Samuel Dabney, known by friends and colleagues as Ted, passed away on May 26th. A co-founder of Atari along with Nolan Bushnell, Dabney provided the technical expertise that helped shift video games from computer labs to bars and arcades. It’s almost impossible to understate just how important his contributions to the medium are.
Born in 1937 in San Francisco, CA, Dabney would serve in the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating high school. After finishing his service he went to work for Bank of America after lacking the funds to attend San Francisco State University. A year later he would leave to work with Hewlett-Packard and then moved on to work for Ampex, an electronics company in Redwood City. It was there that he met Nolan Bushnell, the man he would go on to create Atari with.
Bushnell, impressed with Dabney’s work ethic and technical skill, would become friends with Dabney, sharing with him his ideas for making a pizza place with animatronics and games. The two would later witness the computer systems at the Stanford Artificial Technology Laboratory, and from that were inspired to create smaller computers or video systems to operate games.
In 1971 the pair left Ampex, founding Syzygy, later named Atari, and began work on their first project. Dabney, using old television parts, managed to create an interactive motion system that allowed games to operate on a standard television set. At this point in time video games required computers, which could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, to operate. This breakthrough allowed games to operate out of screens in cabinets for a fraction of the cost, essentially launching the arcade industry.
The first game created by Atari, named Computer Space, ended up selling poorly. Despite this, the two continued on, and a year later they hit pay dirt. Instructed by Bushnell to use Dabney's circuitry, Atari employee Allan Alcorn created Pong. The game was a massive success, being placed in bars throughout the country. Atari skyrocketed nearly overnight.
Sadly, this massive growth had a sour effect upon the friendship of Bushnell and Dabney, and in 1973 the latter sold his shares to Bushnell for $250,000. Ted would continue to work in electrical engineering, even working with Bushnell again a few years later, helping create Chuck E. Cheese’s. He also opened a grocery store with his wife in the 1990’s.
If not for Dabney, the video game industry as it is today very well may not exist. Because of his work, games were able to become a viable business, paving the way for others throughout the years. Despite this Dabney was always known to be humble, never overblowing his accomplishments. He is survived by his wife Carolyn, and daughters Pamela and Terri.