Following the death of Atari co-founder Samuel 'Ted' Dabney at the age of 81, we re-publish this story which originally appeared in Edge issue 200 in 2009. You can subscribe to the magazine here. Header image credit: the Atari Museum.
In June 2008, Paramount Pictures announced that it had greenlit a full-length feature about the story of Nolan Bushnell, the co-founder of the pioneering videogame company, Atari. The movie, which went by the working title Atari, would star Leonardo DiCaprio and would be produced by the actor’s company, Appian Way. The script had reportedly been read and approved by Bushnell himself.
But although press releases for the movie announced that Atari had been founded by Bushnell and Ted Dabney, the latter man had never been consulted. Nobody at Paramount, Appian Way, or even the screenwriters, contacted Dabney for his side of the story.
Whether or not the movie about Bushnell is eventually made, Dabney’s role in the origination of the videogame industry slides further into obscurity each year. Because Dabney was a silent partner who had never spoken with the press, the early stories about Atari have always been told by others. Now, after 35 years of just being a footnote, Ted Dabney has finally decided to talk about the founding of Atari from his point of view.
Unlike Bushnell, who hailed from Utah, Dabney was a native of Silicon Valley. He grew up in San Mateo, a suburb south of San Francisco, and attended San Mateo high school. Shortly after graduating from the high school in 1955, he joined the Marine Corps and attended the Navy’s electronics school on Treasure Island and the Radio Relay School in San Diego. Although Dabney felt that neither school taught him much, he admits that he did at least walk away knowing the jargon of the electronics industry.
After his military discharge in late 1959, Dabney returned to San Francisco searching for jobs. Thanks to his knowledge of the technical terminology that he learned in military school, he was hired by the Bank of America’s research lab, where he worked on the prototype of IRMA, an electronic cheque scanner. Dabney wasn’t particularly happy with the position, and when a colleague left to work at Hewlett Packard in nearby Menlo Park, Dabney expressed an interest in following him. However, the colleague wasn’t at Hewlett Packard long, and soon jumped to the Military Products group at Ampex in Redwood City. The co-worker suggested to Dabney that he apply to both Hewlett Packard and Ampex. Dabney followed his friend’s advice and, after passing Hewlett Packard’s technical tests, he was hired as a test technician on a production line. Ampex offered him an engineering position six weeks later. Dabney took the job although he had never considered himself an engineer, and he figured that Ampex would learn this within three months. Still, he figured that even three months of engineering experience under his belt couldn’t hurt, so he accepted the job.
Dabney’s self-assessment was wrong. He wound up working for Curt Wallace in Ampex’s Military Products group for six years. According to Dabney, Wallace was “very strong technically and an excellent manager”. When Wallace took over Ampex’s Videofile project in Sunnyvale, Dabney transferred with him.
The Videofile system was groundbreaking technology used for the storage and retrieval of data and video. It could store 250,000 document pages on a 14-inch rhodium-plated disk. If a document needed to be viewed, in less than a minute the Videofile computer could automatically locate the individual document, and then either display it on a TV screen, or direct it to a printer. When Dabney joined the project, the market for such a retrieval system was $23 million, but Ampex expected it to grow to $1.5 billion within ten years.
Another of the engineers assigned to the Videofile system was 25-year-old Nolan Bushnell. Six years Dabney’s junior, the two shared an office together, and they became good friends, along with two other Ampex employees. One was a programmer named Larry Bryan. The other was a young engineer named Al Alcorn, who worked at Ampex during his summer breaks from the University of California-Berkley.
"The work Dabney and Bushnell did was conducted, contrary to legend, in Dabney's daughter's bedroom
Bushnell told Dabney that he had worked his way through college (where, he confided, he had not done well in class) as a carnival barker. This background, along with his vivid and creative imagination, gave him an appreciation for arcade games, and his dream was to open a pizza parlour filled with animated scenery and talking bears. At that time he thought that if the restaurant had arcade videogames, the customers would at least have something to keep them busy until their food was ready. Additionally, he thought that a pizza parlour filled with arcade games might also attract kids who didn’t normally visit arcades, and would thus be another venue for gaming products that he would manufacture. As Bushnell developed the concept, he felt that it would be a nice touch for the restaurant to have Disneyland-like robotic animals that could play music and give the impression of a fun amusement park.
