Tech Genius Allan Alcorn on Pong, Steve Jobs & Virtual Reality


Tech legend Allan Alcorn not only created one of the world’s first video games - paving the way for Minecraft and Fortnite - but the Atari engineer behind Pong also hired a teenaged Steve Jobs for his first formal job.

Atari engineer Alcorn did not get royalties from Pong but said it was fun to be a part of it
Atari engineer Allan Alcorn did not get royalties from Pong but said it was fun to be a part of it



Alcorn is still a tech pioneer and the co-founder of the Hack the Future hackathon for kids so SPYSCAPE decided to dig up a few secrets of the tech genius who helped kickstart the $200bn gaming industry back in 1972.

Allan was a problem child for his mother

Born in 1948, Allan grew up in San Francisco’s famed Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, the son of divorced parents. His father, a merchant marine, bought Allan an RTA correspondence course in radio and TV repair when he was 10. A neighbor had a TV repair shop, so by 12 Allan was working there after school and spending his earnings on second-hand gadgets, gizmos, and a prized transistor radio.

Allan’s bedroom was filled with so many electronics his mother stubbed her toe on an old baby radio set. She refused to give him an allowance, but as he had his own money she couldn’t stop him from collecting gadgets. ‘’I wasn’t a bad kid,” he recalled, “I just liked to know how things worked.” 

Allan earned a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at U of C, Berkeley during the Vietnam era and had his first brush with a computer there - a gigantic IBM 70-90 with punch cards.

Tech Genius Allan Alcorn on Pong, Steve Jobs & Virtual Reality

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Tech legend Allan Alcorn not only created one of the world’s first video games - paving the way for Minecraft and Fortnite - but the Atari engineer behind Pong also hired a teenaged Steve Jobs for his first formal job.

Atari engineer Alcorn did not get royalties from Pong but said it was fun to be a part of it
Atari engineer Allan Alcorn did not get royalties from Pong but said it was fun to be a part of it



Alcorn is still a tech pioneer and the co-founder of the Hack the Future hackathon for kids so SPYSCAPE decided to dig up a few secrets of the tech genius who helped kickstart the $200bn gaming industry back in 1972.

Allan was a problem child for his mother

Born in 1948, Allan grew up in San Francisco’s famed Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, the son of divorced parents. His father, a merchant marine, bought Allan an RTA correspondence course in radio and TV repair when he was 10. A neighbor had a TV repair shop, so by 12 Allan was working there after school and spending his earnings on second-hand gadgets, gizmos, and a prized transistor radio.

Allan’s bedroom was filled with so many electronics his mother stubbed her toe on an old baby radio set. She refused to give him an allowance, but as he had his own money she couldn’t stop him from collecting gadgets. ‘’I wasn’t a bad kid,” he recalled, “I just liked to know how things worked.” 

Allan earned a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at U of C, Berkeley during the Vietnam era and had his first brush with a computer there - a gigantic IBM 70-90 with punch cards.

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Pong in a video arcade, the game that changed gaming forever
Pong changed the gaming market forever

The birth of Pong

When Nolan Bushnell offered Alcorn $1,000 a month and 10 percent of his startup Syzygy (they’d later rename it Atari) Alcorn thought he’d be working on a GE contract to build an electronic tennis game. Alcorn bought a black-and-white TV, designed paddles to bounce the ball back and forth, and rigged the game to speed up after a few rallies. He manipulated the audio to create a ‘pong’ sound but decided not to fix a bug that kept the paddles from reaching the edge of the screen so he could make the game more challenging. 

The Pong prototype was ready in three months. That’s when Alcorn learned there was no GE contract. It was a test and he’d passed. Pong was rolled out to one bar in 1972 - Andy Capp’s in Sunnyvale, California. It soon malfunctioned because players jammed too many quarters into the machine. Within weeks, 10 bars had Pong and the future of gaming changed forever.

Steve Jobs, Apple co-founder, in his high school yearbook photo
Steve Jobs’ 1972 yearbook photo


That ‘hippie kid’ Steve Jobs

A long-haired college drop-out named Steve Jobs knocked on the door of Atari’s HQ in the early ‘70s looking for a job. As Alcorn remembers it, he was told, "We’ve got a hippie kid in the lobby. He says he’s not going to leave until we hire him. Should we call the cops or let him in?" Alcorn liked oddballs and invited Jobs inside. 

“I said, ‘Oh, where did you go to school?’ and he says ‘Reed.’ ‘Reed? Is that an engineering school?’ ‘No, it’s a literary school.’” Jobs had not graduated, yet the teenager had a spark and Alcorn figured 18-year-olds were cheap. “And so I hired him!" Alcorn got Jobs to work nights after complaints about Steve’s body odor. By 1976, Apple creators Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak changed the way people viewed computers.

Pong Video Pong, one of the first video gamesGame GIF - Pong Video Game Atari GIFs
Pong, one of the first video games

Sears - not Silicon Valley - revolutionized home electronics & video games

Atari was interested in breaking into the home video game market in the mid-1970s and a Sears department store buyer named Tom Quinn believed in Pong. “He took a risk and that’s not the type of thing one did,” Alcorn recalled. “We said we could build 50,000 units in a year. And he gave us an iron-clad, gold-plated contract for 100,000 units.” 

Atari also booked a booth at a New York toy fair to drum up sales so they weren’t relying on just one customer. “I remember the VPs of marketing and sales for Macy’s and all these big retail companies came by and saw it - and we did not sell one unit,” Alcorn said. “Uh. Nerve wracking.” Luckily, Sears was right.


Allan Alcorn's prototype for Pong
Alcorn auctioned off his Pong prototype in 2022


Fifty years later, Alcorn is still a trendsetter

Today, Allan runs Integrated Media Measurement, a company that measures audience exposure to radio, television, and movies using tech on a cell phone. He still enjoys tracking the physics of quantum computing as well, and in a 2020 interview said he was keen on virtual reality because of the combination of technology: “It's just unfortunate it doesn't seem to have a killer app… You keep putting old wine in new bottles and it doesn’t necessarily work."

In the past decade, Alcorn also co-founded Hack the Future and teamed up with veteran game producer Roger Hector to launch a Kickstarter campaign for an augmented reality mobile quiz game.

Allan Alcorn, Pong's creator
Allan Alcorn, Pong's creator
The early Apple II Steve Jobs gave Allan Alcorn
The early Apple II Steve Jobs gave Allan Alcorn


Alcorn is also slowly divesting himself of his tech memorabilia. In 2022, he auctioned off the Apple II computer Steve Jobs gave him. It fetched $20,610. (Jobs had offered him ‘founder stock’ in Apple but Alcorn said he'd take a free Apple II instead.) Alcorn also sold the original prototype of his Atari ‘Home Pong’ unit in 2022 for $270,910.

Alcorn admits there are some trends he missed in his illustrious career, including the rise of online video sharing. “It’s a remarkable and a little scary world we live in where technology is outpacing our ability to understand it or control it - in positive and negative ways.”

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