022 – Playing with computers – 1962

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Everyone who’s ever taken a shower has an idea. It’s the person who gets out of the shower,
dries off and does something about it who makes a difference.  Nolan Bushnell

MIT sequentially installed Whirlwind, TX-0, TX-2, IBM 7090, IBM 704, PDP-1 and other early computers.  Ready access to these was to be a turning point towards the PC.

A number of MIT students were members of the Tech Model Railroad Club, a club that operated a massive model railway and developed interesting technology to manage it.  These hands-on can- do individuals  met computers that they had to queue to use, guarded by a ‘priesthood’ that was dedicated to keeping students at bay.  The TMRC sought better access by picking obscure times, often overnight, to hone their skills.

Slug Russell, Wayne Witaenem and J Martin Graetz met at MIT while working on statistical calculations with an IBM 704.  When MIT’s TX-0 arrived they were among the first to experience a computer with a terminal rather than feeding it punched cards.  But it was the PDP-1 that inspired them to produce Spacewar!

Russell, an E E ‘Doc’ Smith sci-fi fan, developed a space battle game.  There were two different rocket ships able to fire torpedoes.  If a torpedo coalesced with a rocket on the screen an explosion was displayed.  It had a random background of stars and four simple controls – rotate clockwise, rotate anticlockwise, accelerate and fire.

Members of the TMRC club encouraged openness in their software, allowing and encouraging others to take their work forward by making improvements and add-ons.

Dan Edwards added a ‘sun’ and a gravitational effect that pulled the ships to disaster or could be used to slingshot a rocket and add speed.  Shag Garetz added the facility for an opponent to disappear in hyperspace – a feature of last resort as when the rocket re-emerged at a new random location it might be next to the sun and unable to escape its gravitational pull.

DEC found Spacewar! to be a perfect game to test its products at installation; soon every PDP computer was shipped with it.

Nolan Bushnell (of Atari) encountered Spacewar! and was motivated to develop a coin-op arcade game.

1971 Bill Pitts and Hugh Tuck at Stanford installed a coin-op game at a student union building.  It was a version of Spacewar! that they called Galaxy Game.  But run on a PDP-11, costing $20,000, it would have taken a long time to recoup the investment at 10 cents per game.

Back at MIT, Edward O Thorp used the IBM 704 to analyse the casino game of blackjack.  He visited over eighty casinos in Nevada before producing his paper ‘A Favorable Strategy for Blackjack’.

He proved Blackjack had the least favourable odds of all the casino games.  However he established that if all the 5s had been used from the packs the packs, then the odds of winning increased by around 3%.  There were decling increases if the 4s and 6s, 3s and 7s or 2s and 8s had gone – there was I worrying about aces and court cards!  He proposed using minimum bets until any of those had been used and then switching to maximum wagers.

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