Both men agree that it had been Bushnell who came up with the idea of using computers and TV receivers to provide arcade games. As computers were getting more common, Bushnell thought he could use one to move images on several TV screens at one time, an early form of computer timesharing. The two men threw this concept around for several months. Dabney finally modified a TV set to simulate how a white spot could be moved into various positions on a screen, using address programming so that the TV’s raster sync signal and video sync signal were generated separately. Both signals were generated with 256bit counters. The raster sync counter was preset to 254 and the video sync counter was preset using switches from a control panel that could go from 242 to 256. A blip on the screen was generated in the middle of the horizontal and vertical video sync counters. The difference between the raster sync count and the video sync count caused the blip to move.
The work Dabney and Bushnell did to get the blip moving on the screen was done, contrary to legend, in Dabney‘s daughter’s bedroom. He relocated his daughter Terri from her bedroom, which was the smallest in the house, to the master bedroom. Then he expanded her former room and made it the largest.
Once they got an object moving around a television screen, they approached Larry Bryan. Dabney and Bushnell weren’t quite sure where they were going to go with the moving blip, but they were confident that whatever they did with it, they would need a programmer. Bryan was pretty excited about the idea and as the three discussed the project, they formed an agreement whereby each of them would contribute $100 to start the venture. Bushnell and Dabney put in their money right away, but Bryan never got around to it.
Actually, Bryan never got around to doing much of anything as far as the project was concerned, while Dabney and Bushnell soon came to the conclusion that the high costs and low speeds of the computers available at the time made the project unfeasible. They decided to abandon the idea of time-sharing a computer for entertainment purposes.
But Bushnell wouldn’t give up the idea of using a television set for interactive entertainment even though, at the time, he knew little about TV circuit design and function. When he had a question about why a television picture would roll up and down when the vertical hold knob was fiddled with, it was Dabney who he consulted. Not only was Dabney able to explain how it worked, he also told Bushnell that the horizontal hold knob could do the same thing. He then went on to explain that the process could also be done digitally. Although Bushnell didn’t have any video engineering experience, he was a quick learner. He realised right away that if Dabney could digitally control the horizontal and vertical controls, then in theory, they would also be able to control the movement of onscreen images. And if they could do that without the need for an expensive computer, there were no limits to where they could go with it.
After Dabney successfully tested the concept at his home, Bushnell was further convinced that they had a great idea on their hands. According to Dabney, Bushnell was an excellent student. He immediately grasped what Dabney taught him and he designed his first TTL (transistor-transistor logic) circuit design based on what he and Dabney had built in Dabney’s home. Dabney recalls that one of the toughest things they had to do was generate a rotating spaceship with a diode matrix. After Bushnell began creating a functioning breadboard (a reusable solderless device used for experimenting with circuit designs) of Dabney’s design, he and Dabney agreed on a new partnership. This one didn’t include Larry Bryan since he had never contributed his $100 from the first agreement. They then went to Irv Roth, one of the senior engineers that Dabney had worked with at Military Products, to see if he could help them. Roth told them that he “had tried that sort of thing and it didn’t work out, so no thanks”. Bushnell next focused on finding a company that would let him complete the design and move it on to product design for something that could be manufactured and sold commercially.
Bushnell found such a company in Nutting Associates, an arcade game manufacturer that had been formed in 1968 by Bill Nutting (the company’s only well-known arcade hit was a machine called Computer Quiz). When Bushnell approached Nutting with the idea to create an arcade game built around a television set, Nutting was more than interested. It is not clear how Bushnell got Nutting interested in the idea, other than through his gift of super salesmanship. Dabney did not take part in the initial conversations between the two men. Although they had the initial prototype that they created at Dabney’s home, Dabney doesn’t believe it was used to sell the idea to Nutting. Nutting was so excited with it that Bushnell was able negotiate a royalty arrangement where he and Dabney kept ownership of the concept, while Nutting owned the rights to produce and sell the final product. The pair would later collect $50 for every game shipped.
