Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Children of the Lens

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During World War II, as the use of radar became widespread in battle, the U.S. Navy introduced the Combat Information Center, a shipboard tactical room with maps, consoles, and screens of the kind that we’ve all seen in television and the movies. At the time, though, it was like something out of science fiction, and in fact, back in 1939, E.E. “Doc” Smith had described a very similar display in the serial Gray Lensman:

Red lights are fleets already in motion…Greens are fleets still at their bases. Ambers are the planets the greens took off from…The white star is us, the Directrix. That violet cross way over there is Jalte’s planet, our first objective. The pink comets are our free planets, their tails showing their intrinsic velocities.

After the war, in a letter dated June 11, 1947, the editor John W. Campbell told Smith that the similarity was more than just a coincidence. Claiming to have been approached “unofficially, and in confidence” by a naval officer who played an important role in developing the C.I.C., Campbell said:

The entire setup was taken specifically, directly, and consciously from the Directrix. In your story, you reached the situation the Navy was in—more communications channels than integration techniques to handle it. You proposed such an integrating technique, and proved how advantageous it could be…Sitting in Michigan, some years before Pearl Harbor, you played a large share in the greatest and most decisive naval action of the recent war!

Unfortunately, this wasn’t true. The naval officer in question, Cal Laning, was indeed a science fiction fan—he was close friends with Robert A. Heinlein—but any resemblance to the Directrix was coincidental, or, at best, an instance of convergence as fiction and reality addressed the same set of problems. (An excellent analysis of the situation can be found in Ed Wysocki’s very useful book An Astounding War.)

If Campbell was tempted to overstate Smith’s influence, this isn’t surprising—the editor was disappointed that science fiction hadn’t played the role that he had envisioned for it in the war, and this wasn’t the first or last time that he would gently exaggerate it. Fifteen years later, however, Smith’s fiction had a profound impact on a very different field. In 1962, Steve Russell of M.I.T. developed Spacewar, the first video game to be played on more than one computer, with two spaceships dueling with torpedoes in the gravity well of a star. In an article for Rolling Stone written by my hero Stewart Brand, Russell recalled:

We had this brand new PDP-1…It was the first minicomputer, ridiculously inexpensive for its time. And it was just sitting there. It had a console typewriter that worked right, which was rare, and a paper tape reader and a cathode ray tube display…Somebody had built some little pattern-generating programs which made interesting patterns like a kaleidoscope. Not a very good demonstration. Here was this display that could do all sorts of good things! So we started talking about it, figuring what would be interesting displays. We decided that probably you could make a two-dimensional maneuvering sort of thing, and decided that naturally the obvious thing to do was spaceships…

I had just finished reading Doc Smith’s Lensman series. He was some sort of scientist but he wrote this really dashing brand of science fiction. The details were very good and it had an excellent pace. His heroes had a strong tendency to get pursued by the villain across the galaxy and have to invent their way out of their problem while they were being pursued. That sort of action was the thing that suggested Spacewar. He had some very glowing descriptions of spaceship encounters and space fleet maneuvers.

The “somebody” whom he mentions was Marvin Minsky, another science fiction fan, and Russell’s collaborator Martin Graetz elsewhere cited Smith’s earlier Skylark series as an influence on the game.

But the really strange thing is that Campbell, who had been eager to claim credit for Smith when it came to the C.I.C., never made this connection in print, at least not as far as I know, although he was hugely interested in Spacewar. In the July 1971 issue of Analog, he published an article on the game by Albert W. Kuhfeld, who had developed a variation of it at the University of Minnesota. Campbell wrote in his introductory note:

For nearly a dozen years I’ve been trying to get an article on the remarkable educational game invented at M.I.T. It’s a great game, involving genuine skill in solving velocity and angular relation problems—but I’m afraid it will never be widely popular. The playing “board” costs about a quarter of a megabuck!

Taken literally, the statement “nearly a dozen years” implies that the editor heard about Spacewar before it existed, but the evidence legitimately implies that he learned of it almost at once. Kuhfeld writes: “Although it uses a computer to handle orbital mechanics, physicists and mathematicians have no great playing advantage—John Campbell’s seventeen-year-old daughter beat her M.I.T. student-instructor on her third try—and thereafter.” Campbell’s daughter was born in 1945, which squares nicely with a visit around the time of the game’s first appearance. It isn’t implausible that Campbell would have seen and heard about it immediately—he had been close to the computer labs at Harvard and M.I.T. since the early fifties, and he made a point of dropping by once a year. If the Lensman series, the last three installments of which he published, had really been an influence on Spacewar, it seems inconceivable that nobody would have told him. For some reason, however, Campbell, who cheerfully promoted the genre’s impact on everything from the atomic bomb to the moon landing, didn’t seize the opportunity to do the same for video games, in an article that he badly wanted to publish. (In a letter to the manufacturers of the PDP-1, whom he had approached unsuccessfully for a writeup, he wrote: “I’ve tried for years to get a story on Spacewar, and I’ve repeatedly had people promise one…and not deliver.”)

