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Nutting Associates, Computer Quiz, Atari, Silicon Valley, Electronic Games, Historiography, Computer Space, Coin-op

Scrapbooking a Sophisticated Vending Machine, or An Object Lesson for Game Historiography

Raiford Guins (Indiana University)

“Because history has tended to make more frequent use of unintentional evidence, it can no longer confine itself to weighing the explicit assertions of the documents. It has been necessary to wring from them further confessions which they had never intended to give.” -Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft

Figure 1

Nutting Associates’ Official Scrapbook (Photograph courtesy of author)

Blank pages. I deliberate despairingly over each one in Nutting Associates’ scrapbook available to researchers at The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York (fig. 1). The hefty scrapbook is but one object from the Alexander Smith Nutting Associates Collection (other objects are photographs, slides, and promotional materials). It is carefully opened upon a table at the Brian Sutton-Smith library. To my surprise, the scrapbook is comprised of equal parts curated clippings from a scattering of newspapers, trade publications, company marketing materials as one would expect, and a myriad of bare pages (fig 2).

Figure 2

Scrapbook Nothingness (Photograph courtesy of author)

I count sixty-nine pages without clippings. They are unused, never called upon to record the company’s achievements. A scrapbook half empty, or half full this optimist wonders to himself.

Figure 3

The Scrapbook Speaks: first page in Nutting Associates’ Official Scrapbook (Photograph courtesy of author)

The scrapbook opens with a declaration. Company letterhead glued to its first page announces that this object is the “official scrapbook” of Nutting Associates and that the collecting process commences in fall 1967 (fig. 3). Upon those pages with materials taped or glued is a record of “notables of this company” and “advertisements of this company,” including those of its competitors. To my amusement, I read the next lines that any “mention of its friends, enemies, and/or competitors” are extracted from “magazines and scandal sheets to which we have become privy.” I smile. The curator of Nutting Associates’ scrapbook bore a sense of humor it seems.

My grin soon loses its composure when I realize that the scrapbook ends abruptly in 1969. Ensuing pages fail to record additional years. I stare protractedly at the fine perimeter separating the neat array of unintentional records of the past and the yellowed vacuousness tempting my curiosity.1 The subsequent year of 1970 remains a mystery. Absent is evidence of Nolan Bushnell joining Nutting Associates (with Ted Dabney to follow) as the company’s chief engineer to develop a version of Spacewar! built with television technology. Perhaps the company kept a tight lip should the pair not deliver as promised? Or, perhaps, didn’t want to reveal any secrets to its “enemies and/or competitors” like Midway Manufacturing with its popular S.A.M.I. missile-shooting game? Was Nutting Associates not active at the Music Operators of America (MOA) expo in 1970 to promote its successful Computer Quiz along with its newer product, a horoscope prediction machine, Astro Computer?2 (fig. 4).

Figure 4

Undated photograph of Computer Quiz & Astro Computer on location on West Market Street, Philadelphia, PA (Alexander Smith Nutting Associates Collection, The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, NY)

Did the keeper of the scrapbook leave the company? Or was this person simply inundated with too many news stories to keep up with? Even Alexander Smith, who acquired the scrapbook from Claire Nutting during an interview for his book, They Create Worlds: The Story of the People and Companies That Shaped the Video Game Industry, vol. 1, 1971–1982, has no clue why it ends so abruptly.3 Such questions, and more, reel across my mind as I thumb through the scrapbook, puzzling at those blank pages.

The year 1971 is an even bigger enigma because its significance is well documented in the annals of game history. It’s when Bushnell and Dabney’s Computer Space debuted at MOA in October. Regardless of its less than stellar sales of only a thousand units by spring 1972, I would expect those barren pages to be overcrowded with the conspicuous sell sheet, or promotional flyer, of a female model in sheer lingerie seductively nestled next to a yellow fiberglass Computer Space machine; another sell sheet touting the machine’s “three assemblies,” one of which is labeled, “Computer (brain box)”; a promotional postcard showcasing Nutting Associates’ blue fiberglass cabinet option, maybe even a sell sheet for the later two-player version; clippings from trade magazines like Cash Box, Vending Times, and Billboard accompanied by assorted newspaper articles on Nutting’s new coin-operated product. The accoutrements I’ve come to expect when reading about Computer Space—be it from the hand of a scholar or enthusiast—are not found in the scrapbook, only sixty-nine pages of nothingness cum place marker for events transpired. Arlette Farge, an eloquent writer on archives, proclaims that “the archive lays things bare, and in a few crowded lines you can find not only the inaccessible but also the living. Scraps of lives dredged up from the depths wash up on shore before our eyes.”4 I doubt Farge had my situation in mind when composing her lovely lines. There is nothing to lay bare except bareness itself. Far from a wellspring, my source runs dry. Or does it? Must bareness be so bare? Can nothing gesture something?

What can we make of both sets of pages within the same scrapbook: those pages scrupulously documenting Nutting Associates and those whose surfaces offer no documents? My encounter with this intriguing object compels a little wringing of my own, the desire to extract and obtain knowledge on a company whose existence in the historical study of games is principally that of springboard for the much-lauded commercial exploits of Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney: engineers of Computer Space, founders of Syzygy Engineering, and, as is well known, Atari in 1972. Nutting Associates remains cursory in the grand narrative of game history, nothing more than an amusement-industry manufacturer for Syzygy Engineering.5 The scrapbook manifests an altogether different story. Its content-laden pages evidence the success that Nutting Associates had with its non-video game, coin-operated amusement machine, Computer Quiz, and activates a sharper image of the Silicon Valley electronic-games manufacturer in its own right. The scrapbook’s blank pages also speak to me of the company’s regnant interpretation in historical writings on games: little to nothing.