Bushnell quit Ampex in 1970 and went to Nutting where he used Dabney’s schematics to design and build Computer Space. Although Dabney remained at Ampex, he helped out on a part-time basis by modifying a TV set at Nutting to test Bushnell’s own motion circuitry, where counters were controlled dynamically by logic, rather than statically with switches. Unknown to Dabney, Bushnell applied for a patent for this method in November, 1972, and it was issued as No. 3,793,483 on February 19, 1974. Dabney was not included in the patent. As the project took shape, a cabinet was needed to house the circuit board, the power supply and the TV monitor. Dabney used some of the initial $200 to buy material to design and build one, and worked on the cabinet at night at Nutting while maintaining his day job at Ampex. However, this task soon became a full-time job so Dabney quit Ampex and officially went to work for Nutting. Dabney’s design was only used to house the prototype. Before the game went into production, Bushnell came up with a futuristic-looking fibreglass cabinet that was used for the final product.
A Pong cabinet alongside what is apparently the first-ever production cabinet of Computer Space (image credit)
According to Bushnell, Nutting manufactured 2,300 copies of Computer Space, which was released in August 1971. Despite reports suggesting that Nutting sold only 750 units to distributors, Bushnell has since claimed that all were sold. The number of units that actually made it into arcade locations is not known.
Dabney and Bushnell kept working for Nutting but wanted to continue receiving royalties for the games that they designed. Nutting didn’t like that idea, because he felt that since he was paying them a salary to design games, both the concept and the completed product should belong to him. According to Dabney, Nutting was careful when it came to paying out money, even to those who deserved it. Nutting had one great salesman, who by sheer tenaciousness kept the company alive selling Computer Quiz machines, even though the game was very outdated. “Computer Space took off very well but when Nutting saw how much money he was paying his salesman, he fired him. Nobody ever told Bill that the salesman should always be the highest-paid person on your payroll,” recalls Dabney.
In order to separate the products they designed for Nutting and those they designed for themselves, Dabney and Bushnell each kicked in $250 from their Computer Space royalties and started their own company. They called it the Syzygy Game Company, a name that had actually been suggested by Larry Bryan, even though he had no part in it.
To make sure that Nutting didn’t stray from the licensing relationship that he had with Dabney and Bushnell on Computer Space, a tag stating ‘Syzygy Engineered’ was put on the front of each production Computer Space cabinet.
In the end, Computer Space didn’t prove as successful as its designer hoped it would. An argument could be made that most arcade gamers didn’t want to try out this new technology after playing pinball for generations, but some people did try it and were scared away for a different reason: the game was complex to play. Bushnell felt that if a more simplistic game was offered on a TV screen, the public would clamour for it.
Bushnell told Nutting about his idea for a simple game and Nutting was enthused by it. However, before Bushnell actually began designing it, he demanded that Nutting give him a bigger share of the profits since he felt he was the brains behind the game. He wanted 33 per cent of Nutting Associates. Nutting countered with five per cent as long as Bushnell agreed to remain with the company as an engineer. Bushnell decided to go elsewhere.
Dabney and Bushnell began contacting other arcade companies with their intent to design games for them. One of the companies that Bushnell visited was Bally in Chicago. Bally was interested in the idea but told them that they couldn’t do business together as long as the men were employed by Nutting, as this would cause a conflict of interest. They were told that they would have a deal if they left Nutting.
Since the two men were getting pretty good royalties from Computer Space, they figured they could afford to quit Nutting, which they did. They then leased an office at 2695 Scott Blvd in Santa Clara, California, and hired the Syzygy Game Company’s first employee, 17-year-old Cynthia Villanuavo. The company’s first receptionist had previously been a babysitter for Bushnell’s children. Since there weren’t any additional funds, Dabney and Bushnell didn’t include themselves on the payroll.
Once they were untethered from Nutting, Bushnell returned to Bally where he secured a contract that awarded them $4,000 a month for six months to design a new videogame and a new pinball machine.
Aside from the basic idea of concentrating on a simple design, Bushnell wasn’t sure what kind of videogame he would deliver to Bally. “There was some talk early on of a driving game but it wasn’t in the plan,” says Dabney, who worked on the pinball machine.
Once Dabney and Bushnell had this infusion of cash, they were able to hire Syzygy‘s second employee.
Al Alcorn had since graduated from the University of California at Berkley. However, by then Ampex’s Videofile project was having problems and the company elected not to rehire him. Bushnell lured Alcorn, whom Dabney fondly recalls as a “real Teddy Bear”, to Syzygy by telling him that they had a contract with General Electric to design a videogame.
