April 2014 Newsletter
The Mysterious Atari Cocktail Table Pong
Don Apte was at Fairchild and never lost an interest in the early games. One day late last year, he mentioned that he had an Atari cocktail table Pong. We’ve never found any records of such a thing, so we were pretty curious. And in December, Don showed up with his car loaded with some wonderful goodies – and the mysterious Atari Cocktail Table Pong. The rest of this newsletter is devoted to our adventures in trying to identify this enigmatic device. We’ve documented it pretty thoroughly in photos. No, it’s not an April Fool’s joke!
Judith Haemmerle, Executive Director
Part 1 – Ask the Man Who Knows Pong Best
When you have a question about Pong, the place to start is with Al Alcorn, the designer of the original Pong. He came by and went through it carefully, noting numerous components that were consistent with ones he had specified for the cabinet arcade models. The motherboard is a genuine Pong Rev E board, the main production board, which was not available outside of Atari. All the chips on it are from 1973, consistent with the date on the board. The line filter, coin-op mechanism, the switch that selects an 11 or 15-point game (Al designed it), the on-off switch bracket (“It’s a safety switch, so when you take it apart it pulls off. It wasn’t easy making square holes in brackets.”), the monitor, and the speaker/amplifier set-up were all recognized by Al as parts he had designed, or specified. Finally, he said, “I’m 97% certain that this is an Atari, that’s the way we did it.” But . . .
But every commercial game sold by Atari had a distinctive ID metal plate or tag attached to it, like the one on our Super Bug. This has no such ID. In fact, it has no ID of any kind other than on the Motorola monitor. So Al asked around and emailed us:
Roger Hector and Steve Bristow think it may have been a prototype constructed at Atari but in the model shop not the manufacturing floor. I am inclined to agree but can’t be positive. If it was made by a party other than Atari it could have been from a “kit” that we sold to international partners. The only possible manufacturer I could think of is a guy in Southern California that did carnivals and we had some kind of relationship with him until it went sour. But I think this happened in ’74 later than when that machine was built.
So it’s starting to look like a prototype! But it was obviously used pretty hard. The knobs have been replaced and the potentiometers they control were worn out. Don (the donor) remembers playing one exactly like it at a bar called St. James Infirmary on Castro in Mountain View in 1973. Maybe not a prototype? And then the plot thickened . . .
Part 2 – The Plot Thickens
Before starting this newsletter, I did another search online for anything that “Atari cocktail table Pong” or similar searches could turn up. This had been pretty fruitless, scanning hundreds of Pong images, reading newsgroups, assorted Atari dedicated websites, and so on. And just as I was ready to quit, I re-read a post in the Atari Age Forums. It was someone looking for a cocktail table Pong, and I’d already read it – it confirmed that no one knew of any, if they even existed they’d be really rare, and the ones people had were knock-offs by other companies. Until the very last entry:
Posted Mon Jul 31, 2006 4:38 PM
If anyone is interested – I have an Atari Pong cocktail unit available, no board though, just the cabinet, coin mech and monitor in it. Base is really nice, all done in cushioned leather, the yellow paint around the monitor is cracking and will need some restoration work.
That’s our Pong! The post was by Curt Vendel, well-known from his Atari Museum site, so I immediately emailed him a link to our photos and asked about it. He replied:
Mine is IDENTICAL in every way from every photo I reviewed that you had posted.
He says it has a Rev E Pong board, just like ours. So far, the only difference is that the knobs on ours have been replaced, and Curt’s has the original knobs. Curt recalls only that he got his from someone in California 10 or 15 years ago. He’s moving some of his collection around and will be looking at it more closely in a few weeks, when he’ll look for labels or other identifying marks. We’ll have to wait. In the meantime, do you know Judy?
Part 3 – Who Is Judy?
Meanwhile, the only clue we have to this artefact is this piece of masking tape. After a lot of looking and some rather psychedelic manipulations in Gimp, I was finally able to decipher:
I’m guessing that “Trail” is actually “Trial”. And this is all we have. Do you know Judy? Did you work with her? Know anyone who did? This suggests that it was possibly part of a limited trial run, maybe finally deemed too expensive to mass produce. The cabinet is very nicely made, with mitered angles in heavy particle board, except for the front and rear panels of plywood – necessary to hold hinges and the coin-op mechanism. The leatherette padding would have been time consuming – hence expensive – to do. A final guess from Al; it might have been made by Atari in Santa Clara at the Martin St. facility. The date codes on the chips match that time frame, and there was little production control over that facility, which might account for the missing Atari label.
Thanks to Al Alcorn, the monitor works and the game is as much fun as it was in 1973. Thanks to Brian Quan and Dave Cortesi for the photo sets. And our great thanks to Don Apte for this delightful little arcade game, which still poses unanswered questions.
But there’s one thing I’m sure of – this sweet little Pong was destined to come to us. After all, it has my name on it. ;)
This Month’s Trivia Questions
Watch our website for the answers next month!
Last Month’s Trivia Answers