The e-readers, tablet computers and gaming consoles that are the hot gifts of the 2010 holiday season, are the latest in a line of consumer gadgets and gizmos that arrived in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
"It was the gift to have," said Dag Spicer, senior curator of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. "It cost $99. They sold tens and tens of millions of those."
Next month, the museum will unveil a 21st century makeover that more than doubles its exhibition space and adds research and education facilities. One 25,000-square-foot exhibit will look at first 2000 years of computing -- everything from the abacus to the iPod -- while another exhibit showcases some of the best-selling tech gadgets, like Pong, from the recent past.
About 95% of the museum's artifacts come from the public -- as well as a long list of distinguished technologists that includes Gordon Bell (father of the minicomputer), Gene Amdahl (legendary mainframe architect for IBM and Amdahl Corp.), Apple engineer Steve Wozniak, John McCarthy (father of artificial intelligence at Stanford University) and Microsoft founder and CEO Bill Gates.
Much has changed since Pong, a rudimentary tennis game created by Atari Inc., arrived in 1972.
"The consoles now, of course, have graphics that are light years beyond what Pong used, which was three or four lines drawn on a screen, and the ability to play with other people over a network. That's a huge innovation with today's games," Spicer said. "Also, games now are produced in a sense very much like a Hollywood movie. They even use real actors for voiceovers. Many of them are also based on a movie."
Pong appeared first as an electronic arcade game. Three years later -- in time for the '75 holiday shopping season -- it was offered through Sears as a home video game that was played on your TV. Its simple two-dimensional graphics presented users with two opposing paddles and ball that bounced back and forth between them. The speed of the ball and size of the paddles could be adjusted.
The game, created originally by an Atari engineer as a training exercise, was a runaway seller. Atari told Sears it could produce 75,000 units for the holiday season; the retailer requested 150,000.
In 1978, one of the first multi-game systems arrived: the Atari 2600 with a Combat game cartridge. The "Atari Video Computer System," as it was initially called, offered two popular arcade titles: Tank and Anti-Aircraft II, according to the History Museum. Although the 2600 was not the first home game console to use a microprocessor and removable game cartridges, it helped establish that as the standard.
The cost? $199.