I wish to burden the scrapbook resting on my desk at The Strong. Not for its capability of providing answers, but for the questions it helps effectuate. My aim isn’t to fill those stubbornly blank pages since those interested in game history already know the missing materials well, but to account for the vacuity of historiography on Nutting Associates. Another aim, far more ambitious and only at the unsophisticated level of a whim currently, is to piece together the scrapbook’s content to entertain a fractured composite sketch of the electronic-games industry in Silicon Valley prior to Atari’s formation in 1972. I fear historians—myself included—have grown rather complacent when treating Pong as ground zero in game-industry history with Computer Space offering only the mildest of foreshocks. But was the ground even settled before? Can those neatly arranged clippings help materialize another story, help us ask different questions even if detrimental to the foundations we’ve come to rely so heavily upon when we embellish our “beginnings,” “origins,” “pioneers,” and “revolutionaries”? I have little interest in the endless enterprise of resetting our starting points or penning a redemption song of names forgotten to history. More compelling to me is the task of calling into question—unsettling—our own history writing. Why have we written about Nutting Associates in the ways that we have? How else might the company prove significant in the history of games? And, further afield, to the history of Silicon Valley?

Beginning with Nothing

Those blank pages are synecdochical in their ability to infer how historical study has adjudged Nutting Associates’ relevance. The reasons are threefold: persistent narratives of progress and personalities, an enduring emphasis on engineering in the history of games, and restrictive nomenclature for demarcating the past.

Progress and Personalities

Customers found the product [Computer Space], and Nolan’s dictionary-sized instruction booklet, completely baffling. Nutting quickly discontinued the product. With the confidence of a born entrepreneur, however, Nolan blamed Nutting for inept marketing and decided to go into business for himself.”6

The idea of attracting players by means of a colourful closet and a range of simple controls, was there, however, and it was Nolan Bushnell himself who brought it to perfection two years later. His new arcade game, Pong, was the simplest possible game and the instructions could hardly be misunderstood: ‘Avoid missing ball for high score,’ or in other words, ‘no prior knowledge needed to enjoy the game.’”7

The first coin-operated video game many people encountered in a public space was Pong, though the much less successful Computer Space (1971) preceded it.”8

In 1970 he [Bushnell] made a clone version dubbed Computer Space and added a crucial ingredient that [Steve] Russell never had—a marketing vision.”9

The entrepreneurial and charismatic Bushnell sold the idea to Nutting Associates, a major producer of old-style arcade games. Though about 1,500 units were manufactured and installed, Computer Space was less successful from a commercial viewpoint than the average pinball machine.”10

I’ve culled these sample extracts via book indexes with entries for “Nutting Associates” or “Computer Space.” They, and many more not included to stave off monotony, position the development of Computer Space as we’ve come to expect: a means to the successful launch of Atari’s Pong. In doing so, Nutting Associates is read through the cult of Nolan Bushnell when the likes of an established amusement-machine developer and manufacturer is rendered passive in respect to an “entrepreneurial and charismatic Bushnell” or when a “marketing vision” is the product of a lone individual, not part and parcel of a company’s existing marketing, advertising, and distribution practices, or when, in a divisive manner, a company’s marketing is deemed “inept” through the heroic gesture of a “born entrepreneur.”

In these texts, one gains little insight into what Nutting Associates’ significance as an already established electronic-games company might be other than a brush with Bushnell. The company with amusement products already to its name is without either agency or history in these accounts. It has no voice. Its inclusion in such accounts is marginalized to celebrate a soon-to-be-founder of Atari and to demonstrate progression from the “first coin-operated video game” to the world’s first successful one. Nutting Associates is game history’s stepping stone.


The inclusion of Computer Space in game-history writings often serves to document a point of origin: Bushnell and Dabney’s ability to build a version of a game (Spacewar!) originally developed as a playable demo on a minicomputer via television technology.11 This reduction in development costs enabled a viable commercial version of Spacewar! to don the crown of first mass-produced coin-operated video game with its launch in 1971. I do believe that the successful translation of a game running on minicomputer architecture to render gameplay on standard consumer black-and-white televisions and via transistor-transistor logic warrants our attention, as many writers on the game insist.12 I also believe that this emphasis on engineering proves invaluable for understanding how the video game industry began to form in the early 1970s: technical translations from research institutions to the consumer market.

Having agreed, though, and wanting to work with those blank scrapbook pages, I’m inclined to regard the persistent emphases on engineering as predominant in determining the historical significance of games. This emphasis is one that a historian actively chooses: a specific preference for the accomplishments of Bushnell and Dabney at the expense of restricting Nutting Associates’ role to the rather benign category of manufacturer. To be fair, the company itself may be partly to blame with historians working via an established script reinforced in interviews and in related writings on Bushnell and Computer Space. When Bushnell was hired by Nutting Associates as chief engineer, he struck a deal to maintain the rights to Computer Space’s technology while licensing the game to Nutting for production. He did so as an employee of the company, and he and Dabney received a 5 percent royalty on unit sales. Nutting provided the development space, manufacturing, and marketing.13 This was hardly headline material compared to Bushnell and Dabney’s feat.

