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RIP Atari co-founder Ted Dabney dies aged 80

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  • RIP Atari co-founder Ted Dabney dies aged 80

    Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney founded Atari in June 1972. Five months later, Atari’s first product, Pong, changed gaming forever. The company quickly rolled out other arcade games. In 1977, it introduced the Atari Video Computer System (VCS) and sold millions of game cartridges over 15 years.

    Warner Communications bought Atari in 1976. When a market glut crashed the game industry in 1983, Atari tried to cope by shifting its focus to home computers, a stop-gap on the road to declining profits and further mergers.
    Ted Dabney
    Ted Dabney

    Dabney, born in 1937 in San Francisco, had been interested in electronics since high school. Without Dabney & Bushnell, there would be no Pong!

    Ted Dabney died 27th May '18 after fighting cancer since 2017.

    Below is an interview conducted with Ted Dabney from 2012 (copyright observed to the Computer History Museum).

    Interviewer: Chris Garcia

    Recorded: 16th July, 2012
    Location: Mountain View, California

    Garcia: We are here on July 16, 2012 with Mr. Ted Dabney. Okay, so let’s just start with a little bit of early stuff. When and where were you born?

    Dabney: San Francisco.

    Garcia: Local boy.

    Dabney: Yes.

    Garcia: Oh, okay, and that was in the—

    Dabney: Year of 1937. I was born 12 days before the Golden Gate Bridge and I was in a baby buggy
    going across it.

    Garcia: Wow, good call. Okay, and did you go to school in San Francisco? Did you grow up there?

    Dabney: I went to school— well, I went to a lot of schools. My first high school was Las Gatos and then when I moved back to San Francisco, I wasn’t very good academically so I went to a trade school at John O’Connell, took trade drafting because I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I had had a course at Hunter’s Point. A friend of mine had gotten me into a course there where we studied analytic geometry. I didn’t know what it meant but I just loved the course, so when I got into John O’Connell, I took trade drafting because I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I knew I was going to have to draw it. Then, in fact actually while I was at John O’Connell, I was 16 years old. I got a job with the Division of Highways, which you can’t do until you’re 18 but I got one. So I was a surveyor for the bridge department, building this freeway system from the Bay Bridge up to Hospital Cove and all that area in there. I didn’t have a California driver’s license, but I was in charge of the truck. It was my job to put the truck up every night.

    Garcia: So that area would be what’s today 580?

    Dabney: No, there was no 580. No, no, no. That was 8th and Bryant, Harrison Street, that area.

    Garcia: Oh, I know that area very well. Very good tacos over there.

    Dabney: Well, there wasn’t then.

    Garcia: Okay, so when did you first find yourself being interested in— I mean, that was sort of the
    genesis, but—

    Dabney: Well, from that school, I decided I really did want to get an education so I went to Polytechnic. You know where Poly used to be?

    Garcia: No, actually.

    Dabney: Right across the street from Kezar Stadium.

    Garcia: Oh, over there. Okay.

    Dabney: Yeah, and they’re both gone now, but I went to Polytechnic and tried to get some courses there and didn’t do a real good job getting what I wanted. I wasn’t a very good school, but it was either that or go to Mission High and I wasn’t going to go to Mission. I was beat up too many times there. I lived in the Mission district. I mean, in the Mission district, so those guys gave me a bad time. But at any rate, I wound up at San Mateo High and that’s where I actually graduated from, but in order to graduate my last year, I had to cram a bunch of courses because I had no algebra and I had flunked social studies or whatever they call it, American problems. I don’t remember what they called it, but I flunked that, had to take that again. Anyway, I lucked out. I got a math teacher named Walker at San Mateo that just blew me apart, just really good. I’m not saying I got a good grade. That wasn’t the point. The point was he taught us everything from calculus, interval calculus. He taught us determinants. You know what indeterminate is? I do. He taught us Boolean algebra. That was before computers. He was an amazing guy. Our tests, our final test was one question: Prove the binomial theorem by mathematical induction.

    Garcia: Wow.

    Dabney: That was our test. Anyway, so when I got out of high school, I was a surveyor. That was the only thing I knew so I got a job as a surveyor with McCandless and Jet in Menlo Park over near Palo Alto someplace. I don’t remember where they are now. But anyway, yeah, it was Menlo Park and became a surveyor. Within three weeks, I was Assistant Chief of Party, which was pretty good. I had a lot of experience with the State, even though it was just a summer job, but I was good. But then the winters came. Guess what? There’s no work. That blew me away. All of the sudden, no work, so I wound up getting laid off. That’s when I decided to join the Marine Corps.