So why didn’t he talk about it? The obvious answer is that he didn’t realize that Spacewar, which he thought would “never be widely popular,” was anything more than a curiosity, and if he had lived for another decade—he died just a few months after the article came out—he would have pushed the genre’s connection to video games as insistently as he did anything else. But there might have been another factor at play. For clues, we can turn to the article in Rolling Stone, in which Brand visited the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory with Annie Leibovitz, which is something that I wish I could have seen. Brand opens with the statement that computers are coming to the people, and he adds: “That’s good news, maybe the best since psychedelics.” It’s a revealing comparison, and it indicates the extent to which the computing movement was moving away from everything that Campbell represented. A description of the group’s offices at Stanford includes a detail that, if Campbell had read it, would only have added insult to injury:

Posters and announcements against the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon, computer printout photos of girlfriends…and signs on every door in Tolkien’s elvish Fëanorian script—the director’s office is Imladris, the coffee room The Prancing Pony, the computer room Mordor. There’s a lot of hair on those technicians, and nobody seems to be telling them where to scurry.

In the decade since the editor first encountered Spacewar, a lot had changed, and Campbell might have been reluctant to take much credit for it. The Analog article, which Brand mentions, saw the game as a way to teach people about orbital mechanics; Rolling Stone recognized it as a leading indicator of a development that was about to change the world. And even if he had lived, there might not have been room for Campbell. As Brand concludes:

Spacewar as a parable is almost too pat. It was the illegitimate child of the marrying of computers and graphic displays. It was part of no one’s grand scheme. It served no grand theory. It was the enthusiasm of irresponsible youngsters. It was disreputably competitive…It was an administrative headache. It was merely delightful.

3 Responses

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  1. Like you, I was quite fond of The Whole Earth Catalog, so when I saw a slim volume by Stewart Brand at the Coral Gables Public Library, I brought it home. II Cybernetic Frontiers contained two long articles. Despite his best efforts, Brand never could get me much interested in his mentor Gregory Bateson, so their intervew kinda slid off me. But the second half of the book was the article you quote, “Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums.” I found it electrifying.

    At that point, I’d already read Doc Smith.

    A computer? Playing a simulation of spaceship combat? With realistic, if malleable, physics? Animated on a screen? What a tantalizing vision!

    Just as tantalizing was Brand’s brief account of the “ARPA Network.” Far-flung technical people, at elite institutions, chattering together, swapping software and data, maybe playing games? I WANTED THIS. Badly.

    I started to keep an eye on hacker culture. And computer graphics. And networking.

    Brand’s magazines and books were usually interesting, but I liked them best when they turned to electronic communication. I could see the potential. I wanted the world to be wired up. I wanted it to be buzzing.

    We didn’t get Moon bases, but we did get arcade games and Usenet and home computers. Which was all right.

    Then a high-energy physicist gave away the Web. Pretty soon, nearly everybody seemed to be using it. And the world we could see in the 1970s came to us. And then, we went beyond it– into the unforseen. Here we are.

  2. Naturally, having read Brand’s book, I took an interest in Spacewar. I loved pumping quarters into it when an arcade version came out.

    The GCE Vectrex, a home computer game with a vector display, made its debut in 1982. It had a version of Spacewar that was a pretty fair approximation to the PDP-1’s. After the video-game crash of the Eighties, I picked up a console for fifty bucks. Still works. Prized posession. If you want to try it, I could bring it out sometime.

    I found Albert W. Kuhfeld’s Spacewar article for Analog online. He opens with a battle scenario that reads like science fiction, then reveals it’s not. The players are “Tatge” and “Ken Fletcher.”

    Could these be the prominent Minnesota SF fans, Richard Tatge and Ken Fletcher?

    Kuhfeld left MIT, where he was first involved with Spacewar, and settled at the University of Minnesota; in the article he describes differences between the MIT and Minnesota versions. In Boston he was involved in fandom, leaving traces detectable years later on the Web, such as filksong lyrics.

    Turns out the text of the program book for Minicon 6, held in April 1972, is also online. Yes, Kuhfeld and Tatge were on a panel together, and Fletcher was on the concom. Therefore they knew one another. Therefore, the guys in the article are the same guys I’ve met in fandom. Q.E.D.

  3. @Bill Higgins: That’s some good sleuthing! And I’d love to check out the Vectrex one of these days.

    One of my dreams was always to write a biography of Stewart Brand, but it looks like this guy beat me to it. Anyway, I got Campbell, et al., instead, so it didn’t work out too badly.


    July 19, 2017 at 3:04 pm

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