Tennis for Two: From Atomic Bombs to America’s 1st Video Game

Animation of tennis for two video game being played by two individuals

Ever heard of William Higinbotham? Probably not, but did you know this American physicist helped create the first Atomic bomb during World War II and then went on to create the first American video-game – a precursor to Pong entitled Tennis for Two!

Creating the Infamous Atomic Bomb

Higinbotham was born in Connecticut in 1910 and grew up in Caledonia, New York. He earned his undergraduate degree from Williams College in 1932 and continued his studies at Cornell University. One of the first achievements was working on the radar system at MIT from 1941 to 1943.

During World War II, he began working for the U.S. government at Los Alamos National Laboratory and headed the lab’s electronics group. In the later years of the war, his team developed electronics for the first-ever atomic bomb which would be utilized by the U.S. for the Pacific war in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in 1945. He also spent his life trying to slow down the nuclear arms race that ensued as a result of the atomic bomb’s creation.

A Career Change like No Other

In 1948, Higinbotham joined Brookhaven National Laboratory’s instrumentation group. During that time, he would be responsible for the annual visitor exhibits of which thousands of people would come tour the lab. Most of the existing exhibits were rather dull. Higinbotham thought he could better capture visitors’ interest by creating an interactive demonstration

Higinbotham wrote: “It might liven up the place to have a game that people could play, and which would convey the message that our scientific endeavors have relevance for society.”

Tennis for Two

Just like that, Tennis for Two was conceptualized. The instrumentation group had a small analog computer that could display various curves, including the path of a bouncing ball, on an oscilloscope. It took Higinbotham only a couple of hours to conceive the idea of a tennis game, and only a few days to put together the basic pieces. Thanks to Higinbotham’s background in radar systems helped him immensely to design the simple, game display.

Tennis for Two is often marked as a precursor to 1970’s Pong except it had a few caveats. You had to note the score manually; no in-game counter but it didn’t matter as visitors loved it! It quickly became the most popular exhibit at the Laboratory, with people standing in long lines to get a chance to play.

Want to Know More?

Watch the story of Tennis For Two as part of Untold’s The Museum of Artifacts That Made America series.


Untold series produced by Makematic, Driving Force Institute and USC Center for Engagement-Driven Global Education.


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Published on: October 6, 2020

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