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 write software that would run on standard microprocessors, you had to buy a microcomputer development system from Intel and National Semiconductor, at a cost of $15,000 to $25,000. As a tiny startup, MicroCosmos couldn’t afford that. So they built their game prototypes by hand-assembling hundreds of diodes or dozens of logic chips and LEDs. Later they put computer development boards in briefcases. “Our first games were just like the Apple I—a large board in a suitcase,” Doyle says. “I still have 25 of them in my basement.”

Holly built a game called PyschOut, where two players at the opposite ends of a row of LEDs would manipulate pairs of buttons to try to “pull” the lighted LED in their direction. There was also a game called MicroTennis with moving paddles (Atari made a similar game called Breakout). The action in each MicroCosmos game boiled down to manipulating buttons and lights, under a set of rules dictated by the program hard-coded into the logic array.

Eventually, the MicroCosmos crew figured out how to build games faster by simulating them inside an HP-65 calculator, which could run programs recorded on magnetic cards. Salem, MA-based Parker Brothers, which wanted to get into the electronic game business, hired the company to come up with game mechanics that would be compelling for toy buyers. They presented nearly 30 ideas, demonstrating some using the HP-65, and others using their homemade boards. Parker Brothers liked the demos so much, Doyle says, that they helped MicroCosmos buy a real development system, so they could start programming games for the 8-bit processors being built at the time by Intel, Texas Instruments, and National Semiconductor.

For their first handheld collaboration, MicroCosmos and Parker Brothers settled on a game with 11 buttons: a three-by-three array with one extra button above and one below. Each button would include a transparent plastic contact switch, with a red LED underneath. (“Texas Instruments Optolectronics loved us because they sold us 55 million of those red LEDs,” Doyle says. “We were right up there with the Department of Defense.”)

The prototype game was a white plastic box, Doyle says. It lacked charisma. “We soon came to the idea that it was going to be handheld,” he says. “We wanted it to have the feeling that you could just take it with you.” A Parker Brothers engineer named Arthur Venditti was responsible for the final look and feel of the device—the red plastic and the phone-like design.

Inside the device was a TMS1100 chip from Texas Instruments. It had 2 kilobytes of read-only memory—paltry by today’s standards, but enough to store the instructions for six games. Doyle’s team always knew tic-tac-toe would be one of the games, and for that reason the project had been code-named 3T.

But one night in late 1977, Doyle says, “a marketing VP took us out for dinner and said, ‘Stop talking about 3T. Parker Brothers will never publish a tic-tac-toe game; it’s just too obvious and boring.’” Only then did the team start brainstorming and focus-grouping more interesting names. The result was Merlin, The Electronic Wizard.

But before Parker Brothers could bring out a handheld game called Merlin, there was one more step, Doyle says. Competitor Milton Bradley was known to be working on its own electronic game. “There is a great fear in the toy business that two companies might come out with a product with the same name, after a huge amount of money has gone into getting that name ready,” he says. “So the VP of development for Parker Brothers and the VP of development for Milton Bradley have lunch a few months before the New York Toy Fair, when the new toys are introduced, and they write words down on a napkin. Those words are the names they are considering for their games. Should there be a collision they both take a deep breath and go back and do something different.”

Luckily, there was no collision between Merlin and Simon, and both games debuted at the 1978 Toy Fair. But there were some snide comparisons. After all, the copy-me game in Simon was also available on Merlin, but using nine keys and tones instead of four, making the Echo game much more challenging. And there were five other games besides. Says Doyle, “There were a lot of jokes about Simple Simon.”

Bob Doyle and Merlin. Newsweek's Christmas 1978 issue featured Simon and Merlin (painted blue).

Bob Doyle and Merlin. Newsweek’s Christmas 1978 issue featured Simon and Merlin (painted blue).

Other games on Merlin explored deeper concepts. “Not only did we want children to have a great experience with it, but we wanted to teach them something,” Doyle says. “We never wanted our games to be ‘educational.’ That is the death of a game. But we sneaked in a lot.”

In the game Magic Square, for example, the object was to light up the outer square of LEDs, from a random starting pattern. Hitting a corner buttons, the middle-side buttons, or the center button would each affect the surrounding lights differently. “So you have three operators that affect three, four, or five lights and you have to combine those to relight the square,” Doyle says. “It turns out those are fundamental notions in group theory, and the American Mathematical Society published a paper about how kids were using Merlin to learn group theory. So if the question is were we educating minds a little bit? Yeah, I think so.”

Doyle’s comments get at what was so influential about Merlin, and to a lesser extent Simon. They were teaching us what computers could and could not do. They were encouraging us to think a little more logically and strategically. They were showing us that a computer didn’t have to be a big box on a desk. And they were getting us ready for the day when we’d see computers as ever-present companions and communicators and research assistants—true electronic wizards.

I said as much during our talk. “A lot of people’s lives were affected by it; probably 25 million, with the hand-around,” says Doyle, who still gets one or two fan letters about Merlin every month. “I am hopeful that more of them had experiences like you, having a little fun but also getting comfortable with computing and absorbing ideas about math and game theory. That is certainly what we wanted to have happen.”

Parker Brothers guaranteed MicroCosmos a 5 percent royalty on every Merlin sold, and stuck to the deal, Doyle says. Consumers bought 5.5 million units before the game was discontinued in the mid-1980s. Doyle is coy about exactly how much MicroCosmos earned. Based on a retail price of $25, the total would have been around $6.8 million, but the actual number was lower, Doyle says, because the royalties were based on the wholesale price, and were reduced by various factors such as product returns.

(Ralph Baer and Howard Morrison, alas, got no royalties at all for inventing Simon, according to Doyle. Baer worked for a New Hampshire defense contractor and licensed the idea for Simon to Chicago-based toy design firm Marvin Glass and Associates, which in turn sold the idea to Milton Bradley.)

After Merlin, Doyle went on to produce a number of other electronic games, as well as the iXO Telecomputer, a handheld computer with a built-in modem that connected to a telephone line. After that idea failed, he and Holly and their son Rob created MacPublisher, the first desktop publishing program for the Apple Macintosh. Today Doyle mostly works on a huge website called The Information Philosopher, which outlines his ideas about the link between thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, and the emergence of information in the universe.

“I must thank you,” Doyle told me. “Your family is one of those who gave us the money to allow me to do all the things I have done ever since. I always say that when I have a project, I write a proposal to the Merlin Foundation, and they always come through for me. But the money came from people like you.”

For me, it’s nice to know that Doyle and his family didn’t miss out on the benefits of their inventions, the way people like Baer or Nikola Tesla or Philo Farnsworth did. The interactive handheld game genre that Doyle helped to pioneer has blossomed into a multi-billion-dollar industry. And if you ask me, the spirit of Merlin lives on inside every iPhone.

From YouTube:

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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.