The terms of the agreement squarely remove Nutting Associates from the engineering side of the game’s development. It’s understandable why writers on “video” game history, gameplay mechanics, and those intrigued by the technical ability to build a game that only existed within a digital-computer environment would privilege this take on innovation. There is a “but” of course. This persistent line of interpretation overlooks Nutting Associates’ own history: one barring a very successful—and innovative—product in the form of Computer Quiz, marketing and advertising personnel, a national distribution network, not to mention a respectful place within the coin-op amusement industry.

I’ll touch on the above features momentarily when handling those scrapbook pages laying bare certain periods in the company’s history. Prior to doing so, I want to delve a little deeper into why the subject of engineering helps to form my synecdoche. Syzygy, soon to become Atari, was originally envisioned by Bushnell, Dabney, and eventually, Al Alcorn, as an engineering company. The idea was to develop and license a game to an amusement company like Bally that would then manufacture and sell to distributors/operators. That idea changed after the quarters began to spill out of the Pong-prototype at Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, California. The new engineering company quickly went into the business of manufacturing its lone product.14

Nutting Associates provided the model for Atari to manufacture coin-op amusement products. When I asked Dabney, tasked with building the cabinet for Pong, what he drew from for his design, he stated, “I used Nutting’s Computer Quiz as my model.”15 As I’ve detailed in my Atari Design, the discreet cabinet for Computer Quiz looked unlike the hulking electro-mechanical machines designed for game rooms and arcades with their loud graphics and attention-grabbing mimetic controls. This was intentional on Nutting’s part as the company touts its product’s “warm simulated walnut exterior” and “rich blue playing panel” to succeed “where no other amusement machine would be acceptable” (fig. 5).

Figure 5

Sell sheet reverse side for Nutting Associates’ Computer Quiz (Alexander Smith Nutting Associates Collection, The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, NY)

Dabney learned this lesson well: Pong’s cabinet adopted a similar understated appearance to gain acceptance across game rooms and assorted street locations alike. Access to more locations meant access to more profit. Praises may be sung for Pong’s intuitive control interface, fun gameplay, and uncomplicated instructions, but without its unobtrusive and stylish cabinet where the game could gain access would be greatly restricted. Moreover, Nutting Associates stressed a variety of locations in its promotional materials for Computer Quiz.

Figure 6

“Computer Quiz Is a Natural,” Nutting Associates ad (Alexander Smith Nutting Associates Collection, The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, NY)

Nutting’s ad showcasing students playing Computer Quiz at San Antonio College (San Antonio, TX), announces: “Wherever people gather Computer Quiz is a natural.” “Schools,” “Malls,” “Lounges,” “Cafeterias,” “Amusement Parks,” and “Department Stores” add up to “New Locations—New Possibilities” (fig 6). Atari’s first sell sheet for Pong would do the same when the company announced that its modest product is “Suitable for Sophisticated Locations” (fig. 7).

Figure 7

Sell sheet for Atari’s Pong , 1972 (Courtesy of author)

That’s to say, Pong’s cabinet would not clash with interior décor or closely resemble an amusement machine similar in style to Sega’s electro-mechanical game, Periscope, standing seven feet tall, eight feet deep, and adorned in graphics best at home in an arcade or game room. The appearance of Pong’s cabinet itself was listed on the sell sheet as “Low Key,” just as Nutting Associates highlighted Computer Space’s physical design as a “beautiful space-age cabinet” (the sell sheet’s first line of body text) (fig. 8).

Figure 8

Sell sheet for Nutting Associates’ Computer Space , 1971 (Courtesy of author)

Bushnell may have sculpted the physical form of Computer Space, but the concept came from Nutting Associates, who felt that “the game needed a futuristic, attention-getting appearance to thrive as a product.”16 This mantra of well-designed, stylish cabinets was adopted in full at Atari with the hiring of professionally trained industrial designers from San Jose State University in the earliest days of the company. Relatedly, Dave Ralston, director of sales at Nutting, named the Syzygy-engineered game to maintain a recognizable brand line of established products. Atari would also adopt this practice in 1973–74 with Pong Doubles, Barrel Pong, Puppy Pong, Dr. Pong, Pin Pong, and Quadrapong, which all followed in the wake of its 1972 launch title. And Atari’s utilization of Palo Alto–based graphic-design agency, Opperman-Harrington, helped establish the company’s ensuing visual identity with the sell sheet for Gotcha in 1973.17

I hope my point is obvious. An isolated focus on engineering denies the influence that Nutting Associates had on Atari when the young company quickly moved into the manufacturing business. In his excellent article on Computer Space, Henry Lowood credits Bushnell and Dabney’s machine as having “established a design philosophy and general technical configuration for arcade consoles.”18 The same sentiment can also apply to how Atari adopted Nutting Associates’ philosophies for its cabinet design, marketing, and advertising of Pong. We fail to see this when our heads remain stuck in the “Computer (Brain Box).” Many accounts cite Bushnell sounding less than appreciative of the start that Nutting Associates gave the “born entrepreneur” with lines like “I knew I couldn’t screw it up more than they did” and they “couldn’t find their butts with both hands” as his measure of the company’s marketing of Computer Space.19 Nutting may not have known human anatomy, but the company certainly knew that a well-designed product was the means to access diverse locations (and increase profits). I believe that it’s fair to say that Atari was started by way of Syzygy engineering and Nutting Associates design and marketing (either via direct influence or by osmosis).


