Icons: Nolan Bushnell: Founder of Atari


Nolan Bushnell is often cited as the father of the video game industry. He is best known as the founder of Atari Corporation and Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time Theater. But Bushnell has contributed much more to our lives than his two best known successes.

Over the past four decades, Bushnell has been a prolific entrepreneur, founding numerous companies, including the first technology incubator, Catalyst Technologies, the first car navigation system, Etak, whose mapping is still the basis for car navigation systems today and the first online ordering system, ByVideo, which allowed customers to order and pay for product from kiosks. He even founded a personal robotics company, Androbot, along the way. He has consulted for numerous corporations, including IBM, Cisco Systems and US Digital Communications. Bushnell is widely regarded as a technology pioneer, entrepreneur and scientist. Bushnell received his B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Utah, where he is a Distinguished Fellow and also attended Stanford University Graduate School.

Nolan Bushnell was born February 5, 1943. Bushnell graduated from the University of Utah electrical engineering program in 1968. During his time there in the 1960s, Bushnell was one of many computer science students that played the now famous Spacewar game on DEC mainframe computers. In 1971, Bushnell and colleague Ted Dabney created the Spacewar clone “Computer Space” in a self-contained cabinet; it was manufactured and distributed by Nutting Associates. Computer Space proved to be too far ahead of its time and was a commercial failure.

Atari Inc. originally started as an engineering partnership between Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney in 1969 called Syzygy Co. It later was renamed Atari and quickly became the foundation of the early video game industry. The name Atari is taken from a Japanese verb meaning “to hit the target”. In 1974, Bushnell and Atari decided to develop a home version of Pong. By 1975, Pong became one of the hottest Christmas gifts, largely due to a distribution agreement with Sears. In 1977, the Atari 2600 was introduced which helped to revolutionize home videogaming and the modern video game console industry was born. Demand for the unit was so great that Atari executives manned the production lines to help with the assembly and packaging during that first Christmas after its release.

In 1976, Warner Communications (now Time Warner) bought Atari, and Bushnell was forced out of the company in 1978. Due to corporate mismanagement and driven to extraordinary growth by it’s parent company Warner Communications, in 1984 Atari imploded spectacularly taking most of the US video game industry with it.

Bushnell’s contribution to the graphical world in which we live today has been substantial. Not only did he found Atari and start the video gaming revolution in 1972, but two years later he hired a person who would forever change the world in which we live, Steve Jobs. Bushnell understood the genius of Steve Jobs and how to handle creatives like him. In his book “Finding The Next Steve Jobs” Bushnell offers up some counter-intuitive advice on how to nurture the creative people who could turn your company into the next Atari or the next Apple. Bushnell’s advice is surprising, and atypical. He suggests when looking for employees, ignore credentials and hire the obnoxious (in limited numbers). He says to demand a list of favorite books and ask unanswerable questions.

Bushnell also says that once you have them, isolate them. Celebrate their failures. Encourage ADHD. Ply them with toys and encourage them to make decisions by throwing dice. Invent haphazard holidays and let them sleep. Bushnell also warns that just because you’ve hired creatives doesn’t mean you’ll keep them.

After Bushnell’s time at Atari he purchased Pizza Time Theatre from Warner Communications and remade it into Chuck E. Cheese. Under Bushnell Chuck E. Cheese became a place that incorporated his love for video games with a friendly place where children could experience them, play and have fun. After some financial troubles, the company was bought out by competing Pizza/arcade restaurant ShowBiz Pizza, which now operates as the Chuck E. Cheese brand as we know today.

These days Bushnell is devoting his talents to fixing education with his new company, Brainrush. His beta software is teaching academic subjects at over 10 times the speed in classrooms with over 90% retention. He uses video game metrics to addict learners to academic subjects.

Bushnell is a popular featured speaker at many company events and commands a respectable speaking fee. In March of 2009, Bushnell was honored with the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Fellowship Award (BAFTA) the highest accolade the Academy bestows, for his outstanding creative contribution to the Video Games Industry. He was similarly honored with a LARA award from the German Academy of Entertainment. Currently a biopic about Bushnell, tentatively titled Atari, is in pre-production. The story was acquired by Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company and is set to star DiCaprio as Mr. Bushnell.

Bushnell was also at the forefront of creating a number of business cultural innovations that have become the norm. If you work in a place with a casual work attire, a play/work environment or a flat egalitarian management organization, you have Bushnell to thank. All these can be traced to their first use at Atari and Chuck E. Cheese and later instilled at Apple and other Silicon Valley corporations.

Sources: Nolan Bushnell Bio (nolanbushnell.com/bio), Nolan Bushnell Booking Agency Profile (celebritytalent.net/sampletalent/6490/nolan-bushnell), Press Release Soundview Publishes Summary of “Finding the Next Steve Jobs”(pr.com/press-release/505376), Press Release Atari Book (rhodblog.wordpress.com/tag/nolan-bushnell) (Edited for content).
Photo credit: Licensed under Creative Commons, Tech Cocktail – Flickr: Tech Cocktail Week: Sessions Speaker Series Downtown Vegas sponsored by Moveline.
Atari and Chuck E. Cheese logos property of their respective owners.