Tennis For Two at the NY Historical Society Museum

19 Nov

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.

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Jane Koropsak and Peter Takacs of Brookhaven National Laboratory

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Tennis For Two display at Silicon City

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DuMont Oscilloscope used on Tennis For Two in 1958 (complete with recreated controllers and a period ashtray seen in the original 1958 photograph from BNL’s visitor’s day).

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1958 photograph of Higinbotham’s computer simulation of tennis at BNL’s visitor’s day.

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