Ted Dabney, A Legend Passes
Retro Gamer pays tribute to the cofounder of Atari Inc
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...
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.