Al Alcorn's Atari employee badge (image credit: Computer History Museum)
Much has been made of the story that Bushnell got the idea for a simple ball and paddle game after witnessing a 1972 demonstration of Ralph Baer’s Odyssey, the world’s first videogame console. Although Bushnell had denied it for years, the fact is that Magnavox and Sanders Associates hosted an open house at the Airport Marina in Burlingame, California, on May 24, 1972, to introduce its Odyssey game console. The fact is that one of the games displayed on the unit was a form of video ping-pong. And the fact is that Bushnell, thinking he designed the only TV game, attended the open house in order to see the Odyssey. It has always been maintained that Bushnell attended the open house as a representative of Nutting. While Dabney’s best guess is that this was the case, he is also certain that they had already left Nutting by May 24, 1972. The attendees who represented Nutting specified this in the guest book. On the other hand, Bushnell’s signature appears on a different page and doesn’t state what company he represented.
Whether he went as an agent for Nutting or Syzygy, the fact is that Bushnell did attend, and signed the guest book. And the fact is that the courts sided with Magnavox and Sanders. Despite this, Bushnell continued to claim for the following three decades that the ball and paddle game that he saw at the demonstration didn’t inspire him to produce his own. Eventually he began to change his story. During a keynote address at the Classic Gaming Expo in 2003, he finally admitted that he had indeed seen the Odyssey. However, he claimed that when he saw it, the console was already a failure. However, he never explained to the audience (and no one bothered to ask) how a product that had not yet been released (and which would eventually sell over 330,000 units) could be deemed a failure.
Al Alcorn became Syzygy’s first engineer but he had no experience designing videogames. Bushnell claimed that the Odyssey didn’t impress him, yet he still had Alcorn design a similar ball and paddle game as an exercise using their new digital motion circuitry. Although the project was only meant to get Alcorn’s feet wet, Bushnell and Dabney were so impressed with the finished product, which they called Pong, that they decided to offer it to Bally.
They decided to build more Pong units for test marketing. Each of the ten machines averaged $400 per week
Believing that they had a sure-fire hit on their hands, the duo decided it was time to incorporate Syzygy. To their surprise, they learned that a roofing company had already registered the name. Desperate for a new name, Bushnell borrowed three favourite Japanese terms from Go, their favorite boardgame. The names were discussed at great length, but in the end the name Atari was liked the most. Atari was incorporated on June 28, 1972.
Pong was offered to Bally as per the contract, but the pinball company didn’t know what to do with it, and rejected it. The same deal was offered to Bill Nutting but he also turned it down and later sued Atari, saying that Pong really belonged to him. He lost before Atari could even plead its case.
Bushnell visited Bally several times but failed to get it enthused by Pong. Finally, Dabney and Bushnell decided to test the waters themselves. Alcorn hand-built a tabletop Pong unit that was tested at Andy Capps, a Sunnyvale, California bar. The game was so successful that Dabney and Bushnell decided to build an additional 12 units, from which ten were sent out to local bars, restaurants and pizza parlours for test marketing. The response was overwhelming. Each of the ten machines averaged $400 per week. Dabney and Bushnell tried Bally again and sent them one of the hand-built Pong units. However, because they didn’t think Bally would believe the amount of money that they were generating weekly from each machine, they cut the gross report to Bally to a third of what the games actually earned. Bally still thought they padded the numbers but never gave a definitive answer as to whether it wanted Pong or not.
Ted Dabney (left) next to a Pong cabinet and Nolan Bushnell. Image credit: Al Alcorn / the National Museum of Computing
Another Atari legend pertains to a phone call that Alcorn received from the manager of Andy Capps complaining that the Pong unit in his bar had malfunctioned. Alcorn rushed to the bar only to find that the coin box that was used to catch quarters inside the machine had overflowed. Over the years, many critics have questioned whether this episode ever really happened. Dabney not only attests to the authenticity of the story, he claims it occurred many times. “Neither Nolan or Al had enough money to stuff those coin boxes with as many quarters as we were getting,” he recalls. “We had ten machines out on location and they were averaging about $400 per week. The coin box could hold about $550 so, yes, we had several failures caused by too many quarters.”
