On Tuesday, November 10th I attended the VIP opening of the NY Historical Society Museum’s exhibition, “Silicon City”. I worked as a consultant on the exhibition’s display of Brookhaven National Laboratory’s (BNL) analog computer simulation, Tennis For Two–built by William A. Higinbotham, Robert V. Dvorak Sr., and David Potter for the Lab’s annual visitor’s day. The game was displayed in 1958 and 1959 at BNL. Then it was disassembled and the various component parts were used on other projects at the lab. In 1997 BNL physicist Peter Takacs and his team recreated Tennis For Two for the 50th anniversary of BNL. Later it was recreated once again to mark its own 50th anniversary in 2008. Peter and I collaborated in October 2010 to bring the game to the public at the Museum of the Moving Image’s “The Beginnings of Videogames” event. Sadly Peter was unable to get it working…November 10th 2015 is the first time that the public – outside of a Federal research institution – has had the chance to experience Higinbotham’s novel means to entertain guests visiting BNL in ’58 and ’59. The original game was displayed on a 5 1/2 inch oscilloscope and ran on a Donner Model 30 analog computer. The team behind the NY Historical Society’s Tennis For Two recreation consists of: Peter and Ben Johnson (who programed the game), Adelle Lin (who made the controllers) and Jeanne Angel (who produced and designed the whole project in collaboration with the show’s exhibition and graphic designers, John Esposito and Kira Hwang). What really impresses me is that rather than display the game on a plasma screen cut into a wall (an all-too-common mode of displaying screen-based media at museums) they wanted to convey the material-historical interface but in a way that will work within a (crowded) museum. At Silicon City visitors can handle controllers -recreated from the lone 1958 photo of the game on display at BNL – while they play Tennis For Two on an “enlarged” version of the late 1950s oscilloscope that was used to originally display the game–that vintage model is on display right next to the interactive recreation. This material dialogue between the past and present, I feel, is a good lesson for museums that wish to display games–don’t over-privilege the screen at the expense of other material actors that define both the game and our social experience of play.
On Thursday, November 5th 2015 I started “unofficially” working on the new book. This took the form of transcribing a 3-hour interview that I did with Regan Cheng, former industrial designer with Atari. I will switch this to “officially” once I sign the contract….
While visiting Peter Takacs at Brookhaven National Lab yesterday we found an Instrumentation Division project log book going back to the late 1940s. It includes three hand written entries from Robert Dvorak documenting the design schematics for the “Tennis Programming” project that would eventually be known as Tennis For Two…
Last week (Nov 17-21, 2014) I enjoyed an archive visit to The Strong (Rochester, NY) as a Research Fellow. I spent my days photographing various Atari coin-ops and working on the museum’s Atari Coin-Op Divisions Collection, 1972-1999 (http://www.museumofplay.org/collections/video-and-other-electronic-game-collections). The complete collection is massive (22 pallets) and The Strong will employ an archivist to work full-time on processing the collection in January. In the meantime, Jeremy Saucier shared a few documents with me: a “binder full of Atari” in-house newsletters such as St. Pong, Atari Connection, Atari Life, and Atari 81. The latter title revealed a ‘happy find’–a short article on Atari’s El Paso, TX Plant, the one whose products went onto to populate the Alamogordo landfill in September 1983. In a very short time-period Atari Inc would operate three different facilities in El Paso: Atari’s VCS cartridge manufacturing plant (*1982-1983) at 11460 Pellicano Dr; Atari Distribution Center at 11500 Rojas Dr in 1984; and in 1985 Atari Inc. & Distribution Center was located at 9230 Billy The Kid Street (I’m not making that name up!). The El Paso Main Library holds records on all three locations.
Here are a few highlights from the article on the El Paso Plant published in Atari 81 (Vol. 1, No. 3., March/April 1981):
- according to the article the plant opened in 1979 (*even though the El Paso Library’s record states 1982) with 60 employees. By 1981 the numbers increased to 250 due to the increased demand of product for the Atari VCS
- El Paso was selected for its accessibility to the East and West coasts: “it is a major southern crossroad for interstate trucking lines. The fact that El Paso is in the Southwest also means that transportation routes are less likely to be affected by foul weather” (p. 6)
- Atari’s personnel manager, Bill Medrano, predicted that El Paso would “become a miniature Silicon Valley by the end of the century” (p. 6)—-he’s referring to the end of the 20th century not the 21st.
- In 1981 the plant produced “well over half of Atari’s total supply of VCS cartridges”.
- “Cartridge assembly, packaging and shipping all take place under one roof” (p.6).
- All the employees photographed in the two-page article are women (the same seems to be the case with the employees who “stuffed” printed-circuit boards at Atari’s coin-op division in CA).
- Atari was involved in El Paso’s Women’s Employment and Education Association (WEEA). “The WEEA is a private program to help single mothers on welfare secure steady jobs and learn to support themselves and their families” (p. 7). The women pictured working in the plant are all Latina.
- “Atari has hired over a dozen of the program’s graduates, more than any other company in El Paso” (p. 7).
- This may explain the discrepancy in dates: Atari “is building a new 128,000-square-foot plant which will dwarf the old 38,500-square-foot warehouse. The building will be ready for occupancy in August ” (p. 7). I will assume that this refers to the location at 11460 Pellicano Dr.
Last lines of the article: “This phenomenal growth is but a reflection of the growing reputation and popularity of Atari products. The establishment and expansion of facilities outside the Silicon Valley will continue as Atari meets this demand in the U.S. and around the world” (p. 7).
