Allan Alcorn was desperate when he hired a young college dropout named Steve Jobs.
Atari, the fledgling computer game company he worked for, was struggling to hire after the sudden success of its first game, Pong. Now, here was a young hippie in sandals, waiting at the front desk, asking for a job as a technician.
“It was 1973 and there was a guy, maybe 18 years old, who was so passionate about technology, he 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 to get Jobs kicked off the day shift.
“He was a little annoying to work with and he had a real problem with body odor, so we made him work at night,” Alcorn recalled of the man who would later found Apple Computers. “It was better for everyone”,
November 29 marks the 50th anniversary since Pong, the innovative computer game designed by Alcorn, was first released in California and, later, the world, bringing computer gaming from labs to the mainstream.
Pong pioneered the explosion of home video games, but Alcorn is rather modest about his achievements.
“I don’t know, I guess I just came up with the simplest game you can imagine,” the 74-year-old said. “I mean, what is Pong? Two palettes. A network. A moving object… and hugely addictive.”
An electronic engineering graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, he had paid his way through college working as a television repairman before taking a job at Ampex, a large engineering company in Redwood City, California.
There he met Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, the duo that would later form Atari. They recruited Alcorn, then 24, in June 1972, making him the company’s third employee. (He still has his worker badge, with employee number 003, to prove it.)
“We had no money, no manufacturing capacity, no nothing. But I thought, ‘I’ll keep going until it blows,’” said Alcorn, who was paid $250 a week. “It seemed like it could be fun.”
It was low budget to the point of being a one man operation.
“People ask me ‘who made the sound in Pong?’ I did. Or ‘who made the graphics in Pong?’ I did it,” she said. “Back then it was just me, left to fend for myself for two months and at the end there was Pong.”
Next up was its own form of beta testing. In September 1972, with the game’s programming complete, Alcorn purchased a black-and-white Hitachi television from Walgreens and packed it into a tabletop box containing all the circuitry. He placed a box of coins from a laundromat, with a cut-out plastic milk jug underneath to catch the money.
The next stop was Andy Capp’s Tavern, one of the Atari team’s local bars in Sunnyvale, California, about 10 minutes from the city of Cupertino, the future home of Apple’s headquarters. Alcorn set the game between a pinball machine and a jukebox and waited. “I just wanted to see if anyone would play the damn thing,” he recalled.
A few days later, the owner of the bar called the Atari office. Pong had been wrong.
“I wasn’t surprised that it was broken because it wasn’t built to last,” said Alcorn, who went to the bar to check it out.
The next day, he stopped by Nolan Bushnell’s office and dumped a large bag of quarters on his desk. “I said, ‘I found the problem: the damn thing is making too much money,’” she recalled. The coin collector was full.
cork oak replaced the milk jug with a larger bread tray, and Atari went to work. Soon after, the first series of 12 coin-operated Pong machines were installed in California bars. They cost $500 to make and Atari was selling them for $1,000 cash up front. The business grew rapidly and even spread abroad.
By 1975, the company was selling a home console version of Pong, and its rapid success put Atari on the radar of some much larger companies. But it was an upstart who approached Alcorn for help.
When former employee Steve Jobs co-founded a new home computer company, Apple, in 1976, with his friend Steve Wozniak, they offered Alcorn stock in exchange for fixing a technical problem.
“I told them to give me one of their computers,” he recalled of his costly misstep.
JobsWozniak and the entire Apple team came to his home in Alcorn to install his new Apple II.
“There were about a dozen people and they set it up and showed me how to get it to work on the TV,” he recalled. “After they left, I told my wife that she could make this computer do anything. She said ‘Great, make me do the dishes. When I told her that she couldn’t do that, she just said, “Well, get that damn thing out of the living room. I want to watch tv.”
Meanwhile, Warner Communications made a deal to buy Atari for $30 million in 1976.
“And I was like, ‘Holy crap! I have 10 percent shares!” Alcorn said.
Although the move to Warners made financial sense, it didn’t quite work out the way Alcorn, Bushnell, and Dabney had envisioned. Atari liked gambling; Warner had no appetite for risk.
“They had money and marketing backgrounds, but they didn’t understand gaming, and they didn’t understand Silicon Valley,” Alcorn said. “You know, we had a lot of failures at Atari that aren’t too famous, but if you have to get it right every time, you’ll never be creative.”
By 1981, it was clear that Warners no longer wanted Alcorn, despite Atari’s sales now exceeding $1 billion a year and controlling around 75% of the home video game market with hits like Space Invaders, Asteroids, and Centipede. . .
Warners 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 so I wouldn’t introduce myself,” Alcorn said, laughing.
In 1985, he was named apple fellow by Steve Jobs, for his work in digital video compression, but Alcorn admitted he had reservations about working with Jobs again.
“I really didn’t want to work for the guy. He could be a really unpleasant guy to work with,” she said. “But it sounded interesting and, you know, it was Apple.”
One of the last things he worked on at Apple was a video compression project to convert it to a data type, making it smaller and more versatile.
“Little did I know that I would end up filling the internet with videos of puppies and cats,” she said.
Now retired, Alcorn’s ingenuity is rightly recognized for the role 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, Massachusetts, for $270,910. “My wife told me to clean out the garage and she was just there,” she said with a shrug.
“I keep some things, but if someone wants to give me a quarter of a million dollars for something like that, go ahead and be my guest.”
Research scientists at Cortical Labs in Melbourne, Australia recently succeeded in teaching 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 gaming convention and there was a kid playing by himself on an old Pong arcade machine,” Alcorn said. “So I went and played with him.
“When I beat him, I said, ‘You know, years ago I was the best Pong player in the world.’
“Bulls-t,” said the boy.
What Alcorn didn’t tell the boy: “Actually, for a few months I was the only Pong player in the world.”