Game changers: Nolan Bushnell

February 4, 1943 – ?


Steve Jobs Persona

Nolan K Bushnell is best known for being a founding member of Atari 2600, a very popular video game console from the late 1970s. Bushnell, unlike other computer pioneers, greatly diversified after selling Atari having started some twenty companies including Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza-Time Theaters chain.

In 1968, Bushnell graduated from the University of Utah College with an electrical engineering degree. He was one of many computer science students of the 1960s who played the historic Spacewar game. It was played on a DEC mainframe and is what gave Bushnell the idea of developing a computer game company.


Nolan Bushnell

Above: Nolan Bushnell


Bushnell was raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but is no longer an active member. A 1999 Time article described him as a “lapsed Mormon” and described him smoking a pipe, which is frowned upon in the LDS community.


In 1971, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney formed Syzygy. Their mission was to produce a Spacewar clone and call it Computer Space.


Young Nolan Bushnell

Above: Young Nolan Bushnell


Ted Dabney built the prototype for the game and Bushnell made an agreement with Nutting Associates to develop the cabin ate and architecture. However, Computer Space was a commercial failure, with only $3 million in sales. Bushnell felt that Nutting Associates had not marketed the game well, and decided that his next game would be licensed to a bigger manufacturer.

Atari Inc.

In 1972, Bushnell and Dabney incorporated Atari. Atari’s first office was in Sunnyvale, California and their first product was a driving game.

In 1975, Atari set up to build a game console. Bushnell got the idea after seeing the Magnavox Odyssey. By 1976 Atari was focused full force on developing the Atari Video Computer System (VCS), later renamed the Atari 2600.


Atari Video Computer System - VCS 2600

Above: Atari Video Computer System – VCS 2600


After a short while developing the Atari VCS, In 1977, Bushnell sold Atari to Warner Communications for $28 million. This gave Bushnell the capital he required to pursue the Atari 2600 and games required to support the console.

However, In November 1978, after a dispute with Warner, Bushnell was forced out of the company. Bushnell and Warner disagreed on the lifespan of the Atari 2600 and their closed software strategy.

By 1982, Atari had US$2 billion in annual sales and was the fastest-growing company in the history of American business. By 1984, the company had crashed and was split into three pieces to be sold off. The coin-op division became Atari Games. The Consumer division was sold to Jack Tramiel, who folded it into his Tramel Technology, Ltd., which was then renamed Atari Corporation. The budding Ataritel division was sold to Mitsubishi Electric.

Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre

In 1977, while at Atari, Nolan Bushnell purchased Pizza Time Theatre from Warner Communications. It was as a place where kids could go and eat pizza and play video games, which would therefore function as a distribution channel for Atari games.

Catalyst Technologies Venture Capital Group

Bushnell founded the Catalyst Technologies. The Catalyst Group companies included Androbot, Etak, Cumma, and Axlon. Axlon launched many consumer and consumer electronic products like AG Bear, a bear that mumbled/echoed a child’s words back to him/her. Etak, founded in 1984, was the first company to digitize the maps of the world, as part of the first commercial automotive navigation system; the maps ultimately provided the backbone for Google maps,


In the mid ’90s Nolan Bushnell became senior consultant to the small game developer Play Net after it was bought under the name Arista. Play Net developed a touchscreen interface bar-top/arcade system that would also provide internet access, phone calls, and online networked tournaments. The company died shortly before the dot com bubble burst with its prototype machines still in development in 1997.


Bushnell’s most recent company is uWink is a new interactive entertainment restaurant called the uWink Media Bistro, whose concept builds off his Chuck E. Cheese
Atari, SA


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