    Garcia: Oh, okay. And how long were you in the Marines?

    Dabney: Three years, three months and 24 days.

    Garcia: Pretty accurate on that.

    Dabney: That one I know.

    Garcia: Did they have you working in—

    Dabney: I told them. When I joined the Marine Corps, I don’t care what it is, I want a Class A school, any of them. I don’t care whether it’s aircraft maintenance and repair. I don’t care if it’s electronics. Whatever it is, I want a Class A school. He said fine. So I went to boot camp in San Diego, wound up getting in trouble and the DI gave me a bad time and thought I wasn’t going to get to school and I wound up in an artillery outfit, 10th Marines in Camp Pendleton. But then we were out on an exercise and all these guys were talking about being able to sign up for electronics course. Okay, okay. Anyway, so when we got back, I went over to talk to him. He said, “Okay, you can sign up for the course but you gotta extend your enlistment for a year.” I had a three-year enlistment. I had to extend it for four years, which was fine. I got the school, wound up at Treasure Island for 16 weeks. That was good, that was good. Then wound up in San Diego, MCRD, for another electronics course and that was put on by Collins. Collins, you know, pretty sharp dudes, and I kept asking them questions like, here they show up with schematics. And I said, “How do you know that’s a 100k resistor? How do you know that? How come that was a 2k resistor?” That kind of stuff, started asking these kind of questions. These guys loved these questions. They explained to me why and I didn’t understand anything they were saying. But I learned a lot of jargon, like time-domain reflectometry and it was a radio relay thing so there was this— I forgot the terms now, but anyway, it was a multiplex audio system, so when I got out of the Marine Corps. I got out early because I signed up for San Francisco State and so they accepted me, which meant I got to get out early, but I knew I couldn’t go because I couldn’t afford it and I wasn’t smart enough. So anyway, I wound up with a job at Bank of America and the way I got in there was I had all this jargon. They really thought this meant something, and it did, except I didn’t know what.

    Garcia: Now, this would’ve been about ’58, ’59?

    Dabney: That was ’59, yeah.

    Garcia: ’59, okay, yeah.

    Dabney: ‘59’s when I got out, yeah.

    Garcia: Yeah, Bank of America at that point was already really on the cutting edge of technology.

    Dabney: Oh, yeah, yeah. It was ERMA.

    Garcia: Yeah, ERMA.

    Dabney: Yeah, in fact, the prototype from ERMA was built by Stanford Research Institute, SRI, and they had built a traveler’s check scanner as a prototype and so Bank of America actually was using that, the traveler’s check scanner, and my job was to keep it running. So I got to interface with Don Gazzano down at SRI, back and forth, back and forth over the phone about how do I reset this, thyratron because it used thyratron tubes and this kind of thing, and had the magnetic numbers and all that stuff. That was the beginning of ERMA. From that, they said, yeah, okay, we can do it and I had nothing to do with ERMA. I was over in Berkeley some place, but that was part of the experience. I left there after a year because Bank of America, it didn’t understand technology where I was. I mean, they put a guy in charge that just didn’t know anything. I mean, he’s supposed to be in charge of this research group and he just didn’t know anything, so that really kind of upset me and that was why I left. In the meantime, a guy I worked with had left and gone to work for Hewlett-Packard. I said, “Ah, that’s a good idea.” So I called up John Herbert, the guy, and said what to do and in the meantime he had gone to work for Ampex and so he told me about Hewlett-Packard and what to do and go down there and so I went down there and about aced the test. I mean, it was a hands-on type of test, but the only reason I did that is I had taken these tests at Lenkerk [ph?] first and failed it. But they tested on exactly the same thing, an RC oscillator. So I got the job at Hewlett-Packard and I was there about six weeks. John Herbert, the guy who had gone to Ampex, called me over. He says, “I want you to come interview with my boss at Ampex.” I said, “I just got this job. I just got a raise. I got a promotion. I worked assembly and did tests and I got a raise,” and all that kind of stuff, within a six week period, so I was doing good. And he says, “Well, come on over and talk to Kurt anyway,” Kurt Wallace. I said, “Okay,” so I did. He was asking me a bunch of questions about this, that and the other. The only one I remember, he asked me to draw a phase inverter, a vacuum tube phase inverter and I put a 100k resistor in the plate and 10k resistor in the cathode and he asked me if I knew Ohm’s Law. A phase inverter must have both resistors be the same. You got a non-inverted on one side and inverted on the plate and he asked me if I knew Ohm’s Law and I said, “Well, I thought I did.” They offered me the job, engineer. I mean, engineer. It was about $580 a month, which was twice what I was making at Hewlett-Packard, which was good money. And I figured, hey, it’s going to take them at least three months to find out I ain't no engineer. I figured in the meantime, three months of engineering experience cannot hurt.

