Ted Dabney was the co-founder of Syzygy and Atari.
With Al Alcorn and Nolan Bushnell, Ted unwittingly helped launch a thirty-eight billion dollar industry with the introduction of Computer Space and Pong.
MT> How did your time serving with the U.S. Marine Corp. lead to your position with Ampex?
TD> I had been a surveyor both during and after high school but the work was seasonal. I figured that the military would give me a chance to learn a new trade. I choose the Marine Corps because it gave me the best chance of staying in California. I finally got in to the Navy's "Basic Electronics School" at Treasure Island. I later went to "Radio Relay School" in San Diego. I didn't learn much about electronics, but I did learn a lot of jargon. This jargon and a guy named John Herbert helped me get the job with Ampex.
MT> You shared an office with Nolan Bushnell at Ampex. Did he ever attempt to steal your stapler?
TD> When I shared an office with Bushnell, he was poor and honest.
MT> Seriously, what was it like working on top of each other?
Was there the 'Odd Couple' scenario in play? I know that you were close, but is there more to tell?
TD> Bushnell was "high key" and I was "low key".
It was great to hang around with somebody that had big ambitions. That's all where was to it.
MT> In the beginning, while brainstorming for a company name with Larry Bryan and Nolan Bushnell, "D. & B." and "B. & D." were thrown around. I know that you couldn't choose either since other businesses were already using those abbreviations, such as Black & Decker. The "D" was obviously for Dabney, but was the "B" for Bushnell or Bryan? Were three letters, one for each of you, ever considered?
TD> The "B" would have been for Bushnell. Bryan wasn't a player at that time.
MT> Speaking of Larry Bryan, are you and Nolan still trying to get the $100 seed money from him?
TD> Once I invented the digital motion circuit, we wouldn't need a computer progammer.
I used the fact that he hadn't put in his $100 to exclude Larry from the partnership.
MT> How did Larry take the news that he had been excluded from the partnership?
TD> I think he was relieved. He had other things he wanted to do and I think he saw this thing as not very promising.
MT> When you walk down the street, do kids proclaim,
"Hey look, it's Ted Dabney, the father of the world's first commercially sold coin-op video game!"
TD> Nobody knows who I am except my daughters Terri and Pam.
MT> You have been out of the lime light for some time. Some would state that you never even took the time to take credit for your contributions to starting a thirty-eight billion dollar industry. Truthfully, do you ever wish that your name hadn't been marginalized over the years and that you received more recognition?
TD> The only thing that bothers me is the fact that Bushnell never acknowledges my contributions.
We had been such close friends and he relied on me a lot.
MT> Exactly how desperate was Nutting for anew game that they paid you to create Computer Space, paid you a royalty on every unit sold, and allowed Syzygy to keep ownership of the game?
TD> All Nutting had was an old game called "Computer Quiz". His salesman, Dave Ralston, had been keeping Nutting alive by working very hard and selling these things. He was very desperate for something new. That's why he gave us such a sweet deal. Bill Nutting wasn't the sharpest business mind around.
MT> Why are there two control variations for Computer Space?
TD> Controlling the rocket ship on Computer Space was pretty awkward. We wanted to use a twisting motion to replace the buttons. We had a cast aluminum handle built and I configured switches to work on the rotation of the handle to replace the rotation buttons. The implementation worked fine but it couldn't hold up to the tourque that the players exerted.
MT> Is it true that you personally built the original Pong cabinet that was set up in Andy Capp's Tavern?
TD> Yes. It was a small one that sat on a barrel. I used a "laundry matt" type coin mechanism that mounted on the side of the cabinet.
MT> Tell us about the pinball machine that you were working on for Bally?
TD> Bushnell wanted to do something out of the ordinary for this project. My job was to create a two level pinball machine. If the player got the ball in one of the special locations, then I had an elevator to move it up to the second level. It would play up there until it hit a chute that brought it back down to the main level. This was a very difficult project which I never got quite right. When Bally rejected Pong, I didn't have to finish it.
MT> Was the pinball machine ever named? What happened to the prototype?
Do you have any photos or surviving documents so we could see what could have been?
TD> The pinball machine may have had a name, but I don't remember. There was a lot more to this thing than I could get done. I spent most of my time helping out with Al's project. There are no pictures and the prototype was scrapped. I thought that Bushnell would help me out with this, but he didn't.
MT> In a catastrophic blunder that changed video game history, Bally paid twenty-four thousand dollars for Pong and then walked away. How did that come about?
TD> Bally was a big-time coin-op company in Chicago, so Nolan contacted them. They said that as long as we were associated with Nutting, they wouldn't talk to us. We quit Nutting and Nolan negotiated the deal with Bally. They would pay us $4000 per month for six months and we would design and build a video game and a pinball machine for them.
MT> But, WHY did Bally pass on Pong?
TD> I don't know why Bally rejected Pong. I think it was because they didn't comprehend the technology. Maybe it was just because they thought it was too simple.
MT> Early in Syzygy's history, you talked Nolan out of taking a job in California which would have ultimately ended Atari before its inception. Was your motivation simply one of self-preservation or was there more to the story?
TD> There was a guy named Scanlon at an airport in the LA area who saw a Computer Space. He looked all over the machine to find the phone wires going to it. When he couldn't find any, he new this was someting special. He contacted Bushnell and offered him a job which paid $60,000 per year. (That was big bucks in the 70's.). It was purely self-preservation. I had quit my 10 year job with Ampex and didn't want to out looking for another. I had been a full-fledged engineer at Ampex without a degree. My chances of finding something like that were pretty slim.
MT> Is it true that the Secretary of State actually chose the "Atari' name for the business?
