[SIGCIS-Members] Update on SpaceWar!/Spacewar

thomas.haigh at gmail.com thomas.haigh at gmail.com
Wed Jul 15 22:53:11 PDT 2020



I had some good off-list replies, so here's a wrap up for the benefit of the


We've decided to use "Spacewar" in the text, with a note or parenthetical
aside that Steve Russell prefers the name with an exclamation point. Eagle
eyed readers may note that this is a slight variation from my original
suggestion of noting that Spacewar! is the "official name." That's because a
couple of responses have made me wonder what "official" would even mean. We
already knew the game became famous in the 1970s and 1980s as "Spacewar". We
also have a generally accepted idea that Steve Russell is on the record as
liking the title more with the exclamation point. 


Peggy Kidwell of the National Museum of American History pointed me towards
this catalog entry for a 1962 paper tape.
https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1064201 That's
just one year after the game was written. According to the catalog, "in
compartment B - Friden Business Systems - Tape-Talk, X Good Space War. Also
marked in punches: SPACEWAR 3.1 24 SEP 62 PT. 1" So it was written for
humans as "Space War" and coded on the tape itself as "SPACEWAR". The tape
was a gift from DEC itself, which makes sense as DEC is said to have been
instrumental in spreading the game to show off and diagnose its display


Arthur Daemmrich at the Lemelson Center was also kind enough to look into
this. He supplied me with a DEC brochure that used the game to sell the
PDP-1. The cover gives the name as "SPACE/WAR" (on two lines) and the
interior calls it both "SPACEWAR" and "Spacewar." I was able to find a copy
of the brochure here:

Arthur also raised the question with one of the original MIT programmers of
the game, who did not recall the exclamation point being an integral part of
the name. (I'm reluctant to share the full message without permission).


I found a detailed technical examination of the game by Norbert Landsteiner
at https://www.masswerk.at/spacewar/inside/. The author calls it Spacewar!
throughout, but there is a suggestion that the filenames holding the binary
contents of the original paper tapes, such as "spacewar2B_2apr.bin" are
transcriptions of the labels on the original tapes. These do not contain the
point. (Full list at https://www.masswerk.at/spacewar/sources/) The site
also mentions code to punch "SPACEWAR" into tape headers.


Since paper tapes didn't have a filename, the filename of the digital image
would have presumingly been derived from a handwritten label, right at the
start of the tape. Apparently, someone had written "Spacewar SA 5" on the
tape. (Or, since there was a little program to punch a pattern reading
"SPACEWAR" onto a tape, it might have been the title-punch and a handwritten
"SA 5".)


Finally, Arthur also sent an early article on the game, from Creative
Computing in 1981. This _does_ include the exclamation point in the game's
title and is thus the earliest recorded usage of it we've so far stumbled
on. Chronologically this is between Brand's 1972 article and Levy's 1984
book. See
https://archive.org/details/creativecomputing-1981-08/page/n59/mode/2up. The
author, J.M. Graetz, was another of the MIT group behind the game. There's
an earlier report by Graetz in the 1962 DECUS proceedings:
http://bitsavers.org/pdf/dec/decus/confProceedings/DECUS_1962.pdf in which
the name does have the point but is also capitalized: "SPACEWAR!"


So putting it all together: "Spacewar!" is the preferred name for at least
some of the members of the original hacker collective that produced the game
at MIT and (as "SPACEWAR!") has been on record as such since 1962. On the
other hand, it is not clear that the point was ever part of the name as
written on the MIT program tapes holding the game or used when the name was
punched as a header onto the tape. We _do_ have clear evidence that the
PDP-1 game as distributed and advertised by DEC was called "Spacewar" with
no point. So that would seem to be the "official" name to describe its use
and influence beyond MIT. As using the name sometimes with and sometimes
without the point depending on context would be confusing we'll standardize
on the pointless DEC/Levy/Brand version of the name for the purposes of our
book. Some of you may also feel that "pointless" is a good summary of this


Best wishes,







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