    Garcia: Now, you were there. That was 1960 at this point, ’61?

    Dabney: Yeah— no, no. I was at Bank of America for a year, so it had to be ’61, yeah.

    Garcia: Yeah. So what did they have you working on when you got to Ampex?

    Dabney: I was working on a phantastron.

    Garcia: Who?

    Dabney: Huh? Hey. Okay, see, I was working in the military products group. I wasn’t working in yet all of the video stuff, and that kind of— but they were developing a system for DOD that would show film images on a CRT. Okay? But they wanted to be able to change the size. Well, that’s what the phantastron did. Phantastron, it’s all vacuum tubes. It’s all vacuum tubes, and so I built this really neat— I’m out here working at the bench, I’m working really hard just trying to figure all this out. I’m reading the Navy book and all this kind of stuff. This old guy walking over said, “What are doing?” I look at the guy. He’s got a gray suit on, all this kind of stuff. I says, “I don’t know if I can tell you about it. It’s all military.” “Oh, yeah. I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” and he went away. Some guy says, “What was Alex doing here?” “Alex, I don’t know.” Alexander M. Poniatoff. That’s where Ampex came from.

    Garcia: Wow.

    Dabney: And I ran him off.

    Garcia: Well, at least he knew you were doing what you were supposed to. You were in the DOD section then, so there was the other section, too. There wasn’t a lot of crossover there?

    Dabney: No, I wasn’t in the DOD section. It was Ampex military products.

    Garcia: Oh, okay.

    Dabney: Okay. And we were doing a job for DOD and that expanded a lot. About that time, the U2
    started flying and they had this 70 millimeter film that they wanted to be able to transmit from one place to another. Otherwise, you have to put it on a plane and ship it. Well, we had a way of reading film with electron beam and so what we do is we take the film and we would run a scintillator on it. The scintillator is a material that when you hit it with electron it puts out a piece of light, it puts out a photon. And then we aluminize it, put it in a vacuum chamber and sputter it and that would take the charge off, so we could scan film. We could run this thing through the machine, put it in a vacuum thing and run it through the machine and make an electronic signal out of this film and that’s what they wanted. Then, GE had the other part so it would take the signal and turn it back into film. So we worked with Schenectady quite a bit on that one. One of the things that we did is we recorded the whole radio spectrum on one piece of tape. And we could play the tape and tune it in anywhere. It was really neat. So I was there about six years and Ampex started another whole division called Video File and so Kurt Wallace, my boss, was asked to go down there and take care of it because he’s a really good engineer, and he asked me to go with him, so I said, “Fine, I’ll go, sure.”

    Garcia: And that was Video File?

    Dabney: Ampex Video File.

    Garcia: Oh, that was the disc recording system.

    Dabney: Yeah, huge discs, big rhodium discs. Yeah, huge, huge thing.

    Garcia: Yeah, that ended up being influential but not super successful if I remember correctly.

    Dabney: Well, it would’ve been successful except that the cost of big scale computers at that time, which this had to be— it had to be where it’s outrageously expensive. And then by the time— the vidicon camera that I had responsibility for was a $3,000 vidicon. And the monitors, I was also in charge of all the monitors, had to evaluate them and redesign them and do all that kind of stuff. I also designed all the power supplies and that kind of thing. It was just really expensive and what happens is anytime you get on the leading edge of something like this 'cause— Canadian Royal Mounted Police, they bought a system and they were very happy with it. Southern Pacific bought a system. They were really happy with it. Los Angeles Sherriff bought it. They didn’t like it and so they wouldn’t pay for it. Now, I think that’s what actually killed it, but it was very expensive, very expensive.

    Garcia: Wow. So you’re still at Ampex at this point and this is ’67, ’68-ish?

    Dabney: Yeah, yeah.

    Garcia: Okay, so what was your next step?

    Dabney: Just designing. Actually, I was designing exactly the same thing I did at Ampex military products only instead of using vacuum tubes I was using transistors.

    Garcia: Isn’t that always the case; same design only different companies.

    Dabney: Well, I designed all the video amplifiers and gamma correctors and all that kind of thing for Ampex military products because you had to be able to change the brightness to darkness contrast, which is gamma, the gamma of the picture. And then also we had to enhance it and— I’m trying to remember the term. There’s a special way of doubling the rise-time without changing the bandwidth.

