Project Showcase: Playing with Innovation

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An original edition of one of Joseph Weisbecker’s early computer games on display at the Sarnoff Collection. Photo credit: Florencia Pierri

When most people think of computer games they imagine something electronic with far more sophistication than the cardboard and plastic games played around a kitchen table. An ongoing exhibit hosted by the Sarnoff Collection at The College of New Jersey in Ewing, New Jersey takes visitors back to a time when computer games had far more in common with Monopoly than with Minecraft. Playing with Innovation: The Games of Joseph Weisbecker exhibits prototypes of early analog computer games from the late 1960s and early 1970s, before the microcomputer revolution that would make computer games as we know them possible. Weisbecker, an engineer at the Radio Corporation of America’s research laboratory in Princeton, New Jersey, was instrumental in developing a new 8-bit microcomputer architecture that provided the basis for RCA’s entry into the microprocessor market. He always thought computers would be were perfect, however, for playing games—and games were his passion.

As early as the 1960s, Weisbecker began dreaming up plastic games to introduce children to basic computer concepts. By 1964, his first toy—an inexpensive plastic game called Think-a-Dot—reached the market. Think-a-Dot used a plastic frame and several marbles to illustrate automata theory, a theory of computation central to computer science. A few years later, Weisbecker published a series of games illustrating other concepts in computer circuitry like flip-flop switches. He filed a variety of patents related to game design and educational devices and continued to build prototypes to shop around to various toy companies. Many of these games, in the characteristically bright colors and intricate patterns of the late 1960s and early ’70s, were logic puzzles. They tried to convey to players some of the workings behind computer programming. Others capitalized on the growing computer craze and explicitly referenced computers or computer terms in their titles or construction.

The Sarnoff Collection at the College of New Jersey holds a treasure trove of these early games, many of which were handmade by Weisbecker or other computer engineers. Playing with Innovation exhibits some of these early game prototypes to the public for the first time. It also traces the history of their creation, showing how they fundamentally shaped the development of RCA’s microprocessor-based computers, especially the COSMAC Microtutor. Weisbecker created this personal computer chiefly as a tool for users to engage in a relatively new form of entertainment, the video game.

We often think of the history of computing in terms of economic, military, and medical advancements. Weisbecker’s career demonstrates another aspect of the development of computing: enjoyment! Computers, Weisbecker believed, should be fun, whether their main components were plastic and marbles or silicon and circuit boards. Playing with Innovation reminds visitors that computer games have long served a vital educational purpose by encouraging young people to become conversant with, and excited about, technology.

~ Florencia Pierri is doctoral candidate in history at Princeton University and a curator at the Sarnoff Collection at The College of New Jersey.

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