The final fold in the three is that of naming. Not of a game for purposes of brand identity but for how we process history. “Video game,” “computer game,” “digital game,” and even the older moniker employed across the 1970s and into the early 1980s, “TV games,” delimit the games that we account for in our history writing. We can easily ignore Nutting Associates’ pre–Computer Space amusement machines—and thus, blank the company—for not fitting into any of these descriptions unless we adopt the more general and medium-independent appellation, “electronic games” (which I do prefer in this instance). These compound nouns are not innocent. They can be, and sometimes are, used to police the origins of invention in the history of games, to maintain an inventor’s legacy (e.g., Ralph Baer’s lauding himself as the “grandfather of video games”), or to adorn a technology-oriented perspective (at the expense of other contributing components like economic, material, or social factors in the history of games). When we write our “video game” history, Nutting Associates exists only as a manufacturer, a neutral carapace for engineering. When we write our “computer game” and/or “digital game” history, we quickly qualify the fact that Computer Space wasn’t a computer game despite its “Computer (Brain Box)” promotional language. A history of “electronic games” or simply “games” would help us designate Nutting Associates as an amusement-machine developer and manufacturer. We could then begin to piece together the clippings from those content-encumbered scrapbook pages to gain a more robust picture of a games company, one not contingent upon a narrative of affiliated origins or cult figures. Considering that no known cultural institution holds official company records (e.g., sales and production figures, org. charts, internal memos, business plans, etc.) beyond those laid out on my desk at The Strong, it pays those committed to historical study of games to take these scrapbook clippings seriously for they have considerable work to do.

Ending with Something

Here are some of the clippings that I worked on at The Strong. Laying them out in such a disheveled manner attempts to convey the puzzlement and frustration I experienced when encountering the scrapbook (figs. 9–29)

Figure 9

Knowledge Computer photographs/promotional postcard (Alexander Smith Nutting Associates Collection, Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, NY)

Figure 10

Knowledge Computer sell sheet, Scientific Amusement Machine Co., 1964, and newspaper clipping from the Arizona Wildcat (Tucson, AZ), April 29, 1964 (Alexander Smith Nutting Associates Collection, The Strong National Museum of Play)

Figure 11

“New Quiz Machine,” Cash Box , August 26, 1967 (Alexander Smith Nutting Associates Collection, The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, NY)

Figure 12

“Enemies and/or Competitors? Mondial International’s Quizmaster ,” Billboard , December 1967 (Alexander Smith Nutting Associates Collection, The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, NY)

Figure 13

“Nutting Inks Liberman,” Cash Box , February 10, 1968 (Alexander Smith Nutting Associates Collection, The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, NY)

Figure 14

“High Earnings of Several Games,” Cash Box , March 9, 1968 (Alexander Smith Nutting Associates Collection, The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, NY)

Figure 15

“Doing Just Great on Test Locations,” Cash Box , February 17, 1968 (Alexander Smith Nutting Associates Collection, The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, NY)

Figure 16

“Teaching Machine Has Coin-Box,” So. Calif. Industrial News , June 5, 1967 (Alexander Smith Nutting Associates Collection, The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, NY)

Figure 17

“Innards,” Cash Box , August 3, 1968 (Alexander Smith Nutting Associates Collection, The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, NY)

Figure 18

“Computer Quiz OK at Fairs,” Amusement Business , October 12, 1968 (Alexander Smith Nutting Associates Collection, The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, NY)

Figure 19

“New Expanded Factory,” Cash Box , October 12, 1968 (Alexander Smith Nutting Associates Collection, The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, NY)

Figure 20

“Solid State,” Cash Box , October 12, 1968 (Alexander Smith Nutting Associates Collection, The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, NY)

Figure 21

“Sophisticated Vending Machine,” Palo Alto (CA) Times , October 30, 1968 (Alexander Smith Nutting Associates Collection, The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, NY)

Figure 22

“Scores a Hit,” Cash Box , March 8, 1969 (Alexander Smith Nutting Associates Collection, The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, NY)

Figure 23

“Locations Primed and Waiting,” Cash Box , June 21, 1969 (Alexander Smith Nutting Associates Collection, The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, NY)

Figure 24

“European Distribution,” Billboard , June 21, 1969 (Alexander Smith Nutting Associates Collection, The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, NY)

Figure 25

“Plush Locations,” n.d. (Alexander Smith Nutting Associates Collection, The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, NY)

Figure 26

“Computer Quiz Scores,” Vending Times , June 1969 (Alexander Smith Nutting Associates Collection, The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, NY)

Figure 27

“Sports World,” Vending Times , July 1969 (Alexander Smith Nutting Associates Collection, The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, NY)

Figure 28

“New Equipment,” Billboard , October 4, 1969 (Alexander Smith Nutting Associates Collection, The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, NY)

Figure 29

“College Bowl,” Cash Box , March 29, 1969 (Alexander Smith Nutting Associates Collection, The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, NY)

This sampling from the scrapbook helps to document Nutting Associates’ pre–Computer Space history. These trade-publication sources, ads, and company promotional materials provide the best account we can have without access to internal company documents.20 And this assortment of clippings does offer a stronger vantage from which to view Nutting Associates in comparison to the quotations shared above, as their perpetuated claims can be pressured, or better, redirected.