    Garcia: Oh, really?

    Dabney: Yeah, yeah. Aperture correction. That’s what it’s called, aperture correction, and I did all that with vacuum tubes. Now I got to do it all with transistors. I went from a rack, now I got a double sided PC board.

    Garcia: So while you were at Ampex, what sort of team were you working with? Were there any
    significant figures who would go on at that point?

    Dabney: Well, I worked for Kurt Wallace. Well, actually I worked for Ed DeBenidetti. He was hired in later from Granger and he was real hotshot engineer. I mean, extremely good engineer, and so I wound up working for him and he taught me a lot because I’m really wimpy. I’m just not very assertive. Which why it took 40 years to find out who I was. But I kept making— Ed would say— okay, I’ll give you an example. On this vidicon, on this $3,000 vidicon, I had designed the circuit that controlled the filament of this thing because it’s like any other vacuum tube. It has a filament. But being the price of the vidicon, you had to control the current. You had to control the voltage. You have to make sure it doesn’t go over voltage. You’ve got to make sure it doesn’t go over current. And I had invented a circuit that would predict the life of the thing. Kurt wound up giving that patent to somebody else, but that upset me but I figured, hey, what the hell. So I designed this circuit. It was a great circuit. The only problem is you couldn’t turn it on because it’s got to be wrong. It’s got to be over, under, something’s got to be wrong, so it’s going to shut itself off. So I had to go and do a lobotomy to the circuit so I could get it to work, but that’s the kind of thing. Ed, he just got on me and he started laying into me, laying into me, laying into me, laying into me and finally I just, I had enough and I went back at him. He says, “Now you learned.”

    Garcia: Okay, so, now was it around this point that you met Nolan?

    Dabney: Yeah, yep, yep. Nolan got hired in. I met Nolan originally because Kurt Wallace had brought him over and introduced him to me and basically had told me that he wanted me to sell Ampex to him. I guess Kurt really liked him, but my job— because he knew how much I liked Ampex, so my job was to sell Ampex to this guy so he’d come to work for us, so I guess it worked because he did and he wound up in my office, so that’s how we got to know each other.

    Garcia: Excellent. What was he working on? It’s always been sort of a grey area.

    Dabney: He always had stuff on his desk. That’s all I know. I don’t know what he did. I never even asked him. I was worried about doing my work. I wasn’t worried about anybody else’s work, but I had no idea what he did. I think he studied stuff. I just don’t know. But we were close. We wound up being close friends. He was a game player, chess player. He liked chess and so he got me to play chess with him, but he had also started going over to this game "Go" but he needed somebody to play with so he decided I ought to learn the game of "Go" so we could play together, which we did and we played pretty good, that complicated game. You ever heard of that game?

    Garcia: Oh, I’ve played. I’m not very good.

    Dabney: Oh, okay. If you’ve ever moved one of those stones around, you know what I’m talking about.

    Garcia: I always get kind of the eyes problem.

    Dabney: Yeah, yeah. I know it. I was playing these Japanese guys up in Japan Town and we were
    playing the game and all he could say in English was, “No eyes, no eyes.” Looking at me, “No eyes, no eyes.” No, you’re right. Nothing I can do. He had me beat, tremendously beat. But anyway, Nolan had this brilliant idea. He’s a carnie guy, back mountains carnie, and he thought a pizza parlor, a carnival-type pizza parlor would be a great thing to do. So I said, hell, what the hell. We started looking around. It’s one of these things, you have these ideas and no way you could ever make it happen. I mean, you could barely afford the pizza, much less buy a pizza place. But anyway, we’d go around and we looked at these places, all these places. Well, he came in to me one time and he says, “Hey, Dabney, I want you to go see something with me.” I said, “What?” He said, “Oh, they got this thing over at Stanford Artificial Intelligence Center that’s just this outrageous thing.” I said, “Okay, we’ll go.” It’s they got this rocket ship thing playing on this massive computer. I mean, they had a megabyte of core memory, the magnetic core memory. You know what that takes.

    Garcia: Oh, yeah.

    Dabney: So, I don’t know if you know how much that costs—

    Garcia: Oh, yeah. That was pretty much a solid _________.

