Allan Alcorn was desperate when he hired a young college dropout named Steve Jobs.
Atari, the fledgling computer games company he worked for, was scrambling to staff up after the sudden success of its first game, Pong. Now, here was a young hippie in sandals, waiting in reception and asking for a job as a technician.
“It was 1973 and there was this kid, 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-insignificant problems with the new hire — big enough that Jobs got kicked off the day shift.
“He was kind of a pain to work with and he had this real problem with body odor, so we made him work nights,” Alcorn recalled of the man who would go on to found Apple computers. “It was better for everyone,”
November 29 marks 50 years since Pong, the groundbreaking computer game that Alcorn designed, first rolled out across California and, later, the world — taking computer games from laboratories to the mainstream.
Pong pioneered the explosion of at-home video gaming, but Alcorn is pretty modest about his accomplishments.
“I don’t know, I guess I came up with the simplest possible game you could ever think of,” the 74-year-old said. “I mean, what is Pong? Two paddles. A net. One moving object … and massively addictive.”
An electronic-engineering graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, had paid his way through college by working as a TV repairman before taking a job at Ampex, a large engineering firm in Redwood City, Calif.
That’s where he met Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, the duo who would go on to form Atari. They recruited Alcorn, then 24 in June 1972, making him he became the company’s third employee. (He still has his worker badge, with the employee number 003, to prove it.)
“We had no money, no manufacturing capacity, no nothing. But I just thought, ‘I’ll go along with it until it blows up,’” said Alcorn, who was paid $250 a week. “It sounded like it might be fun.”
It was low-budget to the point of being a one-man operation.
“People ask me ‘who did the sound on Pong?’ I did. Or ‘who did the graphics on Pong?’ I did,” he said. “Back then it was just me, left to my own devices for two months and there was Pong at the end of it.”
Up next was his own form of beta testing. In September 1972, with the game’s programming completed, Alcorn bought a black-and-white Hitachi TV from Walgreens and encased it in a tabletop box containing all the circuits. He fitted a coin box from a laundromat, with a sawn-off plastic milk jug underneath to catch the cash.
Next stop was Andy Capp’s Tavern, one of the Atari team’s local bars in Sunnyvale, Calif. — about 10 minutes from the town of Cupertino, the future home of Apple’s headquarters. Alcorn left the game between a pinball machine and a jukebox and waited. “I just wanted to see if anybody would play the darn thing,” he recalled.
A few days later, the bar owner called the Atari office. Pong had gone wrong.
“It didn’t surprise me it was broken because it wasn’t built to last,” said Alcorn, who went to the bar to check it out.
The following day, he swung by Nolan Bushnell’s office and dumped a large bag of quarters on his desk. “I said: ‘I found the problem — the goddamn thing’s making too much money,” he recalled. The coin collector was full.
Alcorn replaced the milk jug with a bigger bread pan, and Atari got to work. Soon after, the first run of 12 coin-operated Pong machines was installed in bars across California. They cost $500 to make and Atari was selling them for $1,000 cash upfront. The business grew quickly and even spread overseas.
By 1975, the company was selling a home console version of Pong — and its speedy success put Atari on the radar of some much bigger companies. But it was an upstart that approached Alcorn for help.
When old employee Steve Jobs co-founded a new home computer company, Apple, in 1976, with his buddy Steve Wozniak, they offered Alcorn equity in return for ironing out some technical issue.
“I told them to just give me one of their computers instead,” he recalled of his costly misstep.
Jobs, Wozniak, and the entire Apple team came to his Alcorn’s house to install his new Apple II.
“There were about a dozen people and they set it up and showed me how to get it work on the TV,” he recalled. “After they left, I told my wife that I could make this computer do anything. She said ‘Great, make it wash the dishes.’ When I told it couldn’t do that, she just said, “Well get the goddamn 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 s–t! I’ve got 10 percent stock!” Alcorn said.
Though the move to Warner made financial sense, it didn’t quite work out the way that Alcorn, Bushnell, and Dabney envisaged. Atari liked a gamble; 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,” said Alcorn. “You know, we had a bunch of failures 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 in excess of $1 billion a year and they controlled around 75% of the home video-game market with hits like Space Invaders, Asteroids ad Centipede.
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 not to show up in,” Alcorn said, laughing.
In 1985, he was appointed an Apple Fellow by Steve Jobs, for his work in 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 nasty guy 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 compressing video to become datatype, making it smaller and more versatile.
“Little did I know that it would end up filling the internet full of puppy and cat videos,” he said.
Now retired, Alcorn’s ingenuity is rightly recognized for the part it played in creating the global video game industry we know today.
Pong, meanwhile, remains ever-popular.
In March, Alcorn sold the original prototype of the home version of Pong at auction in Boston, Mass. for $270,910. “My wife told me to clear out the garage and it was just sitting there,” he said with a shrug.
“I do keep a few things but if someone wants to give me quarter of a million dollars for something like that then go ahead, be my guest.”
Recently, research scientists at Cortical Labs in Melbourne, Australia, managed to teach 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 games convention and there was this kid playing on an old arcade Pong machine by himself,” Alcorn said. “So I went over and played him.
“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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