Whilst working at Ampex (creators of the first practical video recorder no less), Nolan Bushnell had already created an arcade video game based on Spacewar, which was a game written by Steve Russell in 1961 for the PDP-1 from Digital Equipment. Nolan's version was called Computer Space and it was being distributed by Nutting Associates. However, it wasn't as popular as he'd have liked (he said you had to read the instructions, and people didn't have the patience!), and after he attended a demo of Ralph Baer's 'Brown Box' and played its simple 'Tennis' game he got the idea to beef it up.
Along with Ted Dabney, Nolan founded Atari in July 1972. The name comes from Japanese Checkers where it means simply 'check'. A former Ampex colleague, Allan Alcorn, was drafted in to produce what would become PONG and launch the world's first videogame lawsuit when Magnavox sued as PONG was seen as a direct copy of their Odyssey console.
That of course was only the beginning. Next up was a home version of PONG (after the poorly sold 'Video Pinball') in 1975, then the venerable VCS console in 1977, although its dominance in the market didn't really start until Atari licensed the then-new arcade smash Space Invaders. The rest is history.
Interestingly the Atari brand has just been relaunched (2003) with French games company Infogrames changing their name after obtaining the Atari brand from former owners Hasbro.
*update* 01/02/04 - I was chuffed to bits to have none other than Allan Alcorn himself sign my guestbook! He says this:
"Much of what you say is true.
One correction is that the creation of the first game did not immediatly lead to a lawsuit from Magnavox. Only when we released the home version (two years later) did they sue us.
I don't feel like a dinosaur.
Products come and go in Silicon Valley and I never thought video games would amount to much. I am constantly surprised that they continue to prosper. Out here you are only as good as what you have done lately.
Atari was my first startup company but not my last. The first time I was amazed by video games was back in '74 on a business trip to Japan when I saw a Pong game on a tour boat on a lake outside of Tokyo."
*update* 11/04/05 - Courtesy of Gareth Randall and his wife Suzanne I've finally got my paws on an Atari 800. Well, 2 in fact - thanks both :D More on those when I bring a PSU down here.
VCS ('big six'), boxed, with all controllers, boxed carts. Fresh from 1977 :) 'fat' US VCS, one of the first 70,000 made! Mint boxed VCS with games, from Linda and Spencer. 2600 ('big four') 'Pacman' edition, boxed with boxed Pac-Man cart. Arabic 2600 clone, boxed. 250-odd games on-board! 400 with raised replacement keyboard and BASIC manual 400 on its own and with duff sound, for now. It's on the todo list :) 800 pair, one boxed and one on its own from Gareth Randall. 600XL - boxed, mint, with manuals etc, and some boxed games including Centipede 2x800XL - both working, donated by Paul McRoy. Came with a shedload of disks. 800xl with 1050 drive, disks, PSUs, manuals 1200XL, not too common, these. NTSC version Boxed 2600jr with a shedload of games and spare tatty boxed machine.
'small rainbow' 2600 Jrs - came with a couple of games etc.
'big rainbow' 2600 Jr with games. 'black fascia' 2600 Jr with a bundle of games. 7800 ProSystem - boxed complete in excellent condition, and "Centipede!" Yay. XEGS system, boxed with 4 games and *lightgun*! Woo. 65XE, boxed combo pack complete with joystick, boxed XC12 tape drive and 10 games. Looks lovely after a bath. PC1 with external hard drive and keyboard......didn't even know Atari DID PC compatibles! PC2 with keyboard. PC3 with keyboard and boxed Philips colour monitor 130XE with 1050 floppy drive and loads of disks. 520STe, boxed mint with unused mouse. Not bad for a fiver!
520STfm, boxed complete with software pack and a bundle of music software. 520ST, complete with floppy and other gubbins! Cheers Dave. 520STfm on its own. 520STm with external floppy, and loads of s/w, also from Paul.
1040STe, nowt with it but it works fine.
1040STf with mouse, donation from Jan Lucas - cheers! Mega ST2, on its own but it works Mega ST4 'Desktop Publishing' system with Megafile30 and Laser Printer. Jaguar console, boxed new with 2 games and joypad extender
CX85 keypad, factory sealed in box - I might open it one day :) 16K expansion for the 800, boxed!
Video Keypad for the 2600 (I think!) Radio Controllers for the VCS, Vic-20 and Sears Telegames - boxed complete. 410 data recorder for the 400/800 410 data recorder, newer model. Or maybe its the other way round :) 1010 Data recorder, NEW in box! Unused.
XC12 Data recorder with box
ST314 external Floppy for the ST
ST354 external Floppy for the ST
810 floppy drive from Gareth Randall, it's not well apparently!
2x1050 Disk drives, PSUs and cables, another donation by Paul.
1050 external drive on its own, bless.
1050 external drive from Gareth Randall, came with one of the 800s.
3 1/2" generic drive as well - cheers Spencer.....
Cumana external 3 1/2" floppy.
Manual for the 130XE
Original Atari games on cassette and disk.
Loads of books, manuals etc for Atari 400/800/600XL/800XL/ST. Auto Recall calculator - smart!
An "I love Atari" bag :o)
SM124 monitor, also donated by Jan Lucas
Combat (VCS, x3, 2 boxed)
Pac-Man (VCS, x3, 2 boxed)
Ms. Pac-Man (2600, x2)
Space Invaders (VCS, 1 boxed 1 not)
Haunted House (VCS, x3, 1 boxed)
Slot Racers (VCS)
Dodge 'Em (VCS)
Yar's Revenge (VCS, 1 boxed 1 not)
Championship Soccer (VCS)
Pole Position (VCS)
Pole Position (2600)
Air-Sea Battle (VCS)
Berzerk (VCS, x2)
Centipede (2600, x4, 1988)
Centipede (2600, x3, 1982)
Jungle Hunt (VCS)
Keystone Kapers (Activision)
32-in-1 Game Cart (2600)
Phoenix (2600, x2)
Outlaw (VCS, x2)
Skate Boardin' (Activision)
River Raid (Activision)
Adventure (VCS, 1978)
Dug Dug (2600, x2)
Crystal Castles (2600, x2)
Defender II (x3)
Space Invaders (2600)
Mouse Trap (CBS)
Mario Bros (CBS)
Mario Bros (2600, 1983)
Donkey Kong (CBS)
Spider Man (Activision)
Night Driver (VCS)
Millipede (2600, red/brown label 1987)
Millipede (2600, 1984)
Video Pinball (VCS)
Missile Command (VCS)
E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (2600)
Star Wars Jedi Arena (Lucasfilm)
Adventures on GX-12 (Telegames)
Basket Brawl (x2)
Mat Mania Challenge
Mean 18 Ultimate Golf
Unopened 2600 Carts
Unopened 7800 Carts
Pole Position II
Junior Donkey Kong
Defender (unboxed, from Rich Davis)
Caverns of Mars (boxed)
Atariartist (from Rich Davis)
Qix (from Rich Davis)
Donkey Kong (from Rich Davis)