gorithm”, which is the Latinised form of his name.
His work transformed nearly every field: business, academia, science, agriculture, legal and of course, computing, although that came much later.
Fast-forward nearly a millennium to the 19th century, and the first computer was created by an English mathematician and engineer by the name of Charles Babbage who needed a quick and automatic way to calculate complex algorithms, leading to the design of his “analytical engine”, a mechanical calculator and the predecessor of the modern computer.
Of course, even a simple, mechanical computer such as Babbage’s analytical engine needed a programmer, and the work went to Ada Lovelace, an English mathematician who developed the algorithm to run on the analytical engine. In doing so, she became the first computer programmer in history.
There is a recurring theme in all of the examples above, whether it was Dabney, al-Khwarizmi, Babbage or Lovelace: they saw a need or a problem, and used their knowledge and skills to find a solution. Their drive came from a passion to make life better for themselves and others.
We see the same theme in all inventors and innovators in history, from the great scientists and inventors of the past to the young geniuses of Silicon Valley: where others saw problems, they saw opportunities, which motivated them to create solutions that positively affected countless people’s lives.
This is the driving force behind technological advancement and, for good or bad, this trend will persist as long as there are problems that need solving.