    Dabney: So anyway, we were looking at this and he decides, we can get a PDP-8 or a Nova computer
    and we’d could time share this and put coin slots on all these things and make lots of money. I said, “Oh, okay.” I’ll go along with anything. It doesn’t matter. I’ll go along with pizza parlor,. I’ll go along with anything. So we got together. We got a programmer, Larry Bryant, and we all went together and set up this company called Syzygy and that was Larry Bryant. Larry Bryant had submitted that and so we looked it up in the dictionary and sure enough, it was a good name, so we used that and that was our partnership. But in order to do anything, we all agreed that we got to put in a hundred dollars. I’ll open a bank account and we’ll have it there. And so I opened the account with a hundred dollars, then Nolan gave me a hundred dollars and I put that in, but Larry never gave his hundred dollars. Well in the meantime, Larry couldn’t get time on a computer. He couldn’t write any code and we did a cost analysis on this thing and said no way. There’s not enough quarters. So that kind of died and that was the end of it. That was the end of that whole project. We went back to pizza parlors and stuff.

    Garcia: Now were you aware of the Galaxy Game at that point?

    Dabney: Yeah, but the Galaxy game had a computer. It had a PDP something.

    Garcia: PDP-11.

    Dabney: Yeah, PDP-11 okay. It had that and it was a single player and it cost a dime. You could never pay for the thing.

    Garcia: Yeah, because we actually had that up and working at the museum.

    Dabney: Yeah, I think Google has it now, don’t they?

    Garcia: I think we leant it to them and they gave it back recently.

    Dabney: Oh, okay, okay. So no, that was a great thing but there’s no way you could make any money
    with it.

    Garcia: True.

    Dabney: And that’s not the idea. Technical excellence is fine. No, we wanted something— our idea was to make something you could make money with, but since there was no way we could make money with it, we decided we weren’t going to do that. Like I say, we went back to Pizza Parlors. And so Nolan comes by to me one day and he says, “When you adjust the vertical holds on a TV set, the picture moves back and forth like that.” I said, “Yeah.” He says, “Why is that?” So I explained to him why and he says, “Could we do that? Could we do something like that?” I said, “Yeah, but we’d have to do it digitally. You can’t do it analog. You’d never have any control.” And I forgot about phase locked loops. We could’ve done it with a phase lock loop, but I knew we could do it with digital. So he says, “Why don’t you work on that?” so I did and I kicked my daughter out of her bedroom and set it up there and got all the stuff working and sure enough, it was working fine, and Nolan kept coming over all the time. He was always at my house looking at what I was doing and finally got this thing working and he says, “That’s it. Let’s do it,” and boom, he was off and gone. Next thing I know, he got a contract or an agreement with Nutting Associates to actually build the game. So he quit his job with Ampex and went to work for Nutting to invent this game and that’s basically what he did. And then I’d come around in the evening. I wasn’t going to give up my ten year job with Ampex just for this stupid thing but I’d come over in the evenings and help him out, help him out, help him out. And then we decided on the partnership and what about Larry Bryant and I said, “He never put in his hundred dollars,” so he was out. If he had put in his hundred dollars, he would’ve been in the partnership but he didn’t so he wasn’t. Not that he ever did anything anyway, but that was irrelevant. Neither one of us had done anything either until I designed this motion circuit. And so Nolan went to work for Nutting to build this game and so I helped him out, designed the matrix for the diodes. We couldn’t afford ROMs. ROMs were expensive. They were real expensive, so I had a friend that had two boxes of diodes. I bought them from him for ten bucks each or something like that and we had all these diodes and I said, “We can make anything we want out of diodes.” So you've seen a Computer Space inside, used to you had a picture of the diodes? Yeah.

    Garcia: Oh, yeah. We have a strange one, actually, in the exhibit. So that was the origin of Computer Space.

    Dabney: Yes, yeah, yeah. I finally quit my job and came over full time because all of the sudden it looked like we were going to have something and Nutting was willing to pay my salary and I didn’t really do much on that. My job was to know how to build a cabinet so we could put it in because we didn’t have any cabinets. All he had were the cabinets for his computer quiz, which wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t work also. I had to build the cabinet. Oh, I didn’t tell you. When we started playing Go, we had this little Mickey Mouse board that we sat on a wastepaper basket, but it would bump it and it would all fall apart so one time I happened to be going by a store that made doors and they had all these cutouts for the windows and the doors, so I bought a bunch of these things, six bucks a piece or something like that, and I carved a "Go" board in one of them and brought it in and that was really neat because that was really heavy, but we had to figure out where to put it. We had no place to put it. So I made another one, a "Go" board. On the other side, I put the Video File logo on it, okay, and that way, when we hung it on the wall, all you see is the Video File logo.

    Garcia: Ah, subterfuge!

    Dabney: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Anyway, I just had to throw that in, but where did I throw it in from? I don’t remember.
    3rd June 2018
    4th June 2018
    Last edited by KerryN; 3rd June 2018, 22:29.
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