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New book on Silicon Valley says early Atari ran on cocaine and roller skates

Book excerpt from Valley of Genius further complicates the legacy of Nolan Bushnell

DLD Conference 2012 - Day 1
Nolan Bushnell at the Digital Life Design conference in Munich, Germany in 2012.
Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images

An excerpt from a new book due out next week details the early days of the video game industry via interviews with the men who helped to create it. Valley Of Genius: The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley appears to further complicate the legacy of Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell.

Author Adam Fisher interleaves what appear to be several disparate interviews to tell the story of the early days of Atari. It begins with environmental details; how the Valley used to smell like fruit cocktail from the Dole plant up the street and how groves of prune trees were cleared to make way for chip makers and other cutting-edge companies. It then rapidly accelerates into the nuts and bolts of making a business out of nothing.

Atari’s first big game was inspired by table tennis, a standup arcade machine called Pong. From the excerpt:

Bushnell: I figured out that I could build ’em for about 350 bucks. I priced them at $910. And I figured out this financing model where the manufacturing would self-fund. I negotiated 30 to 60 days from our vendors, and if we could build the machines and ship them in less than a week, the company would operate in positive cash flow.

[Atari co-founder Ted] Dabney: We started out in 1,700 square feet, but when we started building Pong, we needed more room, and it turned out that the guy next door to us had moved out. So I cut a hole in the wall and moved into his area and took over that 1,700 square feet, too. The manager came around and said, “You can’t do that!” And Nolan said, “We did it! You just figure out how much it’s going to cost us.” But even that wasn’t big enough. But then this roller rink down the block became available: 10,000 square feet! I mean, we were just jam-packed, and we had people on roller skates actually running around on the roller-skate rink building Pongs.

From there, the narrative takes an awkward turn. The success of Pong gave Atari a positive cash flow, and the corporate culture went off the deep end.

Bushnell: People talk about the party atmosphere, but what they don’t realize is that it was all based on hitting quotas. We had an extremely young workforce.

Chris Caen, early Atari employee: I started at 15 as a summer intern. By the time I was 18, I was a product manager. I had a hard-walled office, was making good money, and thinking to myself, “Why do I need to go to college?”

Bushnell: The girls that were stuffing the computer boards and doing the testing were in their early twenties or 18 or 19. The guys who were muscling the big boxes around, packing and shipping them, were all in their early twenties. ...

[Atari’s first engineer, Al] Alcorn: Then Atari was a big thing, and everyone wanted to talk to us, and they believed what we said! The more staid the company, the more outrageous Nolan would behave.

[Tech journalist Michael] Malone: It’s hard to capture just how crazy Nolan was in those early days. He lived high. He had the Rolls-Royce. The code name for each new product was named after some hot girl on the assembly line. There was coke with the assembly line girls in the hot tub.

In the context of Fisher’s book, these anecdotes appear add color to the early days of Silicon Valley. Their inclusion is meant to represent the vigor and unconventional methodologies common to the elite class of capitalists and tech pioneers who gave birth to many successful businesses in the same small patch of land. But, they also call out Atari’s early history of gender inequality and the abuse of power at high levels.

Earlier this year, Bushnell was slated to receive the a special award at the Game Developers Conference, held each year in San Francisco. The Game Developer’s Choice Awards chose to honor him with the Pioneer Award, alongside similar high-profile awards to be granted to Vlambeer co-founder Rami Ismail and Double Fine founder Tim Schafer. Public outcry and a vigorous social media campaign prompted the GDC organizers to rescind that award.

“They believe their picks should reflect the values of today’s game industry,” it said in a statement, “and will dedicate this year’s award to honor the pioneering and unheard voices of the past.”

That same day, Bushnell issued a public apology for his past indiscretions.

“I applaud the GDC for ensuring that their institution reflects what is right, specifically with regards to how people should be treated in the workplace,” Bushnell said. “If my personal actions or the actions of anyone who ever worked with me offended or caused pain to anyone at our companies, then I apologize without reservation.”

Valley of Genius will be available on July 12.

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