25 January 1947: the world’s first video game is patented

Video games, computer games, virtual reality – it’s a multi-billion pound industry that’s developing at an astounding pace. It’s still a young industry, but it’s been around for a few years now – quite possibly a fair bit longer than you might think.

Ask anyone (well, not anyone) what the first video game was and they’ll usually reply “Pong”, the simple tennis simulator made by Atari and released in 1972. A year before that, however, came “Computer Space”, made by the founders of Atari, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney. It was a sort of primitive asteroids/space invaders hybrid.

And before that, in 1958, there was the proto-Pong “Tennis for Two”, developed on an analogue computer at the US Atomic Energy Commission’s Brookhaven National Laboratory.

But the first video game to be invented came 24 years earlier. It was the snappily titled “Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device”. Its inventors, Thomas T Goldsmith and Estle Ray Mann, submitted a patent for it on this day in 1947.

The game was based on WW2 radar screens, and appears to be similar to the 1980 Atari classic “Missile Command”. A description of the game is given in the patent application:

“A cathode-ray tube is used upon the face of which the trace of the ray or electron beam can be seen. One or more targets, such as pictures of airplanes, for example, are placed upon the-face of the tube and controls are available to the player so that he can manipulate the trace or position of the beam which is automatically caused to move across the face of the tube.”

The patent was granted in December 1948. But the game never actually made it into production.

  • Very cool thanks for writing this article

  • marty_goldberg

    Nobody actually calls this a video game, its an EM (electro mechanical) game. Simply the first use of a CRT in an amusement device. The CRT is used as a prop, everything is done mechanically through gears. Including all game play and movement of the CRT beam itself. They could have used a flashlight with a sheet if they wanted to.

  • marty_goldberg

    So people understand what this is: It’s basically a giant mechanical etch-a-sketch. You’re using mechanical controls to manually move the CRT beam around the screen, I.E. directly mechanically moving the CRT gun. You’re trying to move the CRT gun so it points to predefined angles where paper targets were taped onto the screen. When you move the gears in place to the pre-defined positions it counts as a “hit.” The challenge is that the gears are purposely not accurate and make it hard to control it with precision. All of this is why the CRT serves no real purpose and could have easily been substituted with a flashlight and sheet, and why it’s never been considered a video game by people familiar with it. It was simply included in Ralph Baer’s landmark patent because it’s a prior instance of an amusement device that used a CRT.

  • David Winter

    I was responsible for finding this patent again while searching through
    Magnavox stuff in 2001 after visiting Ralph Baer (I was one of his closest associates). At least, I was the first t document it on my Pong-Story site.
    Of course X/Y ploting devices like this early target shooting games are now called video games, but they are not. All you do is use analog potentiometers to move a unique spot on the screen.Once the spot became stationary a clever circuit altered the focus to simulate an explosion. That was really clever ! The game used an overlay as well. Just like with Higginbotham’s Tennis For Two, this was NOT a video game, but certainly a clever precursor.
    Remember that the original concept of a “video game” is a device that generates VIDEO signals sent to a monitor or television set to display a game. By the way, would you call “CD” a 5-inch Berliner record from 1900 because it’s a record ? Certainly not as you know the differences between a gramophone record and a CD. It’s pretty much the same with X/Y ploting game simulators and video games.
    Another thing: don’t forget what happened in 1985: Nintendo tried to void Ralph Baer’s video game patents by showing Higginbotham’s 1958 game. The experts concluded that Higginbotham’s game was not a video game, making Nintendo loose the suit and pay for the royalties they owed to Magnavox (and thus, Sanders
    Associates).
    One true credit for the 1947 game is that it was the first patented game to make use of a CRT. But no video signals were involved, so it wasn’t a video game.

    You’ll find much more on my Pong-Story web site: not only the 1947 target shooting game and Higginbotham’s game, but also a lot about the early video game
    development and marketting.