Dabney and Bushnell knew that they had to do something but they weren’t sure just what. Since they couldn’t get anyone to license Pong, the three realised that they would have to build the machine themselves. The problem was that the cost of going into production was higher than they could afford. Dabney told Bushnell and Alcorn: “Either we go into production or we go home. I don’t want to go home.” Bushnell argued that they couldn’t afford to produce the units themselves. Dabney responded by saying that they should make the decision to go into production, and then they could figure out how they would make it happen.
“We felt we would be idiots to give up on such a promising prospect, so we decided to produce it ourselves,” recalls Dabney. “Nolan was very worried about our legal commitment to Bally, and wasn’t sure how to handle it. I told him to get on the phone to Bally and acknowledge their reluctance about Pong and that we could create another game for them but only if they formally reject Pong. We got a letter from them rejecting Pong and I told Nolan to put it in a really safe place. Our obligation to Bally was cancelled since our agreement with them didn’t give them the option to reject our game.” And since, in their eyes, Bally rejected the contract, it also released them from the work that Dabney had been doing on the pinball machine.
After they decided to build 50 upright units, each got on the phone to line up the parts they needed. Bushnell and Alcorn worked on getting the circuit boards and components while Dabney went after the TV sets and cabinets. He found a Hitachi distributor in San Francisco who sold him 50 sets for $3,000, which he paid with his own money. He then called PS Hurlbut Inc about the cabinets. Dabney had dealt with the company before while he was at Nutting. He had also given the cabinet company a drawing when he was shopping for cabinets for Atari’s first 12 demonstration machines, although he had gone with another supplier to save money. Dabney ordered 50 cabinets, and when he told Hurlbut that he might not be able to pay for them, he was told that he could pick up the cabinets two weeks later. Meanwhile, Bushnell and Alcorn were able to secure the parts that they needed, and they were in business.
Dabney and Alcorn did most of the work building the units. The Scott Blvd location that they leased contained 1,300 square feet that they could work in. By the time they completed putting together the 50 cabinets, they didn’t have much elbow room left. Dabney explains how they doubled their space: “It just so happened that the guy next door slipped out unknown to the building’s manager. I decided to bust through the wall and take over the 1,300 square feet of space. This gave us 2,600 square feet. The manager said we couldn’t do that but Nolan told him that we already did it and all he had to do was tell us the amount of the rent.”
While Dabney and Alcorn were assembling the machines, Bushnell was walking around like a “tom turkey.” Dabney told him to quit strutting because it was his job to sell the machines, and recalls him adopting “a real hang dog” look as he headed to his office. Bushnell returned about an hour later looking very perplexed. He said that he had made three phone calls and had orders for 300 units. He said 50 went to one distributor, 100 to another, and 150 to a third.
Determining the price that they charged for each unit was another area in which the group had no experience. They wanted each machine to sell for under $1,000 but they didn’t know by how much. Dabney looked out at the parking lot of their office complex one day and noticed a car that had the number ‘937’ on its licence plate. They charged $937 per unit.
So although they eventually could bill the three distributors for close to $150,000, they still didn’t have the money in hand. And between the three of them, they couldn’t afford to produce 150 units. Bushnell did a very bold thing. He got Bob Portal, the distributor who wanted the 150 units, to give them a purchase order for his machines. This had never been done in the arcade industry before and it was on something that Portal had never even seen. However, he did know about Computer Space so he trusted them. Dabney and Bushnell felt that they could take the purchase order to a bank and borrow the money that they needed. Dabney contacted his personal Wells-Fargo branch and was told that he and Bushnell had to visit the bank. On the way over, Bushnell said that he should do the talking because he could paint a very rosy picture. Dabney disagreed and said that they should also explain any negatives that might arise. Bushnell told the loan officer what he wanted to say and the bank rejected their request. Dabney went back later by himself and managed to change the loan officer’s mind. In the end, they got the money.
After that, the orders just kept rolling in at a preposterous rate. In their sixth month of production they had billed over $1,000,000.