TD> After we got the deal with Bally, we felt it was time to incorporate our operation, so we started that process. We were going to use the name "Syzygy" but it was owned by somebody else. We submitted the names "Hane", "Sente" and "Atari" to the California Secretary of State. They picked the name "Atari".
MT> Atari's first office was a 7,000 square foot space in the Santa Clara industrial zone. Tell us about the Cole complex "expansion."
TD> We were building the first 50 Pong units and had all the cabinets in the shop. There was barely enough room to move around. We needed more space. The operation next door had pulled out during the night so it was vacant. I got my sabre saw and cut through the walls seperating the two units and moved in. The manager of the complex came around and told Bushnell that he couldn't do that. Bushnell told him we did it and he could just tell us how much we needed to pay.
MT> What was Catalyst?
TD> Catalyst was a group of wanna-be companies that Busnell brought together under one roof and supported. As I remember, most of these companies were "good ideas". The one I recall the most is a company called Androbot. They built a clever little roll-around robot that had a lot of character and was a lot of fun. It should have been a huge success. The problem was that the guys running the operation were progammers and not very good at electronics. I had inadvertently found a serious problem with their board layout and told Bushnell that these units would surely fail if it wasn't fixed. The programmers were so paranoid that they wouldn't allow me to tell them what they needed to do so, sure enough, they all failed.
MT> Describe the events that led to you leaving Atari?
TD> After Bushnell realized that we owned a very successful company, he became totally "ego driven" and didn't want to share the glory. I was being left out of all decision making. He hired this guy that came from HP as Vice President of Finance. I spent 5 minutes with him and knew he was a useless individual. When I told Nolan that he had made a big mistake, he said that this guy grew HP profits by some phenomenal amount. I reminded him that David Packard being Under Secretary of Defence during that time probably had more to do with it. He shrugged it off. It was this kind of stuff that convinced me it was time to go.
MT> After leaving Atari, you designed the Pizza Time order delivery system for Nolan. Please tell the readers a bit more about your encounter with Nolan concerning Pizza Time.
TD> After Bushnell sold Atari to Warner Communications, it was time for him to work on creating his original fantasy. He called it "Pizza Time Theatre". Where Disney had a mouse, Nolan had a rat. He named it "Chuck E. Cheese". He put his first place in Town and Country Village in Santa Clara. It wasn't really big enough for him to do all the things he wanted to do but it was a start. While I was up at his house one day, he asked me to come in with him on this adventure. I said, "Been there, done that!. I would rather be your friend then your partner again."
He then asked me to at least go and take a look at it and tell him what I think. So I did. I reported back to him that the place was so noisy that I couldn't tell when my pizza was ready. It was also dirty and the pizza wasn't very good. He said he would take care of the "dirty" but that it had to be noisy. He also said, "Mediocre pizza was good enough." I told him that that wasn't true. I said, "Mediocre was not a workable standard because any less is unacceptable." He didn't agree. He asked me to come up with a method to let people know when their pizza was ready even in all the noise. I invented a number callout system which I called "Notalog." I built these things in my garage and sold them to Pizza Time.
MT> Describe your time with Radeon Semiconductor, Teledyne and Fujitsu?
TD> Some recruiter that somehow knew about me told me about an applications engineer at Raytheon Semiconductor so I applied. I didn't know much about semiconductors and thought this would be a good way to learn. They didn't get back to me. I was on an airplane coming home from somewhere. I don't remember where or why I had gone. There was some guy on this plane that I knew was from Raytheon so I confronted him. I later got an invite.
It was clear that the marketing guy didn't want somebody working for him that was smarter than he was. I convinced him that I wasn't that smart and my only job would be to make him look good. I got the Job.
Semiconductors weren't too hard to learn. I did have to rewrite some of the data sheets because I was smarter than some earlier folks. Raytheon Semiconductor had a hybrid unit that was slated to close so I made a proposal to the president to buy the operation. He liked my proposal and presented it to to the big bosses in Waltham, MA. He got reamed for considering such an idea. He was so embarrassed that he felt I had to go. So I did. I landed a job with Fujitsu. The pay was good and I traveled a lot and I gave a paper at PowerCon 8 about switch-mode power supplies, but after several months with nothing to do, I quit.
I then went to work for Teledyne Semiconductor, again, as an applications engineer. I really like working there until Teledyne brought in some new guys to run the operation. These folks didn't understand marketing at all, Teledyne sold the operation to these guys so it was time for me to move on.
MT> You moved from Silicon Valley to the Sierras? That is quite a contrast. Care to explain the journey and feelings surrounding the trek?
TD> Before I left Teledyne, my wife and I had bought 20 acres in Crescent Mills, CA. There was an old house on the place that was unusable. So, we brought in a mobil home to spend weekends in. We fell in love with the area and thought about building a nice house. Instead, we bought another property that had 40 acres with a very nice house. The local grocery store was for sale so we bought that as soon as our Saratoga house sold in 1996.
MT> You later operated a quaint little country grocery store in Crescent Mills with your wife. What is your best selling item?
TD> The best selling item was beer. My wife made me put in a deli which made the place very profitable. We sold the 40 acre property and used the money to fix up the store. Carolyn grew the sales from $60.000 per year to $300,000 per year. That's pretty good for a town that had less that 400 people in it. We sold the store in 2006 and moved to Republic, WA.
MT> In the eighties, there were coin-op machines everywhere. Did you ever consider going full circle and making room for a Computer Space, or other game, in your grocery store?
TD> It had never been considered.
MT> Being an engineer, you could easily make your own time machine.
If/when you do construct such a device, what past actions or decisions would you readdress?
TD> I should have kept a few shares of Atari stock.
Deal Games would like to thank Ted for participating in our interview
and for jumpstarting our favorite hobby!
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