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Ted Dabney, a Founder of Atari and a Creator of Pong, Has Died (nytimes.com)
325 points by NaOH 9 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 23 comments



There was an excellent article by Benj Edwards about Computer Space and Dabney's contribution to video game history, including the invention of the "slipping counter" circuit that moved onscren objects on this game and Pong: https://www.technologizer.com/2011/12/11/computer-space-and-...

“Nolan came to me one time and he said, ‘On a TV set, when you turn the vertical hold on the TV, the picture will go up, and if you turn it the other way, it goes down. Why does it do that?’ I explained it to him. It was the difference between the sync and the picture timing. He said, ‘Could we do that with some control?’ I said, ‘Yeah, we probably can, but we’d have to do it digitally, because analog would not be linear.'”


The Atari 2600 has this same kind of circuit for its two 8x1 sprites and two 1x1 missiles, at least for the horizontal motion part (HMOVE). To save silicon, it uses a polynomial counter / LFSR instead of 4-bit counter ICs.


> Although Mr. Dabney was overshadowed within the video game industry by Mr. Bushnell’s charm and business savvy, his legacy is now being revisited.

> “He was the guy that could actually make it work,” said Dustin Hansen, a game developer and the author of a book on video game history called “Game On!” “Where the circuit hits the board, he’s the guy.”

Dabney sounds like Woz to Bushnell's Steve Jobs. As much as I liked reading about Jobs, during his life and after, I never got through his posthumous biography. But I think I finished "iWoz" the day after I bought it.


Well Bushnell was a pretty solid engineer and unlike Jobs gave Dabney a lot if not all the credit for pong. He does a great interview with Gug Raz on How I Built This. Also, Busnell employed both Woz (well by proxy employed Woz) and Jobs and was offered a huge stake in Apple for about 50k which he turned down. The Atari team had a less diversified skillset than Apple, Jobs was great at business, design and Sales and Woz really complimented him with strong engineering. Both companies were amazing and made their mark on history.

I don't know if I agree Dabney was the Woz of Atari if yoh define it as the buisiness/engineering split at Apple. However, Bushnell empowered Dabney a lot in the early days and a case that Pong was Ataris Apple II could be made.


That’s partially because Jobs biography is awfully written and was such a waste of The access the author had.

Woz’s is easy to read.


> That’s partially because Jobs biography is awfully written

What was so awful about it?


Not the parent commenter, but my problem with "Jobs" was not the writing, but that Steve Jobs as a character was very hard to understand, after many chapters in the book. His personality and actions were just so erratic that I felt I was reading a bio about 4 different people named "Steve Jobs".

I don't know if I can blame it on the author though, because the early chapters were great -- it's what got me interested in reading more about Woz in the first place. What's ironic to me is that the "Jobs" biographer (Walter Isaacson) had full access to Jobs even in his last days. Of anyone who wrote about Jobs, Isaacson probably had the most exposure to all the sides of Jobs and might have the truest depiction of Jobs, erratic persona and all. It just wasn't interesting to read.

In contrast, "Bad Blood", the new book about Theranos by John Carreyrou, the WSJ reporter who exposed Theranos, has a thorough and entertaining depiction of Elizabeth Holmes, even though she has refused every of his interview requests. The info about her comes completely from second hand sources. I don't mention Holmes in the context of Jobs to imply that Jobs (for all his warts) was anywhere near the same level of asshole that Holmes seems to be. But Carreyrou frequently mentions Holmes -- not just because she worshipped Jobs -- but because everyone tells Carreyrou how Holmes had the similar superpower of reality-distortion. Reading "Bad Blood" is like reading a book about Jobs and Apple, if Jobs and Apple were a complete scam that never actually created anything.


Interesting. I wonder if that highlights a human flaw, that we prefer a story with a coherent narrative to one that accurately chronicles human complexity and irrationality.


Big fan of Isaacson's Benjamin Franklin biography, but also did not enjoy his Jobs one. The most interesting part of the story was when Jobs returned to Apple and executed perfectly on everything. It seemed that he'd learned some very important lessons and had undergone quite the transformation. The book doesn't hint at what he'd learned; it just recounts things happening really well. It left so many unanswered questions, and didn't even notice they were there to be explored.


> It seemed that he'd learned some very important lessons and had undergone quite the transformation.

"Becoming Steve Jobs" by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli deals with exactly this theme of his personal growth and learning. I got far more out of it than Isaacson's book and would recommend it over Isaacson to anyone interested in reading a Jobs biography.


Same — the Isaacson book doesn’t provide any insight into the man. ‘Becoming Steve Jobs’ does.


It provides no insight, asked Jobs no real questions, and provided very little outside of a quote filled list of what he'd done... which we already knew.


> “A computer was too slow to do anything at video speeds anyway. So once Ted had invented his motion circuit, this trick, you didn’t need the computer anymore.”

I'm surprised to learn that Pong had no computer, no microcontroller, no software! Just analog and digital circuits.


I started learning about digital logic a few years after Pong came out, and hefore microprocessors were affordable.

It didn’t take long to realise that Pong was an insanely clever masterpiece of digital design.

It looks like the simplest thing ever, but it stores and manipulates representations of three objects plus two score fields, composites them into a 2D representation, and converts that representation into two linear video scan signals - all with discrete logic.

It’s mindbendingly brilliant.


> "Atari’s Arcade Pong PCB contained 66 IC’s. Gates and flip flops of every kind, a pair of 555 timer IC’s and a few transistors. It was simply hard wired TTL logic and predates microprocessor and software controlled video games."

Source: http://www.pong-story.com/LAWN_TENNIS.pdf


In the late 80s, I had gotten hold of a Pong table.

Went to explore it, as it was not working, I was amazed to see no CPU. Inside, there was a C sized paper blueprint of the schematic. Wish I still had it.

Timers, latches, etc... the circuit was the game. Very cool.


There was a Gamers exhibition that went through Melbourne and Wellington where you could play older versions of Pong and Asteroids, among tons and tons of other games old and new.

One of the amazing things about retro arcade games like Asteroids was just how clear and precise all those vector graphics were. When they're being drawn with analog circuitry with those perfect darks and brights, you get a really immersive world from a very simple concept. It was really amazing.


To be clear, the Asteroids era arcade units had microprocessors (Atari coin-op engineers tended to use 6502s then), in addition to a boardful of glorious digital and analog stuff to drive the vector display.


You'll definitely want to read Jed Margolin's "The Secret Life of Vector Generators"

http://www.jmargolin.com/vgens/vgens.htm

And "The Secret Life of XY Monitors"

http://www.jmargolin.com/xy/xymon.htm

(Jed was an Atari engineer during the vector era and beyond)


The Computer History Museum interviewed Dabney in 2012:

http://archive.computerhistory.org/resources/access/text/201...

(29 page PDF.)


RIP


A loss.


With no disrespect to Dabney, but these kinds of obituaries make HN kind of morbid in my opinion.




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