Space Wars was the first vector-driven arcade game. Its success would enable Atari to create their own vector generator creating games such as Asteroids and Battlezone. Space Wars also enabled a fledgling company called Cinematronics (established in 1975) to finally be a part of the major arcade craze that hit, although Space Invaders wouldn’t come around for another year. Space Wars has its roots 15 years prior in a computer game called Spacewar!. Steve Russell was asked to demonstrate the capabilities of the PDP-1 in 1962 at MIT. He decided that since the space-race was on, a spaceship simulator/trainer would be the logical next step. With the help of others, they got a working version of said trainer done in 1962. Improvements followed and the finished product was distributed to other college campuses. In the late 1960’s, Larry Rosenthal, a student at MIT, saw this game and decided that he could create a system that would specifically run this game and even offer the possibility of it being a commercial success. After being turned down by several of the big name arcade machine manufacturers, he happened upon Cinematronics, which desperately needed a good game to keep its doors open. Larry provided said game in the form of Spacewars. In the next few pages you will get to hear from both the creator of Spacewar! and the creator of Space Wars. If you want to see a simulation of the original game on a simulated PDP-1, and also the pre-compiled code (all public domain), head to this site: https://www.masswerk. at/spacewar/
My first interview was with Steve Russell, the original creator of Spacewar! It was an honor to hear about the beginnings and what went into one of the first games.
OSG: When did you first get interested in computers and electronics?
STEVE Russell (SR): When I was in grade and middle school, I had a Lionel Train set. It was here I learned how to put electronics together and learned about circuits. I continued to expand upon this knowledge in high school. In 1949, at the age of 12, I was visiting an uncle in the Boston/Cambridge area. It was here that I saw a Harvard Mark I computer (an electro-mechanical system). It used a big ship’s propeller shaft running the width of the room for timing and power. It used paper tape and cards for program input while it used a typewriter to print out results and tables. This was designed by Professor Aiken. After seeing this, I took a basic electricity course and got into ham radio. I also learned about circuits by disassembling and reassembling WWII radio receivers.
OSG: After you graduated high school, what did you do to pursue you interest in electronics and computing?
SR: From 1954-1958, I decided to get a degree in Mathematics from Dartmouth. During my junior year, I took a summer job working with John McCarthy at MIT in electrical engineering. I did work on an IBM 704 that was just installed and we were using the latest compiler which happened to be FORTRAN. I did “number crunching” and learned about using punched cards for programming. In my senior year, I started programming for an LGP-30 which was a small computer with a magnetic drum and a typewriter.
In the fall of 1958, I started working at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Project for professors Marvin Minsky and John McCarthy. Professor McCarthy figured out that something was needed that was close to FORTRAN, but suitable for manipulating symbols as found in mathematical expressions. He, therefore, created primitives to implement list processing on the IBM 704. This meta-notation was designed for humans to make it easier to code. Professor McCarthy wrote a simple expression for an expression evaluator in this new language, which he called LISP, and I translated this expression evaluator into 704 assembler language.