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The History Center blog shares research and findings about local history, excerpts from our Thaler/Howell Archives, information about upcoming exhibits and other opportunities on how to get involved with The History Center in Tompkins County. To learn more or view the archival materials mentioned, visit us in downtown Ithaca or subscribe to our monthly newsletter History Happenings

Who Can You Find on HistoryForge? - William Higinbotham

Fri, July 16, 2021 3:47 PM | Anonymous

William Higinbotham

by Rebecca Doyle


William A. Higinbotham was born on October 25, 1910 in Bridgeport, Connecticut to Robert and Dorothy Higinbotham. His father’s position as a Presbyterian minister brought the Higinbotham family to Caledonia, New York in 1917, where they would live for the next 14 years. William was interested in science from a young age. He enjoyed building radios as a teenager and excelled in his high school physics class. At Williams College, he majored in physics and graduated in 1932, and, unable to find a job afterwards due to the Great Depression, he began graduate work at Cornell University. In 1937, his father died of a heart attack and by 1940, William’s widowed mother, 2 brothers, and sister joined him in Ithaca. William worked as a technician in the Cornell Physics Department but soon left for MIT, where he was invited to work at the Radiation Laboratory. While there, he designed radar display technology for military use during World War II. 

Reverend Robert Higinbotham, William’s father

In 1943, he was recruited to work at Los Alamos National Laboratory. As leader of the Electronic Group in the Weapon Physics Division, William developed timing circuits for the first atomic bomb.  In 1945, he witnessed the Trinity Test—the first drop of an atomic bomb in history. This experience, combined with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the loss of two of his brothers to the war, took a huge emotional toll on him. Along with other Manhattan Project atomic scientists concerned about the destructive power of what they had helped create, Higinbotham co-founded the Federation of American Scientists later that year. Some of the group’s successes were the defeat of the May-Johnson Bill, which would have kept nuclear research under military control, and the passage of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, which established the US Atomic Energy Commission, a civilian-run regulatory agency that strove to protect public health and the environment from the effects of nuclear radiation. William Higinbotham held leadership positions in the Federation of American Scientists throughout the rest of his life.


The Trinity test weapon and mushroom cloud

In 1947, he began working at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, which was founded by the aforementioned Atomic Energy Commission, where he could pursue his scientific interests but remain free to lobby for nuclear nonproliferation. While there, he developed electronic equipment for particle accelerators and digital computers, but he is perhaps most famous for creating what was arguably the first video game. Brookhaven held annual visitors’ days  for the public to see the scientific work taking place there. In 1958, Higinbotham was put in charge of creating an exhibition for the lab’s Instrumentation Division, which he was the head of. He wanted to make an exhibit that would be more exciting and interactive than the usual, rather dull ones. Inspired by a computer manual’s instructions for calculating bullet and missile trajectories, he created Tennis for Two (a forerunner to Pong) in just a few days. The game was played by two players who held separate controllers and featured real-time motion on its display, both of which were major innovations. Visitors loved the game, standing in long lines to get a turn to play. Despite this success, Higinbotham never felt the need to patent Tennis for Two. If he had, the patent would have belonged to his employer, the federal government, and it was just a bit too early for video games to take off. 

Instrumentation Division Exhibit at Brookhaven and a GIF created from a video featuring a reproduction of Tennis for Two (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6PG2mdU_i8k&t=3s

William Higinbotham remained at Brookhaven until his retirement in 1984. He served as a consultant until his death in 1994, at age 84 in Gainesville, GA. Today he is remembered lovingly as the “grandfather” of modern video games and for his devotion to the cause of nuclear arms control.

Higinbotham family grave and final resting place of William


Written by Rebecca Doyle - HistoryForge Intern - Spring 2021

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Bibliography and Image Sources:

https://www.nytimes.com/1994/11/15/obituaries/william-a-higinbotham-84-helped-build-first-atomic-bomb.html 

https://www.bnl.gov/about/history/firstvideo.php

https://www.atomicheritage.org/profile/william-willy-higinbotham

https://www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/200810/physicshistory.cfm

https://www.stonybrook.edu/commcms/libspecial/videogames/whbio.html

https://thedoteaters.com/?bitstory=bitstory-article-1/tennis-for-two 

https://www.nrc.gov/about-nrc/history.html#aec

https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/the-first-light-of-the-trinity-atomic-test 

https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/127571269/william-a.-higinbotham

https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/86418209/robert-george-higinbotham

https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/86418211/dorothea-higinbotham

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