Former Atari engineer Owen Rubin (left), vice president of engineering Al Alcorn (center), and founder
Nolan Bushnell (right) say Silicon Valley's secret has always meant supporting startups—and "borrowing" parts
Every time I talk to a Silicon Valley newbie, particularly someone trying to start a company, I find them enthralled by the “magic” of the place. They are amazed to discover that just about everyone you meet is involved in tech, and, as a result, neighbors, parents on the soccer sidelines, and people in line for coffee at Coupa can all potentially help you make your dream happen. And the most surprising thing to outsiders is that all these random connections actually want to help you, the earnest entrepreneur.
That’s the Silicon Valley secret. And it’s nothing new. Stories about this kind of help—advice, encouragement—and spare parts—came up again and again at a gathering last week of 100 Atari alumni and others connected to the birth of video games and home computers, hosted by the IEEE Silicon Valley History Committee:
On how Atari Founder Nolan Bushnell came to Silicon Valley:
“It was very scientific. My wife’s sister lived in Sunnyvale. I graduated 256 out of a class of 256 (at the University of Utah). That is, I had the most efficient degree possible. I got a degree, but I didn’t do one bit more than I needed to. I went to placement center, they said with your grades you can’t expect a very good job. I thought, ‘Horseshit.’ I knew the highest starting salaries of all those guys graduating, so on Thanksgiving I came to California and papered my resume around asking for $25 a month more than that highest salary. And I got the job at Ampex.”
On “liberating” parts for a startup:
Bushnell, while working at Ampex, was developing an arcade version of “Spacewar!,” a game written for the DEC PDP-1.
Recalled Atari’s head of engineering, Al Alcorn: “You were doing this as a g-job in the evening, borrowing parts.”
“Liberating parts,” corrected Bushnell.
“A fine tradition,” said Alcorn, “that Atari adopted. That’s how the Apple II was made, with Atari’s parts.”
Steven Mayer, who was chief Atari architect for home games and computer systems, chimed in:
“There was a long tradition at Ampex of supporting people [to go out and do other things]. A guy working on a database at Ampex was Larry Ellison. A guy working in audio was Ray Dolby. Ampex was incredibly generous about letting these people start their own companies....MOREAnd:
Atari Alumni Talk About the Tall Tales They Told to Launch an Industry
I thought I’d heard them all. Atari stories, that is. I started covering the company in 1981, followed company founder Nolan Bushnell and first engineer Al Alcorn through their other adventures, became personal friends with more than a few Atari alumni, and even had a memorable lunch with Warner COO Manny Gerard after that company bought Atari (and, many say, then destroyed it).
But last Thursday evening, at a sold-out 100-person event hosted by the IEEE Silicon Valley History Committee, a few behind the scenes stories came out that were new to me—and even new to some of the people who were key players at Atari at the time. It’s hard to get startups off the ground, particularly those trying to do something as revolutionary as start a videogame—or personal computer—industry. So let’s just say the truth, at times, was stretched—or simply ignored—in order to make things happen. A few examples:
Motivating an engineer with a fictitious client:
Pong has gone down in history as the first consumer video game. In 1972, shortly after Atari’s inception, Atari founder Nolan Bushnell saw a demo of what became the Magnavox Odyssey; it included a ping pong game. “I thought the game was crap,” Bushnell recalls. “It was fuzzy, analog. Our tech was better.”
Bushnell said he’d contracted with pinball manufacturer Bally to build a driving game. But he recalls that as he drove home from the demo, he thought his one engineer, Al Alcorn “doesn’t know jack shit about video. I felt that [the driving game] was too hard as a learning project, so I told Al to do this ping pong game.”
Alcorn jumped in to continue the story. “And you told me you had a contract with General Electric, [to build] a home game, so I thought wow, this is going to be hard to do, the fact that nobody from GE came by, or wrote us a letter, well, I was 24, I didn’t know better.”
“I just wanted you to be motivated,” Bushnell said.
Faking out the market:
“I wanted world domination,” says Bushnell. “And it turns out that there are two coin-op [game] distributors in every city. One would have Gottlieb pinballs, one Williams. We had chosen the best distributors, but the [distributors] who didn’t have the Atari brand were doing everything they could to spawn a competitor. So I thought, let’s make that happen.”
So Atari secretly started a second company, Kee Games, with Bushnell’s next door neighbor, Joe Keenan, at the helm. “We took our number two engineer, our number two manufacturing guy, and every other game in our lineup, and gave it to Kee. We started Kee Games in August, and they were up and spinning by the November AMOA show (the big trade show in the games industry). Their goal was to pick up the rest of the distributors.”...MORE