Ted Dab­ney, A Leg­end Passes

Retro Gamer pays trib­ute to the co­founder of Atari Inc

Retro Gamer - - CONTENTS -

We pay trib­ute to the co-founder of Atari Inc

on 26 May, Sa­muel F Dab­ney (known to many as Ted) sadly passed away from esophageal can­cer at the age of 81. In ad­di­tion to help­ing to cre­ate Com­puter Space and Pong, Ted was also re­spon­si­ble for the co­found­ing of Atari Inc, one of the big­gest play­ers in the early days of the videogame in­dus­try.

Due to his quiet na­ture and lack of in­ter­est in be­ing in the spot­light, many gamers have been un­aware of Ted’s con­tri­bu­tions to videogames, with most hav­ing no idea how big his in­volve­ment was un­til Leonard Her­man chron­i­cled his achieve­ments in a 2009 Edge ar­ti­cle.

Af­ter leav­ing the US Marines, Ted worked in the Bank Of Amer­ica’s re­search lab, but was un­sat­is­fied with his work there so left to join Hewlett Packard. Af­ter a stint there he changed jobs again to be an en­gi­neer at Am­pex. He even­tu­ally met Nolan Bush­nell and his­tory was made.

So why did it take us so long to learn about Ted’s role at Atari? “Nolan Bush­nell was a show­man,” ex­plains Leonard, whose 1994 book, Phoenix: The Rise & Fall Of Home Videogames was one of the first to men­tion Ted’s key in­volve­ment. “[Nolan] worked on a car­ni­val mid­way dur­ing col­lege. Ted was an en­gi­neer. Nolan was a peo­ple per­son, so he was the per­son in front of the cam­eras, while Ted stayed in the back­ground. When Nolan be­gan pub­li­cis­ing him­self more than the com­pany, that was when Ted de­cided to leave.”

It would ap­pear that the struc­ture at Atari was much like Ap­ple, a com­pany that Atari would bat­tle against through­out the late Seven­ties and early Eight­ies as both com­pa­nies put out their own home com­put­ers. “Ted wasn’t re­ally in­volved with the games them­selves,” con­tin­ues Leonard. “Ted was the tech­ni­cal guy, the Steve Woz­niak, whereas Nolan was Steve Jobs. Nolan came up with the ideas and Ted fig­ured out how to put them to­gether. Ini­tially they tried to get a con­tract with Bally; Ted would de­sign pin­ball ma­chines and Nolan would do the videogames. When that didn’t pan out and they went into busi­ness on their own, Ted se­cured fi­nanc­ing af­ter Wells Fargo de­nied Nolan a loan. When they be­gan build­ing Pong ma­chines, Ted pur­chased the tele­vi­sion sets. And it was Ted who came up with a re­tail price of $937 for each one af­ter see­ing a car with that num­ber on its li­cence plate.”

Al­though Atari Inc is the most well­known com­pany that Ted and Nolan were in­volved with, it cer­tainly wasn’t the first, as Leonard ex­plains. “Af­ter they signed a deal with Nut­ting As­so­ciates to build and dis­trib­ute Com­puter Space, Ted and Nolan needed a way to dis­tin­guish the stuff they made for them­selves with the stuff that Nut­ting had the rights to. So they started Syzygy Game Com­pany. An­other en­gi­neer at Am­pex, Larry Bryan, ac­tu­ally came up with the name Syzygy, which loosely means ‘the align­ment of three ce­les­tial ob­jects’. In or­der to keep Nut­ting from claim­ing that they owned Com­puter Space, a tag that stated ‘Syzygy Engi­neered’ was put on the front of ev­ery Com­puter Space cabi­net.”

With Leonard hav­ing doc­u­mented Ted’s pre­vi­ously un­known in­volve­ment

with Atari for so long we were keen to know what Ted was like as a per­son. “The funny, and sad thing about our friend­ship is that we never met in per­son,” Leonard re­veals. “We al­ways com­mu­ni­cated by Skype, email, and phone. I had a stand­ing of­fer to visit him in Cal­i­for­nia but I never made good on it. Ev­ery time I spoke to Ted, he was al­ways funny, cheer­ful and op­ti­mistic. This was even af­ter his house burned to the ground from a wild­fire in 2016 and af­ter he was di­ag­nosed with an ag­gres­sive form of can­cer. He told me sev­eral times that he had a won­der­ful life and he had no re­grets. We’ve had sev­eral talks about his up­com­ing death and we both agreed that death was part of life. He wasn’t de­pressed about it at all. And no mat­ter how bad he felt he al­ways man­aged to make me feel good. He’d al­ways tell me that my call made him feel bet­ter.”

It’s clear that Ted was an im­por­tant part of Atari’s suc­cess, even if so many gamers were un­aware of it as the time. Per­haps one of the sweet­est as­pects is that it wasn’t un­til late in his life that he re­alised just how im­por­tant his work was and the im­pact he had on peo­ple.

“Ralph Baer is cred­ited as the in­ven­tor of the home videogame. Nolan Bush­nell is cred­ited as the fa­ther of the videogame in­dus­try. I think Ted is some­where in the mid­dle,” con­cludes Leonard. “If you were able to ask Ted what he thought his legacy was, that an­swer would have changed in the last few months. Be­fore March, he would have been hum­ble and say he didn’t do any­thing. How­ever, af­ter a Smith­so­nian seven-man crew recorded him for nine hours, he called me in amaze­ment. He was sim­ply amazed that peo­ple cared enough about him to do this. For the first time, he be­gan to re­alise the im­pact he made on so many peo­ples’ lives. He was so happy. I think that’s his legacy. He’s the cocre­ator of an in­dus­try that made mil­lions of peo­ple happy.”

Our thoughts go out to Ted’s friends and fam­ily.

ev­ery time i spoke to Ted, he was al­ways funny, cheer­ful and op­ti­mistic Leonard Her­man

© Al Al­corn/com­puter His­tory Mu­seum Ted (left) with Nolan Bush­nell, (cen­tre) and Al Al­corn (far right) proudly show off Pong.

© Dab­ney Fam­ily ...and 40 years on, Ted recre­ates the fa­mous im­age that in­tro­duced him to so many gamers.

© Dab­ney Fam­ily Ted Dab­ney poses out­side his fam­ily home in 1968...

© Al Al­corn/com­puter His­tory Mu­seum

Few things scream ‘retro’ like a Com­puter Space cabi­net.

One of the first projects Ted was in­volved with while work­ing with Nolan was the cre­ation of Com­puter Space.

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