Memorials/William (Willy) A. Higinbotham

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IGDA Memorials
William (Willy) A. Higinbotham
b. October 25th, 1910


d. November 10th, 1994

Wikipedia page

American physicist and supporter of nuclear non-proliferation, William A. Higinbotham is credited with creating one of the earliest computer games, Tennis for Two, which ran on an oscilloscope.


A 'chain-smoking, fun-loving character and a self-confessed pinball player' dedicated to the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and the use of science and technology to create a better and safer future for people around the world.



Higinbotham earned an undergraduate degree from Williams College in 1932 and pursued graduate studies in physics at Cornell University and MIT. During World War II, he worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory where he participated in the Manhattan Project designing radar systems and timing circuits and witnessed the explosion of the first atomic bomb.

After the war, he and other scientists of the Manhattan Project formed the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), strongly believing that scientists, engineers, and other innovators had an ethical obligation to inform critical national decisions through their knowledge and experience. Higinbotham was the first chairman and executive secretary of the FAS, whose first projects focused on controlling the proliferation of nuclear weapons and research on civilian nuclear power.

In 1948, Higinbotham came to the Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) in Upton, New York, where he became head of the division from 1951 to 1968. In 1958, as part of an open-house project to help educate the public about the lab's work and its safety standards and to help reassure visitors through the friendlier aspects of nuclear technology through an interactive display, Higinbotham and Technical Specialist Robert V. Dvorak constructed the game system Tennis for Two using an oscilloscope. Tennis for Two is a sideways view of a tennis court and is controlled by two boxes with a dial and a button to affect the angle of the ball trajectory. After a second, more sophisticated version debuted at the 1959 open-house, the game was dismantled and its components recycled. The invention was never patented as Higinbotham believed it to be trivial. Of the game, he said it “would convey the message that our scientific endeavors have relevance for society.”

In 1968, Higinbotham transferred to work full-time at the newly formed Technical Support Organization at Brookhaven was formed to “provide technical advice and assistance to the Atomic Energy Commission on safeguards from nuclear materials.” (David Ahl)

Higinbotham was a skilled inventor who went on to receive 20 patents concerning electronic circuits, including “the 'bootstrap' sawtooth generator widely used in oscilloscopes, and the Higinbotham Scaler, which made it possible to count reliably and electronically random pulses from radiation detectors at high rates.” (David Ahl)

Though he has since become more widely known for Tennis for Two, Higinbotham always wanted to be remembered more for his work on nuclear non-proliferation.

- Devin Monnens


Video games

  • Tennis for Two



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