Nolan Bushnell: Founder of Atari, Inc. and Chuck E. Cheese Pizza-Time Theaters
DishyMix episode 89: Nolan Bushnell, 20 Start Ups Later, on Chemical Engines, Existentialism and "My Cave."
Nolan Bushnell (born February 5, 1943) is the founder of Atari, Inc. (now owned by Infogrames) and the Chuck E. Cheese Pizza-Time Theaters and is considered to be the father of the video arcade industry.
Bushnell graduated from the University of Utah electrical engineering program in 1968. During his time there in the 1960s, Bushnell was one of many computer science students that played the now famous Spacewar game on DEC mainframe computers. In 1971, Bushnell and colleague Ted Dabney created the Spacewar clone "Computer Space" in a self-contained cabinet; it was manufactured and distributed by Nutting Associates. Computer Space proved to be too far ahead of its time and was a commercial failure.
Nonetheless, Bushnell was determined to make a video game that could be played by anyone. In 1972, he and Dabney formed Atari and experienced an epiphany that spring at a computer electronics show in Burlingame, California, where he saw the Magnavox Odyssey for the first time and played its version of ping-pong. He realized that the game could use some improvements and a reduction in complexity. After Atari engineer Al Alcorn perfected the easier to play Pong videogame, Bushnell had it installed at a tavern in Sunnyvale, California called Andy Capp's (currently, it is "Rooster T. Feathers," a comedy club - but there is a mention on the wall of the establishment of the very first "Pong" being installed there). Pong proved to be popular but imitators helped keep Atari from dominating the fledging coin-operated videogame market.
Bushnell later bought out Dabney. In 1974, Bushnell and Atari decided to develop a home version of Pong. By 1975, Pong became one of the hottest Christmas gifts, largely due to a distribution agreement with Sears. In 1977, the Atari 2600 was introduced which helped to revolutionize home videogaming and the modern video game console industry was born. Demand for the unit was so great that Atari executives manned the production lines to help with the assembly and packaging during that first Christmas after its release. In 1976, Warner Communications (now Time Warner) bought Atari, and Bushnell was forced out of the company in 1978.
While still at Atari in 1977, he purchased Pizza Time Theaters back from Warner Communications (as Pizza Time was originally developed at Atari), a place where kids could go and eat pizza and play video games. The Pizza Time / Chuck E. Cheese Theaters also had animatronic animals that played music as entertainment (Bushnell had always wanted to work for Walt Disney, but was continually turned down for employment when he was first starting out after graduation - Chuck E. Cheese was his homage to Disney and the technology developed there). In 1984, Bushnell resigned from Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time Theaters (now named after its famous mouse mascot) as it entered bankruptcy. Chuck E. Cheese and it survives today as a successful entertainment and restaurant chain.
Bushnell has started over 20 companies (his most recent being uWink (http://www.uwink.com), which he founded in 1999). He has been inducted into the "Video Game Hall of Fame" and the Consumer Electronics Association "Hall of Fame."