Samuel Frederick Dabney Jr.
May 2, 1937
|Died||May 26, 2018 (aged 81)|
|Known for||Co-founder of Atari, Inc., co-creator of Computer Space|
Samuel Frederick "Ted" Dabney Jr. (May 2, 1937 – May 26, 2018) was an American electrical engineer, and the co-founder, alongside Nolan Bushnell, of Atari, Inc. He is recognized as developing the basics of video circuitry principles that were used for Computer Space and later Pong, one of the first and most successful arcade games.
Education and early career
Dabney was born in San Francisco, California to Irma and Samuel Frederick Dabney. His parents divorced while he was young and subsequently raised by his father. One of several schools that he attended was John A. O'Connell High School of Technology, where he studied trade drafting, which led to him getting a job with the California Department of Transportation while still a teenager. He eventually got his high school diploma from San Mateo High School; Dabney credited a math teacher named Walker there that got him interested in the electronics and computing areas. He then had a summer position with a local surveyor company, but when the work dried up by the winter, he was let go, and he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. Within his three years of the Corps he took courses on electronics, giving him an interest in the area. He was able to leave the Corps as he had been accepted for San Francisco State University, but as he did not have the funds to support his education, he instead took a job with Bank of America based on his electronics experience, where he kept the Electronic Recording Machine, Accounting operational.
Career in the computer industry
Dabney left Bank of America after a year, and on recommendation of John Herbert, a colleague he worked with, was hired by Hewlett-Packard. Within a few weeks, Herbert had moved on to Ampex and convinced Dabney to interview there. Dabney joined Ampex in 1961, working in their military products section. This work led to him becoming involved in early video imagery products within Ampex, including vidicon systems. By around 1969 Ampex had also hired Nolan Bushnell, who worked alongside Dabney and where they became friends. Bushnell, prior to joining Ampex, had come up with the idea of making a carnival-like pizza place with animatronics and games, and discussed this idea with Dabney. After seeing a computer system at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the two came up with the concept of using a smaller computer or video systems, adding coin slots, and allowing people to pay to play games on this.
Dabney and Bushnell jointly created a partnership called Syzygy (named after astronomy term representing an alignment of celestial bodies) in 1971. When they decided to incorporate, they discovered another company had that name and therefore established their corporation under the name Atari, Inc., based on the Go term equivalent to chess's "check", as both had been avid fans of the game. Their first product was Computer Space, inspired by having seen Spacewar! running at various computer laboratories. Dabney created a motion system using a video circuit made up of cheap analog and digital components of a standard television set rather than acquire an expensive computer, while Bushnell designed its cabinet and worked with Nutting Associates to manufacture the game at scale. Bushnell used this to convince Al Alcorn, another Ampex employee, to leave and join Atari to help program more of these games. Under Bushnell's direction, Alcorn used Dabney's video circuit concept to create the programming for Atari's next game, Pong. Dabney constructed the coin slot mechanism portion of the cabinet. Once their one-off version proved successful, they ramped up production for scale, with Dabney overseeing the manufacturing process. Pong became the first successful arcade game.
As Pong became successful, Dabney felt overshadowed by both Bushnell and Alcorn. He learned that Bushnell had patented his video circuit idea without including Dabney on the patent. Bushnell also had assigned Dabney a lower-level position in Atari and did not include him in high-level meetings. Around March 1973, Dabney left the company over this falling out, selling his portion of the company's ownership for US$250,000. Dabney did continue to help Bushnell with starting his Pizza Time Theater (the predecessor of Chuck E. Cheese's) and Catalyst Technologies as an employee, being wary of Bushnell's previous treatment of him. Alongside these, he worked for several companies, including Raytheon and Fujitsu, and at other times working on his own projects for his own video game company Syzygy Game Company, where he made games that Bushnell used for his Pizza Time Theaters, including an arcade quiz game based on science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. Dabney also helped with the automated ticket number system used by the restaurants. When Pizza Time Theater went under, and Bushnell could not pay Dabney what he owed him, Dabney opted to close down Syzygy, and ended his friendship with Bushnell. Dabney went to work at Teledyne for about ten years before deciding to leave the industry.
Later life, and death
Dabney had married, and later divorced, Joan Wahrmund, with whom he had two daughters. He later married Carolyn Dabney.
After leaving the computer industry, Dabney and Carolyn managed a grocery store and later a deli in Crescent Mills, California. Around 2006, they moved from California to a property he owned near Okanogan National Forest in Washington. The Dabneys later returned to California, taking up residence in Clearlake, a city north of San Francisco. Their house was completely destroyed in the Clayton Fire in August 2016. A GoFundMe account was set up to help the Dabneys resettle, but it was cancelled after Dabney confirmed that he didn't need it.
After his departure from Atari, Dabney did not receive much publicity, and until 2009, his contributions towards Atari and the early days of video games were generally forgotten. Dabney reappeared in 2009, following an announcement made by Paramount Pictures the previous year that they were going to make a biographical film based on Nolan Bushnell, but had never approached Dabney for any input. Dabney gave an interview with video game historian Leonard Herman in Edge that described his contributions towards Atari, and acknowledged that "I'm sure [Bushnell] had no desire to even acknowledge that I ever existed" and "He wouldn't give me any credit even while I was still there".
- Bowles, Nellie (May 31, 2018). "Ted Dabney, a Founder of Atari and a Creator of Pong, Dies at 81". The New York Times. Retrieved June 1, 2018.
- Garcia, Chris (July 16, 2012). "Oral History of Samuel F. (Ted) Dabney" (PDF). Computer History Museum. Retrieved May 26, 2018.
- Herman, Leonard (April 2009). "The Untold Atari Story". Edge. Vol. 200. pp. 94–99.
- Goldberg, Marty; Vendel, Curt (2012). Atari Inc: Business is Fun. Sygyzy Press. pp. 23–26. ISBN 0985597402.
- Edwards, Benj (May 31, 2017). "Robots, Pizza, And Sensory Overload: The Chuck E. Cheese Origin Story". Fast Company. Retrieved May 27, 2018.
- Berlin, Leslie (November 11, 2017). "The Inside Story of Pong and the Early Days of Atari". Wired. Retrieved May 26, 2018.
- Shea, Cam (March 10, 2008). "Al Alcorn Interview". IGN. Retrieved October 13, 2008.
- US patent 3793483, Nolan Bushnell, "Video image positioning control system for amusement device", issued February 19, 1974
- Goldberg, Marty; Vendel, Curt (2012). Atari Inc: Business is Fun. Sygyzy Press. pp. 93–96. ISBN 0985597402.
- Yin-Poole, Wesley (May 26, 2018). "Atari co-founder Ted Dabney dies aged 80". Eurogamer. Retrieved May 26, 2018.
- Kovner, Guy; Warren, Christi (August 14, 2016). "Lower Lake burns as Clayton fire forces evacuation of Clearlake residents". The Press Democrat. Retrieved May 29, 2018.