William “Bill” Nutting’s founding of Nutting Associates sprang from his experience at a Mountain View–based company called EDEX Teaching Systems.21 There he helped market and distribute, via the Scientific Amusement Machine Company, an electronic coin-op quiz machine called Knowledge Computer in 1964.22 What often escapes this Wikipedia-style entry is that EDEX was founded by Eugene Kleiner, one of the so-called Traitorous Eight, who cofounded Fairchild Semiconductor in 1957 and who became a leading Silicon Valley venture capitalist with his firm, Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, in 1972. Better known today as Kleiner Perkins, the firm provided funding for companies such as Palo Alto Networks, Google, Amazon, America Online, and Sun Microsystems, to name only a few leading luminaries. As an electronic amusement-machine manufacturer, EDEX predates both Nutting Associates and Atari. Is it plausible to lump a teaching machine into the category of amusement machine? Equally, is it acceptable to include EDEX as part of the history of educational machines? Either way, this might be the earliest instance of an electronic amusement company in Silicon Valley (over two thousand miles west of the industry’s home in Chicago). Kleiner sold EDEX to the Raytheon Company in 1965 in an era when the company known for microwave radar research and missile production was looking to the consumer market with its release of transistor radios, refrigerators, and microwave ovens.

EDEX gets buried in this acquisition and we only really know of its existence through the Bill Nutting story (starting to sound familiar, eh?). When EDEX does make a cameo in histories of Nutting Associates—which are mainly subsumed into the history of Atari—we learn that the company “made multimedia training equipment for the military” and sometimes for “the Navy.”23 What isn’t explained is why the military required a multiple-choice question machine in the early to mid-1960s or whether it contained a coin slot for commercial purposes; where these units would be installed (on Navy vessels hardly convenient for servicing, or at a base exchange?); or even how EDEX secured a contract with the US military. If the teaching machine in question is actually the Knowledge Computer, then its sell sheet in the scrapbook presents a different picture of the claim to military equipment: the text describes EDEX’s machine’s “hot spot locations” at university and college student unions; student gathering spots; transportation depots: bus, plane, train; bowling alleys, billiard emporiums, and public golf courses; government bases: navy, army, air force; and exposition halls. Military bases are low on the list, with student-related areas being the prime locations for this commercial product. Knowledge Computer was seeking broad locations aimed at young, educated users (a different image than what the game room offered).

An important takeaway here is that EDEX is already invested heavily in not having its machine be limited to a game-room scenario—note that the phrase game room isn’t even listed on the sell sheet. Its aim, as the sell sheet states, is to “open up new locations.” Those new locations were earning thirty dollars per week with higher possibilities of a hundred dollars enticingly mentioned (based upon ten cent or twenty-five cent plays). When I claim that Atari learned from Nutting, I’ll redirect that line even further: Nutting learned the value of diverse locations from EDEX. Or, better yet, Bill Nutting, in his promotion of EDEX’s Knowledge Computer, was setting the stage for how he’d position his own company’s products within the amusement-industry market: build a stylish yet modest cabinet to maximize location access.

When Raytheon took over EDEX, Bill Nutting left the company. He acquired the patent to Knowledge Computer because Raytheon, with its fleet of microwave ovens to sell, evidently had no interest in the coin-op industry.24 Nutting first formed Nutting Corp. in 1965, and then eventually Nutting Associates in 1966 with a redesigned version of Knowledge Computer known as Computer Quiz. Throughout 1966 Nutting Associates extensively field-tested four hundred Computer Quiz units before eventually debuting the product at the 1967 MOA show to seek national distribution.

The clippings are useful here. Computer Quiz was not the only quiz game in town. “Enemies and/or competitors” consisted of Mondial International (headquartered in New York), which also spent 1967 testing its own electronic quiz machine, Prof. Quizmaster, already in production at year’s end with distributors in the US and overseas. Another was the I.Q. Computer produced by Bill Nutting’s brother, David Nutting, for his coin-op company, Nutting Industries (headquartered in Milwaukee and not affiliated with Nutting Associates).25 The three new products were part of a new wave of “computer games” or “computer machines,” as they were commonly called in the late 1960s. As one clipping highlights, “it is very possible that the computer games, in the future, will grab a portion of that take.” The take referred to is the 99 percent of revenue from more traditional types of coin-op amusement machines (including billiards).26 Prof. Quizmaster, to cite one example, earned $115 on five-cents per play over a ten-day period at the February 1968 Tampa Fair.27 On ten cents per play, Computer Quiz would take in $1,600 in thirteen days at the San Mateo County Fair in October 1968.28

Their subject matter and cabinet design plus their potential to “grab a portion of that take” begin to distinguish quiz machines from other coin-op amusement machines.29 Following in the wake of the so-called quiz-show scandal of the late 1950s, when industry producers rigged television shows like Twenty-One, quiz machines seemed to be echoing the popularity of newer broadcast quiz shows like Jeopardy!, which originally aired in 1964—the same time Knowledge Computer was making the rounds at student unions at US universities. Bill Nutting himself credits television quiz shows when motioning to the various factors influencing the development of Computer Quiz. In a Profile piece from Cash Box from 1968, he sets the stage for “why” he developed an educational amusement machine: “With the large population of the computer generation,” he explains, “the growing emphasis on knowledge, education, TV quiz programs, etc. a sophisticated educational coin-operated game seemed to have potential.”30 Significant for a broader game history is that while television was already being looked to for game-content ideas in the 1960s, we often flag the consumer-game industry of the early 1980s as departing from the reigning standard of coin-op video games as they attempted (and failed) to cash in on Hollywood blockbusters. Rather than a radically new model, one often passed off as untested, we can observe a much longer history of electronic games adopting other forms of media well before the brouhaha over Atari’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.31 Television quiz shows proved popular to US audiences, and coin-op amusement companies like Nutting Associates, Mondial International, and Nutting Corp. developed products to profit from that interest by outfitting a coin-slot unit with quiz questions.

