Developing a little further the story of Making Pictures Move and the tale of convergence that is Bringing the Digital World Alive, we shall have a quick peek at what was going on in the middle of the 20th century.

The development of electric ‘cathode ray displays’ – that is, CRT (Cathode RayTube) displays meant that it became possible to create electronic images on a small screen directly, rather than projecting light through a series of rapidly changing fixed film images on a movie reel. If you have ever seen a traditional oscilloscope, this a CRT in it’s ‘simplest’ guise.


This new media was soon appropriated by experimental digital artists such as John Whitney. Here’s a video of his 1961 showreel: “Catalog”.

Whitney pioneered techniques in the creation of both digital imagery and electronic music. If you search for “John Whitney” on Youtube you are sure to turn up several other examples of his work.

If you search a little more widely, you may also turn up Whitney’s essay Computational Periodics, in which he writes:

We may assume that a time will come when that which I am about to describe will name itself—but for now: ‘Computational periodics’ is a propositional and tentative term which may help to designate a new unified field for a heterodimensional art; a field whose special dimension is time. An art which is temporal, as music itself; being, that is, spatio-temporal. An art whose time has come because of computer technology and an art which could not exist before the computer.

As we shall see later, creating soundtracks for computer games has required innovations in the composition of repeating elements that may have to play for many minutes, even hours, and early scrolling background imagery also used to require repeating elements. I wonder too, whether ‘games’ like flow, which I introduced In the Beginning…, may be said to demonstrate some sort of “computational periodicity”?

As well as artists, of course, came play. If you remember the game Pong, either from way back when, (or more recently from the Understanding Games tutorial I introduced in So What is a Game?, and reviewed in Thoughts on the ‘Understanding Games Tutorial, Episode 1′!) this game may seem familiar:

‘Tennis for Two’ is often claimed as the earliest ‘video game’, dating back to 1958, and created as an entertaining diversion for visitors to the Brookhaven National Laboratory, and intended to demonstrate some an analogue computer working with a CRT display. (To this day, much of the most exciting university research demos are put together for visitor open days!) You can read more about it here – The First Video Game – and here: Video Games – Did They Begin at Brookhaven?. If you do follow the links, about how long did it take to put the demo together? ;-)

The other game that competes for the mantle of first computer game is Space War (1962):

What was the aim of Space War? What might a design document for it look like?

This review of the Space War ‘project’ has some interesting things to say about the design brief that informed the creation of the game: SpaceWar! – the First Computer Game.

What guidelines did the design team adopt regarding what the game should achieve? To what extent have the games you have created with Game Maker so far conformed to the guidelines? ;-)

PS I bundled the movies from this post together into a show on the Digital Worlds Splashcast video channel


4 Responses to ““Oscilloscopy””

  1. 1 Tony Hirst March 21, 2008 at 10:18 am

    You can find out a little more about how Whitney created the pieces shown in the ‘Catalog’ showreel from here:

    “Digital Harmony: The Life of John Whitney, Computer Animation Pioneer”

    An interesting history of computer graphics, including interviews with some of its pioneers, can be found here:
    “A Critical History of Computer Graphics and Animation”

  2. 2 Tony Hirst March 22, 2008 at 6:56 pm

    In the funny old way the net works, someone who commented elsewhere ( http://createdigitalmotion.com/2008/03/20/videos-from-the-dawn-of-video-mechanical-effects-and-oscilloscope-games/ ) about this post had a comment that pointed to this example of a contemporary oscilloscope artwork by Robin Fox: http://www.eyebeam.org/reblog/archives/2007/08/robin_fox_and_his_oscilliscope.html

    I’ve added it to the Oscilloscopy show on the Digital Worlds video channel…

    Following the related video links, I aslo came across a piece by Ray Sweeten ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l7ApYtQ5S7o ) that I also added to the show…

  3. 3 Tony Hirst March 23, 2008 at 8:04 pm

    A couple more oscilloscope art links, this time from http://aeportal.blogspot.com/2008/03/motion-graphics-1961.html , which also links to a springboard post about “Visual music and motion graphics” ( http://aeportal.blogspot.com/2007/10/visual-music-and-motion-graphics.html ), a phrase coined by John Whitney to describe the mechanisms he used to create works such as Catalog (and also used as the named of his company).

    Firstly, James Whitney’s Lapis from 1966: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kzniaKxMr2g

    Secondly, a lionk to ‘Oscilloclast’, “a growing body of work [in which] [i]mage and sound are delivered as a singular, dense experience. Electricity is shaped into audio wave forms of harmonic oscillation and noise, which also drive the video emissions of hue, tone and rhythm.”


  1. 1 Create Digital Motion » Videos from the Dawn of Video: Mechanical Effects and Oscilloscope Games Trackback on March 21, 2008 at 12:53 am

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