The launch of Sputnik prompted a U.S. government spending spree to achieve technological dominance over the Soviets. Among the recipients of this largesse were MIT engineers, who designed a computer simulation called Spacewar! Inspired by the sci-fi books of E.E. Smith, it was the world's first videogame.
The guys who created this simulation — using a then state-of-the-art computer called the Program Data Processor-1 (PDP-1) — dubbed themselves "The Hingham Institute Study Group on Space Warfare." As the blog War Is Boring writes, graduate student Steve Russell began by coding a simple program that involved steering rocket ships around a collapsed star. And then things really took off:
The rest of the group took turns polishing, hacking and tweaking until the program was a video game. Two ships, controlled by two humans, maneuvered around the collapsed star's gravity well. The ships fired rockets in an attempt to obliterate each other. The ships could thrust, turn and move through hyperspace.
Russell and his crew never thought anyone would ever pay for interactive entertainment like Spacewar! That seems crazy now, but in 1962 computers were uncommon. Household computers were unheard of. The PDP-1 cost more than $100,000. Video games weren't ready for the consumer market.
With nothing to lose and nothing to gain, Russell gave away the code to anyone who asked. Within a year, Digital Entertainment Corporation—PDP-1's manufacturer—was including the game with every PDP-1 it shipped. It got so popular on college campuses that Stanford University banned it during business hours.
Spacewar! had gone viral.
At the University of Utah, a young Nolan Bushnell spent hours playing Spacewar! He went on to found Atari and bring video games into the homes of millions. But that would have never happened if the Pentagon hadn't been writing blank checks to computer nerds in the early '60s.
If you think you can handle combat in a gravity well, you can find the original code for Spacewar! online, running in Java through an emulator.