G.L.Tawney, W.A. Derr
|Release date||Winter 1939|
The Nimatron is a computer that allows one to play the game Nim. It was first presented in April 1940 at the 1939 New York World's Fair purely as a form of entertainment. Designed in the winter of 1939 by Edward Condon for the sole purpose of entertaining, it is a digital computer composed of electromechanical relays which allows the lighting of four lines of seven bulbs. Each player can turn off one or more of them in any line, then the machine takes a turn, and so on. The last to extinguish a light is the winner.
The reception of the machine during the fair was positive and was a success with nearly 100,000 games of Nim played. Despite this success, Condon considers the Nimatron one of the biggest failures of his career because he had not realized the potential of the machine. It is considered the first fully constructed computer game and the first computer dedicated to the game of Nim, but its impact on digital computers and computer games is negligible. John Makepeace Bennett nevertheless was inspired to design the Nimrod, a similar machine considered as one of the precursors of the video game, in 1951.
The Nimatron was designed in the winter of 1939 by Edward Condon, a US nuclear physicist, pioneer of quantum mechanics. In 1937 he was employed at the Westinghouse Electric Company where he became the Associate Director of Research. The idea of making a machine for playing Nim came to him when he realized that the same calibration circuits used in the Geiger Counters can be used to represent the numbers defining the state of play. The Nimatron, intended to animate the exhibition of Westinghouse at the 1939 New York World's Fair, is built at Westinghouse with the assistance of G.L. Tawney and W.A. Derr. It is a non-programmable digital computer  which incorporates electromechanical relays, and weighs more than a metric ton. Condon stressed that the Nimatron does not serve, like the other machines of the time, to boast technology prowess, but only for the purpose of entertainment, unless it is to demonstrate how a series of electromechanical relays can make a decision according to a simple mathematical rule. Condon filed a patent application with the United States on April 26, 1940 and obtained it on September 24, 1940. The machine is included in a large piece of furniture overhung by a cube offering on four sides the replica of the current game through a series of light bulbs, which allows the spectators around to follow the game. Condon also developed a feature to slow down the computer when playing, in order to avoid frustrating the human players who take longer to think their shots. While it takes a fraction of a second for the Nimatron to make a move, this delay suggests to the audience that the machine is thinking. According to Condon, this could be the first time a computer has been deliberately slowed. The Nimatron can play only a limited number of strategies, which makes it bearable for human opponents, contrary to what some players have reported during the World's Fair.
Each part of the game of Nim requires the presence of two players, each taking a turn in turn. The Nimatron takes the role of one player and has four vertical lines of seven bulbs and a feature that allows you to decide how many lights you use during the game. The player can turn off one or more lights in any line, then the machine plays and so on. The last one to extinguish a light has won. The machine delivers to each winner a token with the inscription "Nim Champ".
The Nimatron was presented at the New York World's Fair 1939 and was a success. At the fair, about 100,000 games of Nim were played of which approximately 90,000 were won by the Nimatron. An article from The Christian Science Monitor compares the binary language used by the Nimatron to counting methods still used by ancient tribes Australia in Torres Strait or New Guinea. In his account of the New York International Fair, The New York Times compares the Nimatron with a novelty like Elsie the Cow, the advertising icon of Borden.
The Nimatron is the first computer dedicated solely to gaming and the first computer dedicated to Nim games, however its impact on digital computers and computer games is negligible. Nimatron is indeed designed and considered entertainment and neither Condon nor Westinghouse realized the potential of what they held. Despite the success of the Nimatron at the World's Fair, Condon considers this machine as the biggest failure of his career because he had not harnessed the underlying potential that it contained. The patent filed by Condon includes a description of the Data Representation, a concept that is universally important in the Computer Revolution to come. The Nimatron remains totally forgotten.
John Makepeace Bennett nevertheless was inspired by the Nimatron to design the Nimrod in 1951, a machine similar to that of Condon, considered as one of the precursors of the video game. The Nimatron was preserved from 1940 for a limited period at Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science Building in Pittsburgh in United States. In 1941, a more evolved version was created by Raymond Redheffer.
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