Bushnell figured out tricks on how to make money for the company. During the early ’70s, logic ICs were very hard to acquire. Bushnell found that suppliers offered ‘two per cent ten days’ terms, which meant that they could get a two per cent discount on what they owed if they paid within ten days. Most companies liked to take as long as possible to pay for their supplies, some taking as long as three months. This worked favourably for Atari in two ways. First, it received the discount. But it was also treated favourably by the vendors. Since suppliers liked to get paid as soon as possible, once they learned that Atari paid its bills within ten days, they made sure that Atari received priority when supplies were being shipped.
The Pong board used approximately 55 logic ICs and a few transistors. Among the most costly items were the 70 decoupling capacitors which cost around 8¢ each. Being the consummate showman, Bushnell wanted to demonstrate to Dabney and Alcorn how he could save money. He got on the phone and an hour later he told them that he got the price of the decoupling capacitors down to 3½¢ each. Not long afterwards, Alcorn was assembling PC boards when he ran out of the decoupling capacitors. He asked Dabney how that could happen because they had very good suppliers who always delivered them their parts as soon as they were ordered. Dabney looked into it and discovered that the supplier who Bushnell had contacted for the capacitors wouldn’t ship them at 3½¢ each. Dabney had to run out to a nearby electronics store on Bascome Avenue that sold bulk capacitors where he bought what they needed at 15¢ each.
Although they were on a crusade to save money, they never sacrificed quality for frugality. Dabney recalls: “National Semiconductor had great gates, but their counters ran too hot. They wouldn’t sell us gates unless we bought the counters too. So we bought counters and gates from National Semiconductor but we didn’t use their counters. Instead we bought superior counters from AMD, but they couldn’t sell us gates because they didn’t make them.”
Dabney admits that it was Bushnell’s job to make all of the decisions, despite the fact that they owned the company equally. Bushnell was the president and Dabney was the senior vice-president. Dabney’s job was to do the book-keeping, a task at which he admits he wasn’t very good. But the two worked well together. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t continue.
The beginning of the end of their partnership occurred as they were looking at the 10,000-square-feet Amphenol-Cardre building in Los Gatos which could house their constantly growing business. They both liked the place, but Bushnell felt that it would be hard to justify moving so far out. Dabney reminded him that they owned the company and didn’t have to justify anything to anybody. Bushnell suddenly became very quiet. When they got back to their office, Bushnell looked out at the parking lot that was filled with the cars of their employees. He said: “All of these guys depend on us, don’t they?”
Dabney replied: “Yes. And their landlords and grocery stores do too.”
“What’s it going to be like to be very, very rich?” asked Bushnell.
Dabney told him: “Everything would be the same. The only thing that would change is the number of zeros.”
As the money came in, Dabney noticed a change in Bushnell. “Nolan became his money,” he recalls sadly. “Nolan was a neat guy when he still owed money for his car and education. Once he got rich, he became his money. He hired a PR firm to promote himself, not the company. He hung around with people that worshipped him. He truly believed the measure of a man was how much money he had. I was really appalled by that shallow evaluation and told him so. Money has never been a big thing with me. I believe that anything over a full belly is just gravy.”
That was it. The idea had been building up in Dabney for a long time. He didn’t like the man Bushnell was becoming. He didn’t like the direction that Bushnell was taking the company. He didn’t like the fact that Bushnell did everything without ever discussing it with Dabney. He finally decided that there was no reason for him to put up with it any longer. So he told Bushnell that he wanted out. Bushnell came up with a number that Dabney agreed to – $250,000 – and that was it. Nolan Bushnell owned all of Atari.
Atari wasn’t doing well around 1974 after Dabney left. According to Dabney, “It was going down pretty fast and the money was getting tight. Bushnell had hired a president who was on an ego trip and couldn’t take care of business.” He also brought in a VP of engineering – not Al Alcorn – who found it difficult to make decisions, and then made a salesman the VP of marketing, even though the salesman had no idea about marketing. Dabney finally took Bushnell out for pizza several months later to tell him what he thought of his staff. “He seemed shocked that I knew so much about what was going on. It was just from observation. After this little encounter, he got rid of these ‘bad actors’ and brought in Joe Keenan as president. That’s when Atari started to turn around and things got much better.” But as things turned around for Atari, the relationship between Dabney and Bushnell began to deteriorate.
