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"The little-known stories behind well-known inventions"

Inventor's game had one only rule

By Paul Niemann

[MARCH 9, 2006]  Nolan Bushnell had only one rule for the game he invented in 1971, yet his invention launched an entirely new industry. His invention led him to start a new company and develop more products for his company to make and sell.

This company was his first but definitely not his last. In fact, at age 63 he's still inventing and starting new companies -- nearly 20 companies at last count.

Nolan Bushnell was born in 1943 in Clearfield, Utah, which is about 10 miles from the Great Salt Lake. His father died when Nolan was just 15, and he took over his father's business.

Hunters recognize the Bushnell name because it is the most popular brand of binoculars on the market, but this is a different Bushnell. His startups include well-known names, such as entertainment software company uWink, as well as some you have probably never heard of before.

He also started a popular restaurant chain. If you have young kids, then your kids have probably dragged you there; it's the type of restaurant that makes eating out fun for kids.

In his early 20s, he had applied several times to work at Disney. He was turned down each time, but it is likely that Disney had an influence on the restaurant chain Bushnell would later create. One indication is the fact that, like Disney, his restaurant employed a famous mouse as its mascot.

The restaurant chain that Nolan Bushnell founded was Chuck E. Cheese. For a kid, what can be better than a pizza place with games to play?

But Chuck E. Cheese was his second business; his first business is the one that launched an entirely new industry.

At the beginning of this story, I told you that Nolan Bushnell had only one rule for the game that he invented, and it is this: "Avoid missing ball for high score." This simple game launched an entirely new industry -- the video game industry.

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The game was originally played only in arcades, but by 1975 the company had created a home version as well. I can remember playing the game on our TV set at the Niemann household with my brothers when we were little. The game went on to become the best-selling game of the 1975 holiday season, ringing up sales of $40 million that year.

The game was… Pong. It was the first product for Nolan Bushnell's company, Atari.

Pong might not have been invented if not for a decision he had made soon after he and a friend founded Atari. He hired an engineer fresh out of college to design a driving game for arcades, but he thought the task would be too difficult for the young man. So he told him to develop a ping-pong game first (Bushnell had previously seen an early version of the Magnavox Odyssey ping-pong game). Since the ping-pong game his engineer developed was fun, he decided to market that game instead. Since the name of ping-pong was already taken, he decided to name it Pong, and the rest is history.

Nolan Bushnell bought out his friend's share in the company and eventually sold Atari to Time Warner in 1977. He later sold the Chuck E. Cheese restaurant chain as well. He continues to invent and start new companies. His latest venture is a new restaurant chain called "uWink Media Bistro." The first one is scheduled to open soon in Los Angeles.

[Paul Niemann]

Paul Niemann may be reached at You can learn more about Invention Mysteries by visiting the official Invention Mysteries website.

Copyright Paul Niemann 2006

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