Allan Alcorn was desperate when he hired a young school dropout named Steve Jobs.
Atari, the fledgling computer game company he worked for, was scrambling to recruit staff after the sudden success of its first game, Pong. Now here is a young hipster in sandals, waiting at the reception and asking for a job as a technician.
“It was 1973 and there was this kid, maybe 18, who was so into technology – said his name was Steve Jobs,” Alcorn told the Post. “So I hired him.”
But there were two not inconsiderable issues with the new recruit — big enough to get Jobs kicked off the day shift.
“It was a bit of a pain working with him and he had this real body odor problem, so we had him work nights,” Alcorn recalled of the man who would go on to found Apple computers. “It was better for everyone”
November 29 marks the 50th anniversary of Pong, the revolutionary computer game designed by Alcorn, first rolled out in California and later around the world, taking computer games from the lab to the mainstream.
Pong pioneered the home video game explosion, but Alcorn is pretty humble about its accomplishments.
“I don’t know, I guess I found the easiest game you could think of,” the 74-year-old said. “I mean, what is Pong? Two paddles. A net. A moving object…and massively addictive.
A graduate in electronics engineering from the University of California at Berkeley, he had paid for his college education by working as a television repairman before working at Ampex, a large engineering company in Redwood City, California.
It was there that he met Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, the duo that would form Atari. They recruited Alcorn, then 24, in June 1972, making him the company’s third employee. (He still has his worker badge, with employee number 003, to prove it.)
“We had no money, no manufacturing capacity, nothing. But I just thought, ‘I’m going to keep going until it blows up,'” said Alcorn, who was paid $250 a week. “It seemed like fun.”
It was low budget to the point of being a one man operation.
“People ask me ‘who made the sound on Pong?’ I did it. Or ‘who did the graphics on Pong?’ I did,” he said. “Back then it was just me, left on my own for two months and there was Pong at the end.”
Then there was its own form of beta testing. In September 1972, after programming the game was complete, Alcorn purchased a black-and-white Hitachi television set from Walgreens and enclosed it in a tabletop box containing all the circuitry. He installed a coin box from a laundromat, with a sawn-off plastic milk jug underneath to catch the money.
Next stop was Andy Capp’s Tavern, one of the local Atari team bars in Sunnyvale, California, about 10 minutes from the city of Cupertino, Apple’s future headquarters. Alcorn left the game between a pinball machine and a jukebox and waited. “I just wanted to see if anyone would play the damn thing,” he recalled.
A few days later, the bar owner called the Atari office. Pong had gone wrong.
“It didn’t surprise me that it broke because it wasn’t built to last,” said Alcorn, who went to the bar to check it out.
The next day, he walked by Nolan Bushnell’s office and threw a large bag of parts on his desk. “I said, ‘I’ve found the problem – this fucking thing is making too much money,'” he recalls The coin collector was full.
Alcorn replaced the milk jug with a larger loaf pan, and Atari got to work. Soon after, the first batch of 12 coin-operated Pong machines were installed in bars across California. They cost $500 to make, and Atari sold them for $1,000 cash up front. The company grew rapidly and even expanded overseas.
By 1975 the company was selling a home console version of Pong – and its rapid success put Atari on the radar of some much larger companies. But it was an upstart who approached Alcorn for help.
When former employee Steve Jobs co-founded a new personal computer company, Apple, in 1976 with his pal Steve Wozniak, they offered stock to Alcorn in exchange for solving a technical problem.
“I told them to give me one of their computers instead,” he recalled of his costly misstep.
Jobs, Wozniak and the whole Apple team came to his Alcorn to install his new Apple II.
“There were about a dozen people there and they set it up and showed me how to get it to work on the TV,” he recalls. “After they left, I told my wife that I could make this computer do anything. She said ‘Great, let him wash the dishes.’ When I said it couldn’t do that, she just said, ‘Well, get that fucking thing out of the living room. I want to watch television.
Meanwhile, Warner Communications made a deal to buy Atari for $30 million in 1976.
“And I was like, ‘Holy shit! I got 10% equity!’ Alcorn said.
While the move to Warner made financial sense, it didn’t quite work out the way Alcorn, Bushnell and Dabney envisioned. Atari loved a bet; Warner had no appetite for risk.
“They had money and marketing expertise, but they didn’t understand games — and they didn’t understand Silicon Valley,” Alcorn said. “You know, we’ve had a bunch of failures at Atari that aren’t too famous, but if you have to get it right every time, you’ll never be creative.”
By 1981, it was clear that Alcorn was no longer wanted at Warner, even though Atari’s sales were now over $1 billion a year and they controlled around 75% of the home video game market with hits like Space Invaders, Asteroids and Centipedes. .
Warner put him on paid leave for two years. “They put us on the beach. They paid us full salary and everything. I even had a company car so I didn’t show up,” Alcorn said with a laugh.
In 1985 he was made an Apple Fellow by Steve Jobs, for his work on digital video compression, but Alcorn admitted he had reservations about working with Jobs again.
“I didn’t really want to work for the guy. He could be a real villain to work for,” he said. “But it sounded interesting and, you know, it was Apple.”
One of the last things he worked on at Apple was a project to compress video into a data type, making it smaller and more versatile.
“I had no idea it would end up filling the internet with videos of puppies and cats,” he said.
Now retired, Alcorn’s ingenuity is rightly recognized for the role she played in creating the global video game industry we know today.
Pong, meanwhile, still remains popular.
In March, Alcorn sold the original prototype home version of Pong at auction in Boston, Mass. for $270,910. “My wife told me to clear out the garage and he was just sitting there,” he said with a shrug.
“I keep a few things, but if somebody wants to give me a quarter million dollars for something like that, then go ahead, be my guest.”
Recently, researchers from Cortical Labs in Melbourne, Australia successfully taught networks of brain cells in a Petri dish how to play Pong, in an attempt to demonstrate “synthetic biological intelligence”.
And, half a century later, people are still playing the game too.
“I was at a gaming convention and there was this kid playing alone on an old Pong arcade machine,” Alcorn said. “So I went to see it and played it.
“When I beat him, I said, ‘You know, years ago I was the best pong player in the world.
“Bulls-t,” said the kid.
What Alcorn didn’t tell the kid: “Actually, for a few months, I was the only pong player in the world.”
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