* January 1962 - Russell completes "bare bones" version of Spacewar
* May 1962 - Spacewar featured at MIT open house
* September 1962 - Russell completes updated MIT version of Spacewar
* Fall, 1962 - Russell moves to Stanford to join John McCarthy
* 1961 or 1962 (Fall?) - Nolan Bushnell begins studies at Utah State
* 1965 - David Evans accepts offer to come to University of Utah and establish the Computer Science department.
* 1964 or 1965 (Fall?) - Nolan Bushnell transfers to University of Utah
* 1966 - Ralph Baer begins working on what later becomes the "brown box"/Odyssey
* November, 1966 - Univac 1108 arrives at University of Utah computer lab
* 1968 - Ivan Sutherland comes to University of Utah to join David Evans in the Computer Science department
* March 18, 1968 - Ralph Baer files for patent on "Recording crt light gun and method"
* 1969 - Nolan Bushnell encounters Space war at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab (SAIL)
* May 27, 1969 - William Rusch files for patent on "Television Gaming Apparatus"
* August 21, 1969 - Rusch, Baer, and William Harrison file for patent on "Television Gaming Apparatus"
* March 22, 1971 - Baer files for a patent on "Television gaming and training apparatus" (the "480" patent)
* August 10, 1971 - Baer's light gun patent granted
* November, 1971 - First Computer Space sales begin.
* June 27, 1972 - Atari is officially incorporated
* August, 1972 - Magnavox Odyssey released in North America
* ca mid-August, 1972 - First Pong prototype is placed on location at Andy Capp's for field testing.
* November, 1972 - Pong is "released"
* November 24, 1972 - Nolan Bushnell filed for patent on "Video image positioning control system for amusement device"
* February 19, 1974 - Bushnell's patent granted
* April, 1974 - Magnavox files its first patent infringement
Anyway, on to the depositions
[NOTE - The first question that may come up here is why the court spends so much time on this issue. You might think that it was just the court going over minutiae in mind-numbing detail, as they did with Nolan's employment history, but here the issue is likely more substantial.
At issue is exactly when Nolan got the idea for a video game and, more importantly, if he did so before Ralph Baer.
From a legal standpoint, I’m not entirely sure of the details of exactly what Atari’s claim was (if any). Were they trying to show that Baer’s patents were invalid due to Nolan’s “prior art”? Were they trying to show that Bushnell hadn’t violated Baer’s patents because he got the idea first?
We'll continue to discuss this as we go along, but I thought I'd mention a few things here.
First, the defendants in the various Magnavox lawsuits made numerous attempts to declare Magnavox’s patents invalid. The most common ways to invalidate a patent are to show that it was not original due to “prior art” (i.e. someone else did it first), to show that it was “obvious” (one requirement for a patent was that it had to be for something that is non-obvious), or to show that the patent application was improper. In the Magnavox cases, the defendants tried all three and more. A number of proposed examples or prior art were brought forward, including Spacewar. We’ll get into specifics later on.
Of course, if Atari was trying to show that Baer’s patents were invalid or that Nolan didn’t infringe on them, they’d have to do a lot more than show that Nolan had merely played Spacewar at University of Utah. At a minimum, it seem he would have actually had to have had a patentable idea. He would not necessarily had to have built anything. Technically, to get a patent, you only have to describe something thoroughly enough that it could be built (though I should say that I am no legal expert). So if this is Atari’s strategy, this is only part of it.
Having said that, however, there are a couple of questions/issues.
First is that the 1965 date has been seriously called into question. Curt Vendel and Marty Goldberg made an extensive effort to vet the claim (along with various others) and the results (which you can read about here) don’t bode well for the 1965 date.
Second, I doubt if Nolan could have known about the 1966 date at this point. AFAIK, it was never mentioned in any of the patent applications.
[Note - this is somewhat significant as it shows that Nolan was talking about the computer center at Utah’s graphics lab (as opposed to another lab on campus).
One issue here is that the University of Utah had just established its Computer Science department in 1965 and David Evans (who founded and ran the graphics lab) had just arrived that year. I’m not sure how much of a lab they could have had by the fall of 1965 and I don’t think the graphics program had really gotten started yet (I don’t think it really kicked into high gear until Ivan Sutherland arrived in 1968)]
[NOTE – Yes, I know that it’s spelled Spacewar or Spacewar! But I’m using the spelling used in the depositions.]
Q. Could you describe how Space War was played?
A. Gee, don't you know by now? It's a rocket ship game in which you fire missiles at the other rocket ships. In some versions there is a sun and in sun versions there aren't, and I don't remember whether this one had a sun or not. It turns out having a sun with gravity is one of the tougher programming problems.
[NOTE – I love Nolan's smart aleck answer here. As mentioned above, by this time Magnavox’s lawyers had likely discussed the details of Spacewar ad nauseum.]
Q. On this first occasion when you saw this game you just walked into the computer center and the game was being played at that time?
