In early 2006 I began work on the fourth edition of my videogame history book, Phoenix: The Fall and Rise of Videogames. I had a lot of questions about the early days of Atari and I believe I reached out to Nolan Bushnell but if I did, he never responded. So I decided to try Ted Dabney, Nolan’s silent partner in the founding of Atari, who had never publicly told his side of the Atari story. Loni Reeder, an early Atari employee who I knew, supplied me with Ted’s contact information. I wrote to him on March 17 2006 and told him who I was and that I would like to ask him a few questions for the new edition of my book, Phoenix, that I was working on. He responded six days later with a treasure trove of unsolicited information. One of the things he wrote was:
“With computers getting more common, Nolan thought he could use one to move images on several TV screens at one time. We taked about this concept for several months and then I set up switch panel and a modified TV set to simulate address programming. This was done in MY daughter’s bedroom not Nolan’s. Paula (his wife at the time) wouldn’t go for that. Later we asked Larry about the progamming that would be required.”
This line shocked me. For thirty years Nolan had been saying how it was his daughter’s bedroom that had been annexed. Now Ted was contradicting a story that had been part of Atari lore for so long.
Ted and I went back and forth exchanging emails for nearly two years when the idea hit me to do an article about him, similar to the one I wrote about Ralph Baer for Electronic Gaming Monthly, several years earlier. I proposed this idea to him and he responded on June 20, 2008, with “I like your idea of writing a narrative because you know almost everything about me and Nolan.” In this same email Ted inquired if I knew anything about the movie that Leo DiCaprio planned to make about Nolan Bushnell’s life. Ted had read about it in Variety and was dismayed that while his name had been mentioned in the Variety piece, no one had contacted him for any information. He asked me in the email: “Hey Lenny, do you know if anyone has done any fact-checking on this thing or are they just going to take Bushnell’s word? I would like to know who to contact.”
Ted contacted the author of the article and she responded that he should try Appian Way, DiCaprio’s production company. I promised Ted that I would look into it. I contacted Appian Way, and told them about Ted but of course I couldn’t make any headway. However, plans for the movie folded shortly afterwards. I doubt I had anything to do with that but I gained Ted’s trust and we became good friends, calling each other regularly.
My article about Ted, The Untold Atari Story, appeared in the April 2009 edition of Edge magazine. In it, Ted revealed his side of the Atari story that had remained quiet, or distorted by Nolan, for over thirty years. And while Ted never received the level of recognition that Ralph did following the EGM article, industry people began taking notice of his contributions to videogaming history. This culminated with an eight-hour interview by members of the Smithsonian Institution for their Video Game Pioneers Oral History Collection series on March 15, 2018, which I had helped set up. This occurred approximately two months after Ted revealed to me that he was suffering from incurable esophagus cancer. Ted called me during the Smithsonian taping to let me know how it was going. He was amazed that so many people were interested in what he had to say.
One of the things that Ted said during the interview was about the work he had done for Nolan’s Chuck E. Cheese. “Then I sent a whole bunch of the Isaac Asimov Presents Super Quiz machines. That was exactly the time they went belly up. [Laughs.] I never got paid for that. So, Nolan still owes me $41,600. That includes $4,000 for a motor arm boat. He still owes me that. I figured 2% a year for 44 years, that’s $90,000. He owes me $90,000. He won’t pay, but that’s all right.”
Later, during one of our frequent calls, Ted told me how he did this specific work for Nolan and never got paid. I jokingly said that we should create an invoice and send it to Nolan. So, I put together a mock invoice but Ted couldn’t send it because he wasn’t sure if he had Nolan’s correct email address, since Nolan never responded to any of his emails.
Then Ted said let’s hold off on the invoice. He really wanted to get in touch with Nolan and chat with him before he died. I contacted Nolan’s son Tyler and told him that Ted was dying and wanted to communicate with his father before he did. Tyler immediately forwarded his father’s email address to me which I passed on to Ted. The ensuing email exchange occurred.
From: (Ted Dabney)
To: (Nolan Bushnell)
May 20, 2018, 5:30 PM
To my old friend Nolan,
It’s finally comes down to this. You and I had become close friends at one time. You had the likeability with honesty and integrity and could inspire others. The problem came about as soon as money showed up. The honesty and integrity seemed to just disappear
For all these decades, I have hoped that you may want to get back to the good old days. Our last conversation made it very clear that you have no interest in what should have been. Respect is a function of honesty and integrity and is what determines success. Your success has been limited by your lack of respect. A little respect would have improved you successes many ties over.
