Allan Alcorn was desperate when he hired Steve Jobs, a young college dropout.
Atari, the fledgling computer game company he worked for, was about to recruit after the sudden success of its first game, Pong. Now, here was a young hippie in sandals waiting at the front desk asking for a job as a technician.
“It was 1973 and there was this guy, maybe 18, who was just so passionate about technology — said his name was Steve Jobs,” Alcorn told The Post “So I hired him.”
But there were two not-insignificant problems with the new hire — so big that Jobs was kicked out of the day shift.
“He was kind of a pain to work with and he really had a problem with body odor, so we let him work at night,” recalled Alcorn of the man who would go on to create Apple computers. ‘It was better for everyone’
November 29 marks the 50th anniversary of Pong, the groundbreaking computer game Alcorn designed, first rolled out in California and later around the world, bringing computer games from labs to the mainstream.
Pong pioneered the explosion of home video games, but Alcorn is quite humble about his achievements.
“I don’t know, I think I’ve come up with the simplest game you can think of,” said the 74-year-old. ‘I mean, what’s Pong? Two paddles. A net. One moving object…and hugely addictive.”
An electrical engineering graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, he had paid for college by working as a TV repairman before taking a job at Ampex, a major engineering firm in Redwood City, California.
There he met Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, the duo that would later form Atari. They recruited Alcorn, then 24 in June 1972, making him the company’s third employee. (He still has his worker badge, with the worker number 003, as proof.)
“We had no money, no production capacity, nothing. But I just thought, ‘I’m okay with it until it blows up,'” said Alcorn, who was paid $250 a week. “It sounded like it could be fun.”
It was so low-budget that it became a one-man operation.
“People ask me ‘who did the sound on Pong?’ I did. Or “who made the graphics on Pong?” I did,” he said. “At the time, it was just me, left to my own devices for two months, and at the end there was Pong.”
The next step was its own form of beta testing. In September 1972, with the game’s programming completed, Alcorn purchased a black and white Hitachi TV from Walgreens and packaged it in a tabletop box with all the circuits. He mounted a coin box from a laundromat, with a sawn-off plastic milk jug underneath to collect the money.
Next stop was Andy Capp’s Tavern, one of the Atari team’s local bars in Sunnyvale, California – about 10 minutes from the city of Cupertino, the future home of Apple’s headquarters. Alcorn left the game between a pinball machine and a jukebox and waited. “I just wanted to see if someone would play the damn thing,” he recalled.
A few days later, the bar owner called the Atari office. Pong had gone wrong.
“I wasn’t surprised it broke because it wasn’t built to last,” said Alcorn, who went to the bar to check it out.
The next day he passed Nolan Bushnell’s office and threw a large bag of quarters on his desk. “I said, ‘I found the problem – the damn thing makes too much money,’ he recalls. The coin collector was full.
Alcorn replaced the milk jug with a larger loaf pan and Atari got to work. Soon after, the first batch of 12 coin-operated Pong machines were installed in bars across California. They cost $500 to make and Atari pre-sold them for $1,000 cash. The company grew rapidly and even spread abroad.
In 1975, the company sold a home console version of Pong – and its rapid success put Atari on the radar of a number of much larger companies. But it was an upstart who asked Alcorn for help.
When longtime employee Steve Jobs started a new home computer company, Apple, with his friend Steve Wozniak in 1976, they offered stock to Alcorn in exchange for solving a technical problem.
“I told them to just give me one of their computers instead,” he recalls his costly misstep.
Jobs, Wozniak, and the entire Apple team came to his Alcorn’s house to install his new Apple II.
“There were about a dozen people and they set it up and showed me how to make it work on the TV,” he recalls. “After they left, I told my wife that I could make this computer do anything. She said, “Great, let it do the dishes.” When I told her it couldn’t, she just said, ‘Get that damn thing out of the living room. I want to watch television.”
Meanwhile, in 1976, Warner Communications struck a deal to buy Atari for $30 million.
“And I was like, ‘Holy s–t! I have 10 percent shares!” Alcorn said.
While the move to Warner made financial sense, it didn’t quite work out as Alcorn, Bushnell and Dabney envisioned. Atari liked a gamble; Warner didn’t want to take risks.
“They had money and marketing expertise, but they didn’t understand games — and they didn’t understand Silicon Valley,” Alcorn said. “You know, we had some failures at Atari that aren’t too famous, but if you have to get it right every time, you’re never going to be creative.”
By 1981, it was clear that Alcorn was no longer wanted at Warner, even though Atari’s sales were now over $1 billion a year and they controlled about 75% of the home video game market with hits like Space Invaders, Asteroids, and Centipede. .
Warner gave him two years of paid leave. “They put us on the beach. They paid us full salary and everything. I even had a company car not to show up in,” Alcorn said with a laugh.
In 1985, he was appointed an Apple Fellow by Steve Jobs for his work on digital video compression, but Alcorn admitted he had reservations about working with Jobs again.
‘I didn’t really want to work for that man. He could be a really annoying guy to work for,” he said. “But it sounded interesting and, you know, it was Apple.”
One of the last things he worked on at Apple was a project compressing video into data type, making it smaller and more versatile.
“I didn’t know it would eventually fill the internet with puppy and cat videos,” he said.
Now retired, Alcorn’s ingenuity is rightfully recognized for the role it played in creating the global video game industry we know today.
Pong, meanwhile, always remains popular.
In March, Alcorn sold Pong’s original prototype home version at auction in Boston, Massachusetts for $270,910. “My wife told me to clean out the garage and it was just standing there,” he shrugged.
“I do keep a few things, but if someone wants to give me a quarter of a million dollars for something like that, go ahead, be my guest.”
Recently, research scientists at Cortical Labs in Melbourne, Australia, managed to teach networks of brain cells in a petri dish how to play Pong, in an effort to demonstrate “synthetic biological intelligence.”
And half a century later, people are still playing the game.
“I was at a games convention and there was this guy playing on an old arcade Pong machine by himself,” said Alcorn. “So I went over and played him.
“When I beat him, I said, ‘You know, years ago I was the best Pong player in the world.’
“Bulls-t,” said the boy.
What Alcorn didn’t tell the boy: “Actually, I was the only Pong player in the world for a few months.”