Bob Doyle and the Magic of Merlin, the First Mobile Game

Xconomy National — 

If you sat down to make a list of the key turning points in the history of mobile computing, you’d definitely have to include 2007, the year Apple released the iPhone. Its glowing touchscreen became a personalized portal to our friends, to the Web, and to hundreds of thousands of games and other specialized apps. With the iPhone, Steve Jobs showed us that a phone could be so much more than a brick that you talk into.

But I’d argue that the key transition, the moment when computers started to feel portable and personal, actually came earlier. Much earlier. In 1978, in fact.

That’s the year rival toymakers Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley introduced Merlin and Simon, a pair of portable electronic games that engaged players using a combination of sounds, lighted buttons, and simple math and memory games. I’m going to tell you a little bit about my own experiences with Merlin and Simon as a kid, but my real agenda is to look at how these early handheld devices changed the way we think about computing. And for help, I’m going to turn to Merlin’s co-inventor, Bob Doyle, a Harvard-trained astrophysicist who worked at NASA during the Apollo-Skylab days.

Doyle built Merlin together with his wife Holly Thomis Doyle and her brother Wendl Thomis. Simon, meanwhile, was invented by video game pioneer Ralph Baer and toy designer Howard Morrison. The two games came out simultaneously and had similar price tags of $25, or about $90 in today’s dollars. Alongside the first-generation video game consoles from Magnavox and Atari, which had reached the market a few years earlier, they helped introduce millions of people to the idea that computers could be fun to use, and maybe even educational.

I was 11 years old when the games came out. I’ve still got my vintage Merlin and Simon units, gifts from my awesome parents to a young gadget-geek-in-training.

Simon was cool, but it was a one-trick pony, suitable for kids with too much concentration at their disposal. It was a memory game where the four colorful buttons lit up in an ever-longer sequence of lights and tones. As the player your goal was to memorize the sequence and play it back. The game ended when you made a mistake. (That’s probably a bad bit of game mechanics, by the way: you always fail in the end, no matter how much you succeed along the way.)

I spent way more time playing with Merlin, for several reasons. First, it was programmed to play five games instead of one. The games included tic-tac-toe, blackjack, “Magic Square,” “Mindbender,” and “Echo,” which was similar to Simon. There was also a program called Music Machine that would record and play back your own short compositions. Second, you could actually beat it. Third, Merlin just looked cooler, and felt more natural in your hands. It looked a little like a Trimline touch-tone phone, but with the bright red color of the Batphone and some industrial grooves that made it look like it’d be at home inside the Jawa sandcrawler from Star Wars: Episode IV.

Recently I’ve been trying to get my old Simon and Merlin devices working again, with mixed success. The problem is that a much younger and stupider me put the games in storage in a hot attic sometime in the 1980s without removing the batteries. They leaked, and the corrosion destroyed the battery contacts and some attached wiring.

After a trip to Radio Shack and some kitchen experiments involving sodium bicarbonate and acetic acid (see the photo below), both units are now working intermittently. But they won’t stay on long enough to help me accomplish my original goal, which was to make a video proving to the under-30 crowd that there were portable computer games before the smartphone era. Instead I’ve appended a couple of charming videos from YouTube at the end of this article.

Simon and Merlin disassembled for cleaning.

Simon and Merlin disassembled for cleaning.

All this tinkering got me thinking about the long road leading to today’s electronic Elysium, with gadgets like smartphones and tablets and Playstations and Xboxes offering enough information and entertainment to fill our every waking moment. I can still remember a time, let’s say the early 1970s, when books came on paper; when music came on vinyl records, cassettes, or the radio; when broadcast TV was the only form of video; when “games” meant chess or checkers or Monopoly; and when office machines like typewriters, cash registers, and adding machines were noisy electromechanical beasts.

Then everything changed. Companies like Intel and Texas Instruments and National Semiconductor figured out how to make integrated circuits that were cheap enough to put into devices for the consumer and business markets. And pretty soon we had VCRs and CD players and scientific calculators and Walkmans and the Apple IIe and all the rest.

Merlin and Simon and Pong were on the vanguard of this change. To get an inside view of the revolution from someone who helped to bring it about, I called up Doyle, who is now 77 and lives in Cambridge, MA. These days he’s working on a book about the role of information in philosophy and physics.

“The notion of the mind as a computer, or of a computer intelligence, has fascinated me my whole life,” Doyle says. With Merlin, he says, he felt he was “providing a kind of interaction with a form of artificial intelligence.”

Doyle got his astrophysics degree in 1968 and spent a few years working for NASA, where he helped ground-based observatories synchronize their cameras with a telescope mounted on the Skylab space station. After Skylab, anti-nepotism rules kept Doyle and his wife Holly from getting convenient academic jobs at the same university, so he became an inventor instead, starting with a synchronous sound recorder for Super8 film cameras.

That involved some custom electronics design work. “Super8 Sound didn’t make enough money to make us independent, but I thought these chips could be used to do something intelligent,” Doyle recounts. “At that time I was an unbeliever in the personal computer. I thought if there were computer chips around us, they’d be in things like intelligent thermostats. But I realized Honeywell probably wanted to do that. So we decided to go in a direction that would be creative, and put a computer into a game.”

In 1977 the Doyles and Holly’s brother Wendl formed a game development studio called MicroCosmos. At the time, if you wanted to … Next Page »

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7 responses to “Bob Doyle and the Magic of Merlin, the First Mobile Game”

  1. Brian Kovacevich says:

    I had a Merlin and I spent many, many hours playing it. I wish I still had it! I loved the sounds.

    • James Childress says:

      My parents bought me one for Christmas the year it came out. That was one of the coolest gifts I remember getting as a kid. It was good that despite all the bells and whistles that the batteries lasted a long time before needing a change. Battery requirements tended to be the achilles heel of many electronic toys for years.

  2. jbm says:

    tomy’s blip:the digital game, mattel’s auto race and football, and coleco’s electronic quarterback also deserve a mention. I think they were all 1977?

    • Atari Book says:

      Yes, the author was way off on that claim. Mobile electronic games first appeared in 1976 with Mattel’s Auto Race.

  3. jonbme says:

    I absolutely loved Merlin as a kid.

  4. Dustin Brantley says:

    You’re wrong about Simon. Each level did have an ending which rewarded you with lots of flashing lights. Even if it didn’t, whats wrong with a game of seeing how far you can go and comparing your score with yourself or others? (flappybird anyone)

  5. schitlipz says:

    Had it, loved it, would play it right now.