As already mentioned in relation to the lessons that Atari learned from Nutting Associates, it’s vital to understand, if not appreciate, why those “rich walnut finished exterior” features were such an important factor in the 1960s, before Dabney looked to translate the proven design imperative to encase a standard TV. Nutting’s Computer Quiz, also detailed on the sell sheet prior for Knowledge Computer, boasted a modest size that promised to take up less floor space than other coin-op amusements machines such as pinball. To accompany its walnut exterior, the machine’s “playing panel is a warm blue,” which was regarded as “decorative and contemporary, an eye-catcher in any location.”32 Mondial International’s Prof. Quizmaster is also endorsed for its “compact” stature with its cabinet praised as “durable and eye appealing with a glacier blue finish and dark blue formica panel” trimmed in brushed aluminum.33 I assume that both Nutting Associates and Mondial International outfitted their interactive control panels in a blue finish to connect their “computer games” visually—not technically—with Big Blue, IBM’s System/360 mainframe computer released in the mid-1960s: coupling the “intelligence” of a computer to the “intellect” of a quiz machine. John Bilotta, of Bilotta Enterprises, a major distributor of coin-op machines across the Northeastern US, writes that “the very nature” of quiz machine like Computer Quiz “opens brand new spots to amusement equipment. Its conservative, glamourous design and appeal to the intellectual level of the consumer permits placement at numerous spots [that] previously denied many of our standard games.”34 Opening “brand new spots” by way of cabinet design is promotional rhetoric that courses through Nutting Associates advertising and, as seen in Bilotta’s quote, is fully acknowledged by distributors as the means for operators to generate new profits from these new (i.e., untapped) locations.

With its space-saving size and stylish design, a new game type appealed to the new game players occupying these locations. This emergent generation of players is envisioned (or embellished) by journalist Jim Arpy as scholars of “Intellectual Pinball.” Computer Quiz, according to Nutting Associates’ depiction, which is at odds with actual minicomputer users of the era, “attracts a player from a highly receptive audience—a generation of young people that are pre-conditioned to the concepts of computers and teaching machines.”35 That sentiment resounds in Arpy’s coverage of Computer Quiz when quoting Bill Nutting who regards the machine’s design as catering to the “computer generation—the mass of young people who thrive on competitive pressure and intellectual challenge.”36 This profile of Computer Quiz’s players was, well, played up when machines were loaned to students at Trinity University (San Antonio, TX) to practice for their competition on the quiz television show, General Electric College Bowl.

Figure 30

Undated sell sheet for Computer Quiz , Nutting Associates (Alexander Smith Nutting Associates Collection, The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, NY)

One of the sell sheets for Computer Quiz provided a list of US campuses home to the machine. To drive the collegiate image home, a female model in graduation attire is also featured on the sell sheet (fig. 30). Even the models staffing the Nutting Associates booth at MOA 1968 were tasked with awarding diplomas to maintain the company’s emphasis on distinguishing the players of its coin-op machine from those of other electronic amusements. The shtick seems to have worked well for this new class of coin-op product as the thousandth unit of Computer Quiz rolled off the assembly line in May 1968. Clippings relate stories of how well Computer Quiz did on locations scattered across the US. The game’s retail price of $1295 per unit shows that Nutting Associates seemingly knew its anatomy better than Bushnell was aware.37

Nutting Associates sought to distinguish its product from others on the market and by doing so attempted to configure a new audience for its coin-op products. Both ingredients speak to what Bill Nutting regarded as an upward trend in the amusement industry, with Computer Quiz representing “more sophisticated coin-op entertainment.”38 This would even include a Computer Quiz installed at the Lake Geneva Playboy Club, while Arnold Palmer Enterprises considered placing the units at its national chain of driving ranges and putting courses.

There is a final observation to make from these clippings. Computer Quiz, like Bushnell and Dabney’s Computer Space, is a story of technological innovation. First off, Bill Nutting had to translate a teaching device into an amusement machine. While the scrapbook tells us nothing about whether EDEX had any other teaching devices in operation (and where they might be and in what capacity), we are privy to some materials devoted to the Knowledge Computer. Its sell sheets, for instance, are steeped in the language of the coin-op industry with its appeal to machine serviceability; potential for challenging, repeat gameplay; possibility of large profits; and easy acceptance at a wide range of locations. The language is clear: the product’s purpose is amusement while the experience of play is also “highly educational.”

Second, Bill Nutting had to have Knowledge Computer redesigned to lower manufacturing costs and make what became Computer Quiz more “aesthetically appealing.”39 In comparison and much more acknowledged in the history of games is Bushnell and Dabney’s well-documented endeavor to build their version of Spacewar! via the cheaper technology of television versus the cost-ineffectiveness of Bill Pitts and Hugh Tuck’s Galaxy Game running via a DEC PDP-11 minicomputer with its hefty price tag.