[NOTE – As discussed in the link above, this appears to be a major problem with Nolan’s claim. The Univac 1108 didn’t arrive until November of 1966. The lab did have an IBM 7044 (not a 7094) but that supposedly didn’t have a graphical display. The university also had a PDP-8 that was used as a graphics buffer for the Univac and it had both a vector and a raster terminal but the vector terminal didn’t arrive until November, 1966 either. Vendel and Goldberg consider it unlikely that a raster port of Spacewar had been created. In addition, they claim that the PDP-8 was almost entirely dedicated to actual research.
On an interesting side note, Sperry Rand/Univac actually had a major factory in Salt Lake City that employed over 2,000 people in the late 1960s. It was initially known as Sperry Utah Division but later renamed UNIVAC Salt Lake City.]
[NOTE – This part is true. The University did indeed replace the 7044 with a Univac 1108.]
[NOTE – This is another interesting claim. The original version of Spacewar didn’t print “Bang” or “Boom” or anything else on the screen. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of a version that did (though I haven’t really looked into the issue). Nor does it seem to me that this would have been a trivial addition. It would be interesting to see if any of the Stanford versions of the game had such a feature and, if so, if it was original to them.]
A. I think it just turned into some dots. You know, it’s one of those things.
Q. Did the dots go off in different direction, or did the dots stay in the same spot that the rocket ship had before it disintegrated?
[NOTE – This may seem like
more pointless minutia, but it is actually far from it. This touches on the
issue of exactly what the Magnavox patents actually covered. The 507 patent,
for example, covered “an
apparatus for generating symbols upon the screen to the receiver to be
manipulated by at least one participant, comprising a means for generating a
hitting symbol and the means for generating a hit symbol, including means for ascertaining coincidence
between said hitting symbol and hit symbol and means for imparting a distinct motion to said hit symbol upon
coincidence" (emphasis mine). In other words, Baer’s (on in this case,
Rusch’s) patents covered detecting when two objects on the screen touched one
another and when one object (such as a paddle) imparted motion to another (such
as a ball) under player control. This goes far beyond just ball-and-paddle games. While this might seem overly broad to modern
readers, two things should be borne in mind. First, Baer’s patent was a
“pioneer patent” and was thus supposed to be interpreted broadly. Even more
important, however, is that, as simple as they might seem today in the age of
software, things like “ascertaining coincidence” between objects and “imparting
motion” were far from trivial in the late 1960s, when they had to be achieved using
hardware to control the signal from a standard TV set.
So plaintiff’s lawyer here appears to be trying to establish whether or not Spacewar involved “ascertaining coincidence” or “imparting a distinct motion”. This issue came up repeatedly (and I mean repeatedly) in the various trials. For the most part (IIRC), it was ruled that Spacewar did not involve these things. Though on at least one occasion the judge ruled that it did (though he still ruled that it did not invalidate Baer’s patents). Similarly, with the issue of vector vs. raster, for the most part, the court held that, as a vector game, Spacewar was not germane to the Baer patents (again, however, on at least one occasion, the judge ruled that the vector/raster distinction was irrelevant). Baer’s patents only covered producing images on a raster display, which uses entirely different than doing do on a vector display.]
A. Later than that I’ve seen one which, you know, there was essentially a boundary that you had to stay inside of and in some of the versions if you hit the boundary the rocket ship
Q. When you first aw this Space War game in this first session that you’re talking about, did you play the game yourself?
A. It was Jim Davies, but I don’t think that’s right. Jim D.
Q. Do you know his name?
A. I don’t know.
Q. Do you know what form the program was in at that time?
A. No, I can’t
Q. Was it necessary for that particular graduate student to be present before somebody could play Space War at that particular institution?
A. I don’t know.
Q. After this first session when you saw Space War shortly after going to the University of Utah that your next activity with relation to the apparatus for playing games using a cathode-ray tube display?
A. Well, it was about, Oh, somewhere around a year later and one of my fraternity brothers got involved in the computer center a little bit more introduced me to several of the people and we got talking about the games and I thought would be kind of fun to learn how to program games.
Q. You say this is approximately a year after you saw Space War game for the first time? Who
[NOTE - I actually found that kind of funny, but it's probably just me. On a more serious note, this is another possible problem. Goldberg and Vendel were unable to find any evidence of a FORTRAN version of Spacewar at University of Utah or anywhere else in this timeframe. I don't have access to all their evidence, so I can't say that no such version existed or that some anonymous programmer couldn't have ported it, but at present, the claim is uncorroborated.]
Q. This was the Space War program?
[NOTE - Okay, now we have something more than just playing the game. Nolan says he actually made some modifications to it. Again, however, I don't think this would have had much bearing on the issue at hand since Spacewar wasn't his game. As mentioned earlier, it was also deemed irrelevant to the Baer patents, but this had probably not been established at this point In any event, if it were deemed relevant, it seems that Nolan's modifications would have had to made it so in order for them to be germane.]
If you're taking the flying algorithm, then you're moving in a direction wherever you are pointing. But that's a very simple modification to the program.
[NOTE again that Nolan seems to be saying here that after the quarter in question, he didn't have much, if anything, to do with computer games until he saw them at Stanford in 1969. As to what other games he might have programmed at Utah, we'll be going over that in some detail soon.]
To be continued...
In the meantime, here's another Atari document. In this case, it's the royalty agreement between Midway and Atari.