When you ask most people what the first video game is, chances are they’ll mention Pong. Some people might mention Spacewar. And others might even go as far as to mention the Brown Box from the late 1960’s, a prototype of a multi-program, multiplayer video game system.
But the first patent for a video game system, with the earliest inkling of a game, was filed decades earlier — in 1947.
Popular Mechanics has written about the little-known history of the patent for the cathode-ray tube amusement device, courtesy of Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr and Estle Ray Mann.
Goldsmith isn’t typically heralded as the inventor of video games — that honour is bestowed to Ralph Baer, maker of the Brown Box and Pong. But Goldsmith’s patent in 1947 could be considered the progeny of the industry.
“This invention relates to a device with which a game can be played,” the patent reads. “The game is of such a character that it requires care and skill in playing it or operating the device with which the game is played. Skill can be increased with practice and the exercise of care contributes to success.”
The actual game involves the player moving knobs to move a beam to destroy a series of targets (“such as pictures of airplanes”) drawn by the CRT screen. “The movement of the beam may be periodic and its repetition rate may be varied,” the patent continues.
According to Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers historian Alex Magoun, however, no prototype of the invention would have been made and at any rate, it was only a demo. Allen B. DuMont had hired Goldsmith as his head of research, which granted Goldsmith the time and space to conceptualise his idea. But Magoun said DuMont “was constantly strapped for funds” and in 1960 the businessman sold the remaining shares in his company.
It’s a fascinating story and well worth a read if you’ve got some spare time over lunch or the ride home. And it’s also worth going over the details of the patent in a week where mass-market virtual reality headsets just landed in the hands of consumers, if only for a reminder of how far things have come.