How Atari Sent Steve Jobs On a Spiritual Quest to India

At his talk at GDC Online in Austin, Atari founder Nolan Bushnell talked about a wide variety of things, among which was Apple founder Steve Jobs, who he hired back in 1974. (For a complete story, see this great article at Gamasutra. "I gave Steve Jobs his first job," Bushnell said, "That's an interesting resume line."

Near the end of the talk, Bushnell was asked if he had any good Jobs anecdotes, and he obliged with the following tale, which went from Breakout to India, and beyond.

"Steve Jobs worked for me when he was 19 years old," he said. "He was a very, very, smart and difficult person. I had designed this game called Breakout, and it was a time that people thought that paddle games were over. It's funny how collective wisdom is often wrong.

"I couldn't get any of my engineers [on board with the project]" Bushnell owned most of Atari, but said he believed in an "Egalitarian thing." Despite not having the engineers on board, he really wanted to get Breakout done.

"Steve was about to be fired because he didn't work well with others. So I said, 'I will put you on the engineering night shift,' which we didn't actually have…. but I always felt that no matter how prickly someone was, it was worth working around.

"[Jobs] actually offered me a chance to be a part of Apple for $50,000, and I brilliantly said no. I've regretted that from time to time."

"Breakout was a big hit for us. We had a problem in Germany with the game [and needed someone to go and help fix it]. Steve wanted to go to India to spend some time with an Indian Swami of some sort. But he said 'I'll do it, but can I fly to Germany from India?"

Bushnell said yes. "Atari actually paid his way to India, where he spent a few months seeing the light, and actually got a blood disease." After Jobs went on to Germany, he came back, left Atari, and started Apple computer.

Says Bushnell, "[Jobs] actually offered me a chance to be a part of Apple for $50,000, and I brilliantly said no. I've regretted that from time to time," he said with a chuckle.

In closing, Bushnell had this to say: "Steve has always been a good friend, and a great visionary, and actually a really nice man. I've heard people say that he has difficulty with things, but the reality is that when I say prickly… Steve did not abide fools gladly. And I think that's okay. I think we've got way too many fools."

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