The story of a $120,000 worth calculator used for implementing one of the first videogame in the computing history...
The DEC PDP-1
Yup, it costed $120,000 but the second of them produced was given free to the MIT Labs (Thanks DEC)
It was simply revolutionary. It occupied the room of three big refrigerators, it had a CRT and the usual Flexowriter for
input/output and most important it didn't need air conditioning and used conventional 110 Volt supply!
It used words of 18 bits and a basic setup had memory (core magnetic type) for up to 4096 words and expandable to 65536 The Flexowriter could read and write paper tapes used for storing programs.
As the PDP-1 arrived at the MIT Labs those hackers saw it as a further step that might have taken their dream closer to reality.
Who were these guys? They were a bunch of students and professors at MIT (namely Peter Samson, Alan Kotok, John McCarthy, Slug Russell, and others…)
They were interested in systems. It could be a model railway track or a phone system or whatever else. They studied and experimented with them endlessy, maybe not going to the classes and never got graduated but that was not the point. The point was to hack more!
They had a sort of unwritten manifesto that can be resumed here: (from Hackers written by S.Levy)
Access to computers should be unlimited and total!
All information should be free.
Mistrust authority - Promote Decentralization.
Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degree, age, race or position.
You can create art and beauty on a computer.
But above all…
Computer can change your life for the better.
At the labs they fight for access on a computer, moved by the 'hands on' imperative. They coded hard with those first microcomputers (?!) and the will to improve their results every time was astounding.
No matter how many hours they worked they liked to give the system a new feature. So if you gave a project to a hacker it would always be a work in progress...
...and the Spacewar
Slug Russell thought about some cool demo to program on this beauty, the PDP-1.
The CRT was then a great feature of the PDP-1 as it was easily programmable. The PDP-1 had also been used to produce music already. Hackers had also written a new assembler in about a weekend of work replacing the standard factory version, which they thought it wasn't efficient enough!
So Slug thought about a game, a game about duel in an outer space between two ships! A graphic algorithm developed by prof. Minsky called ‘Three Position Display’ initially inspired him. Alan Kotok provided another piece with some routines for tracing the ships positions on screen.
Then after some coding Slug defined some elements of its game. He decided the shapes of the two ships and the controls for them: clockwise turn, counter-clockwise turn, accelerate and fire torpedo. He finished a first version and demoed it to the others.
What you would expect? The hackers started to improve it!
In a totally free environment every contribution was added to the game. Someone corrected the trajectory for the torpedoes, Peter Samson defined a new map for the sky background (now it represented a map with all the real constellations, not just a random dotted screen), and then a central sun was added and simulated a gravity effect as the ship could orbit around it or burn into it if too close. Even a rudimental joystick was built then as using the PDP-1 front panel switches was rather painful...
The greatest feature was the hyperspace launch. Sometimes when you got in trouble you could fly into the nth space and your ship would appear in another (random) point of the screen, maybe next to the central sun :)
This work was made available totally free on the usual paper tapes. Some one argued maybe some dollars could be made out of it but that wasn't the point then. Actually the game was well spread in the country already so it was impossible to control! Even at DEC at some time they used to demo and test the machine at the factory!
So if you play to one of those arcade shooting game remember where all come from…from a university lab!
Thanks to Marco Chrappan for information and pictures.