Third, while we regard Computer Space as a TV game for the medium specificity of both its technological build and display, we could also regard Computer Quiz as a film game, or at least acknowledge its innovative use of film-projector machinery, namely, a reel of 16 mm celluloid (DuPont Mylar) that projects the game’s questions onto its screen located on the blue playing panel. Each frame contains a quiz question, and the film projector functions like a slide projector, advancing each question to the player on a loop. Correct answers to questions are on a small strip of the film not visible to players. The answers appear as a clear box within which light from the film projection unit shines through. The physical location of the clear box on the advancing film strip signals the correct answer (options A through E) to a particular question. Photoresistor sensors detect where specifically the light has shined through the film strip to record whether the correct answer was selected by the player (the word correct or incorrect lights up on the front panel, and scores are determined by the speed of the player’s response to a question).40 A magazine of film had 2,500 questions, and additional magazines with different sets of questions were available (the machine’s quiz content was expandable to allow a longer field life of the unit).

Finally, Computer Quiz is multiple, meaning over the course of the machine’s life, updated versions were released under the same moniker. In 1968, model S2LM introduced semiconductor electronic components (i.e., solid-state logic) to replace the existing 1967 version’s plug-in relays circuit boards (which was already an upgrade from an even earlier iteration that utilized copper relays, transistors, and diodes).41 Fair to say that Computer Quiz exhibited its innovative feats on the inside and outside.

The clock in The Strong’s reading room edges closer to the four o’clock closing time of the Brian Sutton-Smith Library. My eyes are exhausted, reddened from staring at the scrapbook’s content, while my imagination strains from filling those blank pages. My stomach is starting to growl from a long day without lunch. I close the book. Over dinner at the Owl House, my go-to when in Rochester, I recall a friendly contest Barry Katz proposed when I interviewed him for Atari Design back in 2017 at the Tressider Memorial Union at Stanford University. I was nitpicking a claim that he made in his excellent Make It New: The History of Silicon Valley Design that Atari was “almost the only major Silicon Valley technology company oriented expressly towards consumer products.”42 My quibble pertained to whether coin-op machines constitute consumer products, given that they are marketed and sold to operators and distributors who serve as intermediators between the product and its consumer, the user who rents space at the machine. Katz’s point of qualification, shared in our delightful conversation, was that the coin-op machine was designed for a nonspecialist user. It wasn’t technology designed only for business or research applications but for a general market. He told me later in our conversation that he’d be curious to know if I could identify another Silicon Valley–based technology company with an expressed orientation toward the consumer market prior to Atari. Barry, I believe that I have: Nutting Associates.

It is difficult for us to realize the achievements of Nutting Associates when it is cast as a bit player in the much larger story of Atari. Our presiding game history shrouds our ability to know more about pre-Computer Space games when terms like video game or computer game disqualify the likes of coin-op quiz machines from any meaningful contribution to the history of games, and technological innovation is reserved for only select, celebrated innovators. The scrapbook’s black-and-white clippings present enough evidence to explode these constrictions. I hope that they succeed. I observe similar circumstances in the history of Nutting Associates that befell Atari when it was setting out to manufacture its first coin-op product, Pong. I witness marketing and promotional eloquence lifted directly from those sell sheets showcasing a nontelevision-engineered machine that would inform the video game industry en masse in the early 1970s. I spy the prominence of industrial design as a physical means to access place—many different places in fact. I note innovation in a much longer tradition of electronic games. And last, I perceive a consumer-technology company with deeper roots in Silicon Valley than those beginning to flourish in 1972.


1. ^ The scrapbook proves an object lesson for doing historical studies of games. It is a source from which historians can piece together interpretive meanings. We have access to an official company record but one whose contents are largely drawn from periodicals with the occasional internal brief at our disposal. Even though these documents were clipped within the context of company officialdom, we still lack internal records that would assist us greatly to better gauge questions of organizational structure, production runs, sales figures, business plans, manufacturing protocols, design documentation, marketing and advertising strategies, personnel logs, and other important information to help document a company’s history. While the contents of the scrapbook can be regarded as unintentional sources, their curation by a company employee transforms them into intentional sources—materials intentionally collected to document Nutting Associates’ achievements in the amusement industry.

2. ^ MOA soon became the Amusement and Music Operators of Association, AMOA.

3. ^ Alexander Smith, “Nutting Associates scrapbook,” email to author, 2022. Smith explained to me via email that: “At the end of my interview with Claire [Nutting], she mentioned that Bill had been sent a box from another Nutting Employee (most certainly Ms. Watson since the box was addressed by her) that had just been sitting in her basement, and she asked if I would like to have it. I said yes, and she shipped it to me. I then donated it to the Strong. As to the scrapbook, I wish I could help you with the provenance, but Claire did not have any knowledge of the materials in the box. Therefore, I have no further information on why it stopped in 1969 or whether Nancy managed the book.

4. ^ Arlette Farge, The Allure of the Archive (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 8.

5. ^ While I wholeheartedly believe that this is how Nutting Associates has been and continues to be positioned within the history of video games I do want to acknowledge those efforts to account for the company as an amusement-machine manufacturer prior to the Syzygy/Atari narrative. Here I have in mind Benj Edwards, “Computer Space and the Dawn of the Arcade Video Game,” Technologizer: A Smarter Take on Tech, December 11, 2011,; Keith Smith, “The Ultimate (So Far) History on Nutting Associates—Part 1,” The Golden Age Arcade Historian (blog), June 2, 2016,; and Alexander Smith, They Create Worlds: The Story of the People and Companies That Shaped the Video Game Industry, vol. 1, 1971–1982 (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2019).

6. ^ Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby, Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2006), 52.

7. ^ Steven Malliet and Gust de Meyer, “The History of the Video Game,” in Handbook of Computer Games Studies, ed. Joost Raessens and Jeffrey Goldstein (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 25.

8. ^ Michael Z. Newman, Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017), 6.