According to the El Paso Main Library this new plant closed two-years later in 1983.
Atari’s ewaste is on the move. SInce being excavated/processed/documented in April 2014 the retrieved materials have been stored by the City of Alamogordo and branded for public auction. Branding and the return to a market re-values Atari Inc.’s former ewaste into collectibles sold to highest bidders. The City has packaged each item with a certificate of authentication and City property numbered I.D. tag to confirm that each item is the “real-deal” from the disposal that occurred in September 1983. The promise of a “narrative with photos of the 1983 burial and the 2014 excavation proving the legend to be true” will also be included with the winning bid. From the picture on eBay the winner will also receive a card-backing complete with the City’s logo: the New Mexico Museum of Space History pictured with the sun-setting over the Sacramento Mountains…and a Stealth Bomber. Will E.T.’s glowing finger become incorporated into the City’s letterhead?
Andrew Reinhardt (http://archaeogaming.wordpress.com/2014/11/04/the-capitalism-of-late-archaeology-alamogordos-atari-games-on-ebay/) has recently blogged about this dissemination of excavated materials and the challenges that it presents to research. Such “scattering” blows-up the assemblage collected in April 2014 and means that the archaeology team as well as any researchers interested in the excavation in the future will neither have a site to visit, nor materials to work with…unless the City of Alamogordo makes good on its word to gift museums. I agree with Andrew, researchers have lost a valuable context. But we’ve also gained a very unusual one: eBay as a site for researching contemporary history–a last vestige to document the artifacts before they move on. Although transitory the “auction phase” is formative to the life history of these artifacts. Researchers can treat the presentation of the artifacts on eBay as generative of new meanings and values. We may even ask: what are these objects within this space? ewaste “recycled” into profits for the City? What does the City plan to do with its profits—I just asked that question via eBay’s “ask a question” option. Are these objects “archaeological curiosities” like Civil War artillery projectiles excavated from the nation’s battlefields displayed in a museum (or, its gift shop)? Taxidermy alligator heads that serve as “Welcome Center” souvenirs for Florida tourists speeding down the highways refueling at the State’s various Stuckey’s gas stations? Or the “holy grail” for a private collector of everything Atari to flaunt at next year’s Classic Gaming Expo? Are they in-transit items on their way to becoming “museum objects”? One thing that’s for sure: they are on eBay: a market space where archaeology collides with commerce and collectors. I plan to reach out to the “winners” to see if they would be willing to share their reasons for bidding on Atari’s ewaste. Stay tuned…
Here’s its life history at the moment:
Game Development to Disposal
- concept development
- game development/game design
- package design/production (including in-house or commissioned cover artwork)
- mass production
- retail processing/store display/warehouse storage
- consumer sales
- consumer purchase
- consumer usage
- user storage/discard/return (in the case of the specific materials in the Alamogordo landfill let us focus on ‘returns’)
- retailer return to Atari Inc
- national transportation to Atari Inc.’s El Paso processing warehouse
- warehouse storage
- warehouse dispatch/transport to Alamogordo City Landfill (Sept 1983)
- Disposal (commencing 9/22/1983)
- Alamogordo citizens retrieval (scavenging)
- Destruction to prevent further scavenging (9/24/1983)
- Atari’s materials crushed, mixed with cement (no layer) and other landfill, additional layers of domestic trashed dumped on top of the “Atari vein”. Atari’s ewaste is buried.
- Press coverage of disposal (Alamogordo Daily News/other regional outlets/New York Times)
- Pit eventually sealed (no idea when)
- legend status (no idea how or when this began but fair to say that the “urban legend” gained momentum in the era of social media)
- Alamogordo City Landfill closed in 1993
Documentation of Legend/Landfill Site (leading to excavation)
- References to the “Atari Burial” appears in books devoted to video game history.
- D.B. Weiss’s Lucky Wander Boy (2003) writes about the disposal in his novel.
- Game enthusiasts begin to document the legend and landfill site (Bruce “Spud” Synder begins Atari Age thread on March 20, 2005 and “The Atari Landfill Revealed” website is launched…no idea of specific dates of research leading to the site)
- Personal engagement with the legend/site: first wrote on the dumping in 2006 by way of a piece for Vectors (“Ms. PacMan: An Elegy to Undead Media”), followed by a research trip to Alamogordo to meet with former Mayor Donald Carroll July 12, 2008, another research trip to meet with Ricky Jones (who scavenged Atari’s items in September 1983) on July 21, 2009, published “Concrete and Clay: The Afterlife and Times of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari Video Computer System” in Design and Culture 2009, published Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife, Jan 2014).
- News of the City of Alamogordo considering a permit to excavate the site released in May 2013
- Fuel Entertainment – LightBox Interactive – Xbox Entertainment begin pre-production/production of Atari: Game Over Fall 2013
Excavation (April 24 – 27, 2014): from waste to artifact
- auger hits Atari’s ewaste Thursday 24, 2014
- pit dug Friday 25, 2014
- assorted materials extracted/showcased to audience and press/collected and stored on Saturday 26, 2014
- materials processed/documented by archaeology team and stored by the City of Alamogordo, Sunday 27, 2014
- materials separated for public auction and museum donation
- materials stored and branded for public auction by the City of Alamogordo
- massive media coverage
- City of Alamogordo auctions 96 ewaste items now re-valued and branded as “a piece of history”/souvenir/collectible on Monday, November 3, 2014 at 16:00 PST
- Bidding ends Thursday, November 13, 19:00 PST
- Items are dispatched to highest bidders
- Museum donation?
- Life in the hands of private collectors.