While not the first video arcade game Pong, released in 1972, was the first truly popular game. A mass market surprise hit. The arcade machine was actually based on a largely unknown TV game system from TV manufacturer Magnavox, known as the Odyssey.
The popularity of Atari’s arcade machine lead to various attempts to re-engineer a new version of the game to work with domestic television sets. As early as 1974 a UK magazine publication called “Television” started printing circuit diagrams for readers to make their own versions for as little as £50.
Many engineers will have friends running pubs, clubs and the like who cannot afford the
very high prices of commercial equipment. – “Television” Magazine (July 1974)
By 1975 both Atari and Magnavox had started selling simple home units capable of playing Pong. Silicon chip manufacturer General Instruments decided to reduce the circuitry in these simple electronic game machines to fit on a small silicon waffer, known as a TTL (Transistor to Transistor Logic) chip, and mass produce them.
Toy manufacturer Coleco were their first customer and by 1977 the AY-3-8500 was possibly the single most popular home version of Pong, used in hundreds of “Pong Clone” machines from various manufacturers from all over the world. In the UK the names Binatone, Prinzetronic, and Grandstand particularly stand out.
Argos Catalogue – Autumn 1977
The autumn 1977 edition of the Argos Catalogue (a UK high street retailer) was the first to include Pong game systems ready for that years Christmas season. There were two systems available. The Binatone Mk.IV for £19.95 and the Sportstel for £42.50. The Sportstel was a colour model that basically meant the games played on a green background instead of a black background. At over twice the price I’m not convinced colour would have been a popular option, especially when you take inflation in to account.
The Binatone model is a small square two tone plastic console complete with two player controls. The unit is in Binatone’s classic 70’s colouring with a burnt orange bottom and a black top. The controls are permanently attached to the unit by a fairly long wire and uses a simple rotating dial to move the player paddle up and down the screen.
The top of the unit allow the players to select which game to play and the player handicaps – ball speed, bat size, auto server, etc. Sound is a simple beep affair provided through a single channel speaker grill in the centre of the unit rather than through your televisions speakers.
Although the General Instruments chip used includes 7 built in games, only four are selectable on the Mk.IV unit – Tennis (Pong), Football (Hockey), Squash, and Practice (the only single player game).
The unit works by removing your aerial from the back of your television set and plugging the supplied lead from the unit into this socket. You then need to retune one of your unused channel selector switches to UHF frequency 36. The unit can be powered from either a mains powered DC transformer or several D-cell 1.5v batteries.