9. ^ Stephen Kline, Nick Dyer-Witheford, and Greig De Peuter, Digital Play: The Interaction of Technology, Culture, and Marketing (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003), 90.

10. ^ Martin Campbell-Kelly, From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog: A History of the Software Industry (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 272–73.

11. ^ As Benj Edwards notes, “there was no computer system or software involved. Bushnell would render his electronic game logic in hardware using medium-scale integration ICs, transistors, and diodes.” See Edwards, “Computer Space.”

12. ^ See in particular, Henry Lowood, “Video Games in Computer Space: The Complex History of Pong,” IEEE Annals in the History of Computing 31 (July–Sept. 2009): 5–19; Edwards, “Computer Space”; and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, How Pac-Man Eats (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020).

13. ^ See Edwards, “Computer Space”; Leslie Berlin, Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017); and Marty Goldberg and Curt Vendel, Atari Inc.: Business Is Fun (Carmel, NY: Syzygy Company Press, 2012).

14. ^ See Berlin’s account of Atari’s decision to enter into the manufacturing business. Berlin, Troublemakers, 115–17.

15. ^ Ted Dabney, interview with author, September 22, 2015.

16. ^ Edwards, “Computer Space.”

17. ^ See Raiford Guins, Atari Design: Impressions on Coin-Operated Video Game Machines (London: Bloomsbury, 2020), 121–50.

18. ^ Lowood, “Video Games in Computer Space,” 10.

19. ^ Tristan Donovan, Replay: The History of Video Games (Lewes, UK: Yellow Ant, 2010), 21; and Berlin, Troublemakers, 116.

20. ^ An “expanded horizon” or “wider view” are always allusive for the historian trying to perceive a full view of an era’s events. According to John Lewis Gaddis, we always only ever occupy the slightest of perspectives on events from the past. See John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). Why am I highlighting the obvious? A few reasons. The first, the Alexander Smith Nutting Associates Collection at The Strong is, most likely, the largest collection devoted to the company in existence. It isn’t apparent if Nutting Associates maintained an archive, and if it did, what happened to its records after the company was sold in 1977 is unknown. To my knowledge no other cultural institution boasts a collection of the company’s papers. Next, only a scattering of writing attempts to expound upon Nutting Associates beyond Computer Space. Their sources are largely the same trade periodicals scrapbooked by a Nutting employee (e.g., Cash Box), or reliant upon interviews conducted by former employees. For the latter category, it remains to be seen if any of the interviews will be shared with other researchers or be deposited at cultural institutions. In other words, we are unable to examine these recordings or transcriptions and are left only with the word of the author. How can we trust claims being made without access to evidence? Of course, this predicament isn’t unique to game history and is typical of historical study in general.

21. ^ “Profile On: William G. Nutting—Heading Up the ‘Computer’ Generation,” Cash Box, February 17, 1968, 74.

22. ^ According to the instruction manual for the Knowledge Computer, Scientific Amusement Machine Company is a division of the EDEX Corporation. No further information is available from The Strong’s collection on Nutting Associates.

23. ^ See Smith, “The Ultimate (So Far) History.”

24. ^ See Alexander Smith, “A Nutty Idea,” The Video Game Historian (blog), September 3, 2023, Note: the same text appears in Smith’s book, They Create Worlds.

25. ^ For details on the relationship between the brothers Nutting and their separate coin-op amusement companies, see Smith, “The Ultimate (So Far) History”; and Smith, They Create Worlds.

26. ^ “Computer Trend Might Follow Counter Games,” Cash Box, January 20, 1968.

27. ^ “Munves’ Southern Tour Reveals High Earnings for Several Games at Tampa Fair,” Cash Box, March 9, 1968.

28. ^ “Computer Quiz OK at Fairs,” Amusement Business, October 12, 1968.

29. ^ As my research develops, I will delve into the differences between these popular late 1960s quiz machines and teaching/instructional machinery developed by Gordon Pask, Sidney Pressey, and B. F. Skinner a decade earlier.

30. ^ “Profile On: William G. Nutting,” 74.

31. ^ Atari Inc.’s disposal of its products in the Alamogordo, New Mexico, city landfill is well documented in my Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014). See also the article I coauthored with William Caraher et al., “Why We Dug Atari,” Atlantic, August 2014,

32. ^ Nutting Associates, Computer Quiz Sell Sheet, 1967.

33. ^ “Mondial Bows Prof. Quizmaster,” Cash Box, November 18, 1967.

34. ^ “New Quiz Machine Available to Ops; Unique Marketing Agreement Attached,” Cash Box, August 26, 1967.

35. ^ Nutting Associates, Computer Quiz Sell Sheet.

36. ^ Jim Arpy, “Intelligent Pinball.” Source and date unknown.

37. ^ “1000th Turns to Gold,” Cash Box, May 18, 1968.

38. ^ “New Basketball Game.”

39. ^ New Basketball Game.”

40. ^ The following video provides an inside look at the internal functioning of Computer Quiz. See “Games Saved: Preserving the Film of Computer Quiz,” hosted by Andrew Borman, The Strong Museum, video, 5:05, September 3, 2021,

41. ^ Applied Technology is the company that Nutting Associates used to build a circuit board with plug-in relays. Richard Ball, industrial designer for Computer Quiz, working with Applied Technology and Nutting Associates employees, produced the solid-state version of the machine. See Smith, “The Ultimate (So Far) History.”

42. ^ Barry Katz, Make It New: The History of Silicon Valley Design (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017), 95.