NEW YORK — Samuel F. Dabney, an electrical engineer who laid the groundwork for the modern video game industry as a cofounder of Atari and helped create the hit console game Pong, died May 26 of cancer at his home in Clearlake, Calif. He was 81.
Mr. Dabney, known as Ted, brought arcade video games to the world with Atari, a startup he and a partner, Nolan Bushnell, founded in Sunnyvale, Calif., in the early 1970s.
At a time when computers — the main arena then for programmers working to build games — could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece, Mr. Dabney spurned them altogether. Instead he tinkered in a workshop he had set up in his daughter’s bedroom and used plywood and fake mahogany paneling to build Atari’s first consoles.
Mr. Dabney used cheap television components to create an interactive motion system and, in 1971, the world’s first commercial video game, Computer Space. Although the game was a failure, it was followed the next year by Pong, a simple yet beguiling game in which short vertical lines bat a ricocheting dot back and forth to the sound of beep tones. At its peak, Pong was played on 35,000 consoles in bars and game rooms across the United States.
“Ted came up with the breakthrough idea that got rid of the computer so you didn’t have to have a computer to make the game work,” Allan Alcorn, one of Atari’s first employees, said in an interview this week. “It created the industry.”
Mr. Dabney attended trade schools and graduated from San Mateo High School before joining the Marine Corps in 1955. He learned engineering at the Navy’s electronics school on Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay and at its radio relay school in San Diego, according to video game historian Leonard Herman, who wrote a profile of Mr. Dabney in 2009 for the British games magazine Edge.
Mr. Dabney returned to San Francisco after being discharged from the Marines in 1959, and took a job at Bank of America’s research lab. In 1961, he joined the military products team at Ampex, a company in Redwood City, Calif., that specialized in audio technology and data storage and also developed early videotape recorders.
He shared an office at Ampex with Bushnell, a charismatic engineer who had helped pay his way through college as a carnival barker. .
The men found inspiration in a computer system they had seen at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Bushnell envisioned a game zone with pizza and coin-operated machines; Mr. Dabney had the engineering skills to bring the idea to life.
They left Ampex together in 1971 and started a company called Syzygy. When the name turned out to be taken, they switched to Atari.
Their first game was Computer Space, which was based on Spacewar!, a game Bushnell had seen running on a PDP1 mainframe computer at the University of Utah. To create it, Mr. Dabney made his breakthrough video circuitry system.
“A computer was too slow to do anything at video speeds anyway,” Alcorn said. “So once Ted had invented his motion circuit, this trick, you didn’t need the computer anymore.”
Thanks to the circuitry he had developed, Computer Space could be housed in a relatively small cabinet that could be slid in next to pinball machines in bars.
The cabinet became an industry standard that endures to this day.
Although Computer Space flopped, Bushnell had another idea. Having seen a computerized table tennis game he directed Alcorn to build something similar using Mr. Dabney’s circuitry. Alcorn set to work.
“It’s the simplest game ever made,” Alcorn said. “One moving spot, two score digits, and two paddles. There’s never been a simpler game.”
It was an instant success.
In addition to their professional partnership, the Atari founders were good friends. Mr. Dabney taught Bushnell to sail, and they bought a 41-foot sailboat together. The called it Pong.
But as their company grew, their relationship soured. Mr. Dabney left Atari in 1973, selling his portion to Bushnell for $250,000.
Mr. Dabney later helped Bushnell with another venture: a restaurant that combined food, animatronic entertainment, and an arcade. Mr. Dabney’s contribution was a system for alerting patrons when their orders were ready. The restaurant, called Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theater, is now a chain with 600 outlets in 47 states.