Ted Dabney (left) and Nolan Bushnell (right) with a Pong cabinet.
Image: Computer History Museum

Ted Dabney, the co-founder of Atari alongside Nolan Bushnell, has died at the age of 81.

News of Dabney’s death was announced in a Facebook post by the video game historian Leonard Herman, the author of the Phoenix series of video game history books.

Dabney was an important figure in the history of both Atari and video games in general, and his engineering work in the early 1970s was crucial in creating Computer Space, the second (but more successful) coin-operated adaptation of Spacewar!, which paved the way for the founding and thriving of Atari.

In a portion of an interview quoted in Tristan Donovan’s Replay: The History of Video Games, Nolan Bushnell credits Dabney with most of the technical accomplishments of Computer Space.

“We were good friends and Ted had a lot of analogue computer skills I didn’t have,” said Bushnell. “I was a digital guy. I knew how to deal with bits and bytes and logic and things like that and Ted really understood a lot more about how to interface with a consumer television set and power supplies and things like that.”

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In 1972, Dabney and Bushnell pivoted the success of their early arcade cabinet into a broader venture by each investing $250 in startup funding in what became Atari Incorporated. Dabney departed the company in 1973, only a year later, and in Donovan’s telling it was “because he disliked running a large business,” which Atari had become due to the skyrocketing popularity of their Pong cabinet released in late 1972. Dabney sold his portion of Atari ownership to Bushnell for $250,000.

Dabney himself didn’t characterize it as a move he necessarily wanted to make. In an oral history interview with the Computer History Museum published in 2012, Dabney explained that Bushnell had pushed him out of the business:

“There’s stories that came around after that. But that was the end of me with it, with Atari. ‘Cause it was just— well, actually Nolan had told me that if I didn’t sell out he would transfer all the assets to another corporation and leave me with nothing anyway. So, you know, might as well sell out. <laughs>”

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According to Dabney, the two co-founders remained friends despite their business relationship, and in the late 1970s Dabney built some of the games for Bushnell’s post-Atari business Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theater.

In his career after that period, Dabney performed computer engineering work at various companies like Raytheon and Teledyne before purchasing and operating a grocery store alongside his wife for several years, after which he moved to Washington until his death.

Ted Dabney was an integral part of the early video game industry, and he literally assembled some of the hardware from which this industry was built with his own two hands. Not many people can lay claim to that kind of legacy.