A few years later, the two men were at Bushnell’s house drinking wine. Dabney had introduced Bushnell to Gamay Beaujolais, a wine he liked very much. When he happened upon a really good deal on an older vintage in Paris, Bushnell bought several cases. Unfortunately he hadn’t known that Beaujolais had a very short shelf-life, so he invited Dabney to his place to try and drink it up before it went bad. When both men were pretty plastered, Bushnell said: “Dabney, do you remember when you said to me that ‘The only thing that changes is the number of zeros’?”
“Yes”, replied Dabney.
“Dabney, you know what I really don’t like about you?”
Bushnell repeated: “Dabney, you know what I really don’t like about you?”
“What I really don’t like about you is that you had no right to know that!”
Shortly after Bushnell opened the first Pizza Time Theater, he asked Dabney to work with him at the restaurant. “He did warn me that he may do to me again what he did to me at Atari,” says Dabney, who replied: “Been there! Done that! I’d rather be your friend than your partner.”
Dabney looked out at the parking lot and saw a car with '937' on its licence plate. So they charged $937 per unit
Bushnell then asked Dabney to check out the restaurant to see what he thought about it. Dabney discovered the restaurant was dirty, the pizza wasn’t very good and the place was so noisy that he couldn’t hear the announcement that his pizza was ready. Dabney shared his findings with Bushnell who said he would take care of the cleanliness. He wanted to keep the noise, so he asked Dabney to figure out a system to let customers know when their pizza was ready. As far as the quality of the pizza was concerned, Bushnell seemed to think that mediocre was good enough. Dabney told him that that was a very dangerous standard to set, because anything less than good enough was unacceptable. Bushnell ignored him, believing that Dabney was not qualified to make such a judgment.
However, Bushnell respected Dabney’s input when it came to engineering. Dabney fixed the pizza order problem by designing and building a number callout system called Notalog. He then started his own videogame company that designed an Isaac Asimov quiz game for Pizza Time Theater. Both products did very well until Pizza Time Theater went bankrupt, at which time Bushnell couldn’t pay Dabney what he was owed. Not being paid by Pizza Time Theater was a massive blow to him, but being misled by Bushnell hurt him even more. Dabney terminated his friendship with Bushnell for good. He never saw, or spoke to, him again.
Following Atari, Dabney decided that he wanted to learn more about semiconductors, and he figured the best way to do that was to work for a semiconductor manufacturer. He got a job as an applications engineer at Raytheon Semiconductor in Mountain View, California, where he learned much about semiconductor technology during his tenure of several years. He then went to Teledyne Semiconductor where he was part of a group that had developed a chipset that executed every known multimeter function from voltage and current to temperature and frequency. He got hold of a Japanese microcontroller (essentially a functional computer system on a chip) and wrote a complete multimeter program in assembly language using TelCom’s chipset. Later, the management bought the operation from Teledyne and renamed it TelCom Semiconductor. After a short time, feeling that the new owners weren’t up to scratch and also feeling pretty burnt out himself, Dabney decided that it was a good time to call it quits.
After retiring, Dabney and his wife Carolyn bought a small grocery store in Crescent Mills, California, which they successfully ran for ten years. They sold the business in late 2006 and moved to the state of Washington where they live a comfortable life on 40 acres in the middle of Okenogan National Forest. Although Dabney left the world of writing assembly language programs for chipsets years ago, he keeps himself entertained by writing Visual Basic applications for his own use.
Since leaving the videogame industry, the industry he helped create over 30 years ago, Dabney hasn’t looked back. He has no interest in videogames, and hasn’t kept tabs on Atari, which has famously gone through a number of manifestations since he sold his half to Bushnell. As for Bushnell, even after all the years that have passed, Dabney only feels contempt for his former partner. He believes Bushnell feels the same. “I’m sure he has no desire to even acknowledge that I ever existed,” says Dabney. “Sharing the spotlight is not his style. He wouldn’t give me any credit even while I was still there.”
While Dabney happily lives in relative seclusion and obscurity, perhaps one day he, like Ralph Baer – who on February 13, 2006, received a National Medal of Technology from President Bush for his ‘groundbreaking and pioneering creation, development and commercialisation of interactive videogames’ – gets his day of recognition for all that he contributed to the beginnings of the arcade videogame industry.
This article was originally published by Edge magazine in 2009.