Allan Alcorn was desperate when he hired a young college dropout named Steve Jobs.
Atari, the fledgling computer games company he worked for, was hiring after the sudden success of their first game, Pong. Here a young hippie in sandals was waiting at the reception desk and asked for a job as a technician.
“It was 1973 and there was this boy, maybe 18, who was just so passionate about technology – said his name was Steve Jobs,” Alcorn told the Post. “So I hired him.”
But there were two not inconsiderable problems with the new employee – big enough that Jobs was kicked out of the day shift.
“He was pretty exhausting to work with 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 Computer. “It was better for everyone”
On November 29th, it will be 50 years since Pong, the groundbreaking computer game that Alcorn created, first launched across California and later around the world, taking computer games out of the lab and into the mainstream.
Pong pioneered the home video game explosion, but Alcorn is fairly modest about its accomplishments.
“I don’t know, I think I came up with the simplest game imaginable,” said the 74-year-old. “I mean, what’s Pong? Two paddles. A net. A moving object… and massively addictive.”
A University of California, Berkeley, electrical engineering graduate, he had made a living working as a television repairman before taking a job at Ampex, a large engineering firm in Redwood City, California.
There he met Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, the duo who would go on to found Atari. They recruited Alcorn, who was 24 in June 1972, and made him the company’s third employee. (As proof, he still has his worker ID card with employee number 003.)
“We had no money, no manufacturing capacity, nothing. But I was just like, ‘I’ll keep going until it blows up,'” said Alcorn, who was paid $250 a week. “It sounded like fun.”
It was low budget to a one man operation.
“People ask me, ‘Who made the sound on Pong?’ I did. Or ‘Who made the graphics on Pong?’ I have,” he said. “It was just me back then, on my own for two months and it ended up being Pong.”
Next up was his own form of beta testing. In September 1972, when the game’s programming was complete, Alcorn purchased a black-and-white Hitachi television from Walgreens and packed it in a tabletop box with all the circuitry. He assembled a coin box from a laundromat, including a sawn-off plastic milk jug, to hold the money.
The next stop was Andy Capp’s Tavern, one of the Atari team’s local 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 was going to play the damn thing,” he recalled.
A few days later, the bar owner called the Atari office. Pong had gone wrong.
“I wasn’t surprised it broke because it wasn’t built to last,” said Alcorn, who went to the bar to check it out.
The next day he went to Nolan Bushnell’s office and dropped a large bag of quarters on his desk. “I said, ‘I’ve found the problem — the goddam thing is making too much money,'” he recalled. The coin collector was full.
Alcorn replaced the milk jug with a larger bread pan, and Atari went to work. Soon after, the first batch of 12 coin-operated pong machines were installed in bars across California. It cost $500 to manufacture, and Atari sold it up front for $1,000. The business grew rapidly and even spread 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 asked Alcorn for help.
When veteran employee Steve Jobs and his sidekick Steve Wozniak started a new home computer company, Apple, in 1976, they offered Alcorn equity to solve a technical problem.
“I told them to just give me one of their computers instead,” he recalled his costly misstep.
Jobs, Wozniak and the entire Apple team came to Alcorn’s house to install his new Apple II.
“There were about a dozen people who set it up and showed me how to get it working on TV,” he recalls. “After they left, I told my wife I could make this computer do anything. She said, “Great, let it wash the dishes.” When I said I couldn’t, she just said, “Well, get the goddamn thing out of the living room. I want to watch tv.”
Meanwhile, Warner Communications made a deal to buy Atari for $30 million in 1976.
“And I was like, ‘Holy shit! I have 10 percent stock!” said Alkorn.
While the move to Warner made financial sense, it didn’t quite work out the way Alcorn, Bushnell and Dabney had envisioned. Atari loved a gamble; Warner had no willingness to take risks.
“They had money and marketing experience, but they didn’t understand games — and they didn’t understand Silicon Valley,” Alcorn said. “You know, we had a bunch of bugs at Atari that aren’t too famous, but if you have to get it right every time, you’re never going to 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 Centipede.
Warner put him on paid leave for two years. “They took us to the beach. They paid us full salary and everything. I even had a company car that I didn’t show up in,” Alcorn said, laughing.
In 1985 he was named 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 really mean guy to work for,” he said. “But it sounded interesting and it was Apple.”
One of the last things he worked on at Apple was a project that compressed video to become a data type, making it smaller and more versatile.
“I had no idea it would end up filling the internet with puppy and cat videos,” he said.
Now retired, Alcorn’s ingenuity is justly recognized for the role it played in creating the global video game industry as we know it today.
Pong, on the other hand, remains popular.
In March, Alcorn sold the original prototype home version of Pong at an auction in Boston, Mass. for $270,910. “My wife told me to clear out the garage and she just stood there,” he said with a shrug.
“I keep a few things, but if someone wants to give me a quarter of a million dollars for something like that, be my guest.”
Recently, researchers at Cortical Labs in Melbourne, Australia, managed to teach networks of brain cells in a petri dish how to play pong to demonstrate “synthetic biological intelligence”.
And half a century later, people are still playing the game.
“I was at a game fair and this kid was playing an old arcade pong machine by himself,” Alcorn said. “So I went over and played against him.
“When I beat him, I said, ‘You know, years ago I was the best pong player in the world.’
“Bulls-t,” said the boy.
What Alcorn didn’t tell the boy: “Actually, I was the only pong player in the world for a few months.”