I really don’t expect you to believe any of this but there is a way to verify it all if you are willing and capable of answering a few easy questions. I’m not going to get into any details now because I never expect to hear from you again. The only reason I’m going through any of this is because how much you meant to me in the past.
Nolan responded to Ted the same day. This was the final communication from Nolan to Ted.
From: (Nolan Bushnell)
To: (Ted Dabney)
May 20, 2018, 7:48 PM
Looking forward to coming to Clearlake this summer. I too want to talk about the good old days and some times unpleasant ones. On the positive side I remember well our trip on your boat to the Delta and later when you taught me to sale on the Pong.
Sometimes the early seventies are a blurr but those late nights at Nutting and the opening of Scott blvd. Are all part of our shared legacy. When we first got a dot to display, then move then turn into a rocket ship. We were making progress by the day and truly creating some great tech. Installing at “Andy Capps” the route. Our first collection buying beers with quarters. All heady stuff.
We are both in our Autumn of our lives and though you are a bit older I still have some projects I want to finish.
I totally respect you and the part you played in our shared legacy.
Hope we can have a great meet.
From: (Ted Dabney)
To: (Nolan Bushnell)
May 21, 2018, 1:08 PM
It’s nice that you remember all that stuff about Scott Blvd and Andy Capps. Those were some of my favorite times.
Are you going to see me in Clearlake the way you did in Republic when you said the same thing? One thing you missed out on is that I may not last until Summer. The thing that I remember most is you asking me, “What’s it going to be like when we’re really, really rich? Now you knew we were partners and not friends. You still needed me for a lot of stuff, so my position was safe for now.
It was very clear that the idea of money changed you from hope to greed. I knew this had happened, but I was having to much fun to let it bother me.
The day Al Alcorn showed up is when I knew my days were numbered. He was a much better engineer than me. He had an attention to detail that I could never have. I filled in on jobs that needed to be done like bookkeeper, procurement and inventory.
You started hiring top people to be president, vice president of engineering, marketing and finance without any input from me. I knew these bozos were bad for the company, but you were so enamored with them that you wanted to give them stock in the company. I was willing to sell you all my stock, but I had to let it come from you for me to have any leverage. When it finally came, I accepted everything you proposed. The value of the stock I sold you went down at a very rapid rate because of the people you had hired. You took my advice regarding these folks and the company turned around fast.
You may be in in the Autumn of your life but the same can’t be said of me. I only have a few month to live due to a cancer in my throat. I hope that some of the projects you want to finish will include some honesty and integrity.
When Pizza Time failed in Mar 28, 1984, they still owed me for some of these systems:
10 “Notalog” (number callout) w/monitors @ $1,250 = $12,500
(Pizza Time cancelled the order. They said they would give me a cancellations fee witch they never did. This fee could never cover my cost of production.
6 “Isaac Asimov Presents Super Quiz” @ $960.00 = $5,760
(Pizza Time went bankrupt. These were delivered on time and should have been paid for)
For someone with total respect for the part I played in our shared legacy, you never once let me participate in any important decisions.
There were times when you were so blatantly wrong and you wouldn’t listen to me. They were so wrong that they cost your company big time. The first was the time I said your pizza was unacceptable and you went with it anyway. The second time was when I told you that a salad bar was exactly the wrong thing to do. You did it anyway. The most expensive mistake was when I told you that the Androbot pc board was a mess and needed some major rework. This never happened.
Nolan never responded to the second email from Ted. So Ted sent one more two days later.
From: (Ted Dabney)
To: (Nolan Bushnell)
May 23, 2018 4:50:24 pm
It’s a shame that someone with all you have going for you:
Commitment and Passion…
Delegation and Empowerment…
Creativity and Innovation.
You replaced Honesty and Integrity with the short sightedness of Greed and Avarice. You lost at least 20 times your success had you not done so.
I’m one of the many people that know all about who you really are but like you anyway. Likability has always been your greatest asset.
I have always been one that hoped you would find a smattering of integrity that you could, somehow, make some of these things right. I’m sure that you can find many good, sound reasons why this should never happen. That’s the stuff you must live on. Although they’re there is surly more than these, I don’t know why you couldn’t make things right with Curt Vendel and me. These seem small in the order of so much else.
All-in-all, my relationship with you has been one of the biggest blessings in my life.
Thank you, Nolan,
I don’t know if Nolan read that last email or responded to it. Ted Dabney passed away less than three days later on the morning of May 26, 2018.
Copyright © 2022 Leonard Herman