An
Interview with Nolan Bushnell
Photo of Nolan Bushnell
Interview by Joyce Gemperlein, San Jose Mercury News; and Tenaya Scheinman, Senior, Menlo School

Photos by Len Lahman, San Jose Mercury News
Transcribed by Jean Ricket, Tech Museum volunteer


Tenaya
Scheinman
He is arguably the father of computer entertainment.

Nolan Bushnell founded Atari in 1972 and subsequently launched the video-game revolution with Pong. He sold Atari in 1976 for $28 million, and the following year opened the first Chuck E. Cheese's restaurant, which combines fast food and electronic games and amusements.

He sold that, too, and since has been involved in several projects and start-ups.

Scheinman: Is there a time you can trace in your life when you isolate out the spark that got you started? When you knew what you were going to be doing?
Bushnell: Yes. The spark was ignited in Mrs. Cook's 3rd grade class when I was assigned to do the unit on electricity and got to play with the science box. And I put together this thing and showed the classmates. And I went home, set up the card table, found all the flashlights and batteries and pieces of wire and old stuff around the house and started tinkering, and never stopped.

I went home, set up the card table, found all the flashlights and batteries and pieces of wire and old stuff around the house and started tinkering, and never stopped.
Scheinman: You grew up in Utah and your father died when you were 15. Were you sort of the man of the house then?
Bushnell: Yes, I was. In fact, I closed my father's business down at 15. He was a cement contractor and had several contracts that were still outstanding, and I finished those contracts, ran the crew, and finished it up before I started school that fall... It was extremely hard, all of a sudden going from childhood to adulthood in 24 hours.
Scheinman: You worked in an amusement park as a teenager?
Bushnell: Actually, I worked in the amusement park as a young man. I didn't really start until I think I was 19. That was to have a second job. I was actually selling advertising for my own company during the day, but I thought the best way to keep me from spending money was to have another job at night, and one that was kind of fun. So I decided that the amusement park would be great. And it turned out that I had a knack for it. And even though it looked like there wasn't that much money to be earned, there was a lot of commission. And I found out that I could make a lot of money based on the commission, selling balls to knock down the bottles. And later on, they made me manager of the department. And it was kind of like an MBA, on-the-job training.
Gemperlein: It's been written about you that one of your strongest points is your curiosity. Where does that come from?
Bushnell: I don't know. Curiosity is something that I've always had. But I wanted to do things, and see things and kind of know it all. Know everything. Or know a little bit about everything.

...I graduated with an engineering degree and didn't get a job offer from Disney. Because I thought that would be the cool place to work.
Scheinman: You mentioned Mrs. Cook's 3rd grade class. Did you have any other mentors throughout your education or your life that sort of helped you?
Bushnell: Yes. I had a fellow who was a ham radio operator down the street who taught me a lot about radios and electronics. I had my boss at the amusement park who taught me a tremendous amount about business. I had Dr. Evans at the University of Utah, who taught me a lot about computer graphics at a very early age.

I think that for a long time I looked at Walt Disney as having a very, very interesting life and was very unhappy when I graduated with an engineering degree and didn't get a job offer from Disney. Because I thought that would be the cool place to work.

Gemperlein: You think they threw your application away?

Bushnell: I guess.

Gemperlein: I bet they're sorry now.