Back in 1961, Steve Russell was toying around with electronics at the Tech Model Railroad Club at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He created a game called Spacewar!, an early computer game that ignited interest in computer video games. Over time, Russell’s invention spawned copycat games such as Computer Space, Space War, and Asteroids. The latter was a huge hit in the arcades.

Russell also wrote the first two versions of Lisp for the IBM 704 computer. We caught up with him at the opening of the $19 million Revolution exhibit at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. (The exhibit opens to the public on Thursday). Russell has a working version of the game running on a Digital Equipment Corp. PDP-1.

He noted that it took the contributions of just four people to come up with Spacewar! That’s far different from the modern age of video games, which often require teams of 100 or 200 people. Russell’s work preceded that of pioneers such as Nolan Bushnell and Al Alcorn, who made the first big commercial successes in video games.

In Spacewar!, you fly one of two space ships — the Needle and the Wedge — that attack each other as they orbit a sun. The ships feel the sun’s gravitational effect as they move near it. The missiles fired from the space ships don’t have a gravitational effect, for lack of memory. That’s why Russell decided that they were photon torpedoes, or light energy pulses, which aren’t subject to gravity. The game is just 2,000 lines of machine language. It uses about half of the available 18-bit words of the 4,000 words of memory in the Digital PDP-1 minicomputer that the game runs on. Here’s our video interview with Russell, who noted that he didn’t really cash in big on the whole video game phenomenon, which now generates $21 billion in sales per year in the U.S.

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