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The History of Computing

199 EpisodesProduced by Charles EdgeWebsite

Computers touch all most every aspect of our lives today. We take the way they work for granted and the unsung heroes who built the technology, protocols, philosophies, and circuit boards, patched them all together - and sometimes willed amazingness out of nothing. Not in this podcast. Welcome to th… read more


The Tetris Negotiations

The Tetris Negotiations Welcome to the History of Computing Podcast, where we explore the history of information technology. Because understanding the past prepares us for the innovations of the future! Todays episode is on the origins of Tetris. I’ll never forget the first time I saw St. Basil’s as I was loading Tetris up. I’ll never get those hours back that I played it. Countless hours. So how did it all begin? OK, so check this out. It’s 1984. Los Angeles hosts the olympics and the Russians refuse to come. But then, the US had refused to come to Moscow when they had the Olympics. I am fairly certain that someone stuck their tongue out at someone else. It happens a lot in preschool. One may have even given the middle finger. That’s what middle school is named after, right? It was a recession. Microchips were getting cheap. And Digital Equipment Corporation’s PDP was one of the best computers ever made. It wasn’t exactly easy to come by in Russia though. The microcomputer was becoming a thing. And Alexey Pajitnov was working at the Dorodnitsyn Computing Centre of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. As with a lot of R&D places, they were experimenting with new computers. The Electronika 60 was so similar to the PDP that DEC chip designers printed jokes on chips just for Russians looking to steal their chip designs. They actually managed to get a quarter million ops per second 5 VLSI chips with 8k of RAM. They needed to do some random number generation and visualization. Good ole’ Alexey was told to write some software to test the Electronika. He thought, ya’ know, I should do a game. The beauty of writing games is that they can be math intensive, so perfect for benchmarking. But what kind of game? When he was a kid, he’d loved to play pentomino games. That’s a game where there are 5 squares connected in one of 12 ways. Reduce that to 4 and it’s 7. The thing is, when you have 5 the math was a little too intense. And it was a little easier with 4 blocks. He drew them on the screen in ascii and had the tetraminos fall down the screen. The games ended pretty quick, so he added an additional feature that deleted rows once they were complete. Then, he sped the falling speed up as you cleared a level. You had to spin your puzzle pieces faster, the further you got. And once you’re addicted, you turn and turn and turn and turn. No frills, just fun. It needed a name though. Since you’re spinning 4 blocks or Greet for tetras, it seemed like it got mashed up with tennis for tetraminiss. No, tetraminoss. Wait, cut a syllable here and there and you get to Tetris. They have 7 shapes, ijlostz. The IBM PC version ran with the I as maroon, the j as silver, the l as purple, the o as navy, the green is s, the brown is t, the teal is z. He got a little help from help of Dmitry Pavlovsky and 16 year old programming whiz, Vadim Gerasimov. Probably because they were already hopelessly addicted to the game. They ported it to the fancy schmancy IBM PC in about two months, and it started to spread around Moscow. By now, his coworkers are freakin’ hooked. This was the era of disk sharing. And disks were certainly being shared. But it didn’t stop there. It leaked out all over the place, making its way to Budapest, where it ended up on a machine at British-based game maker Andromeda. CEO Robert Stein sends a Telex to Dmitry Pavlovsky. He offers 75% royalties on sales and $10,000. Pretty standard stuff so far, but this is where it gets fun. So Pavlovsky responds that they should maybe negotiate a contract. But Andromeda had already sold the rights to spectrum holobyte and so attempted to license the software from the Hungarian developers that did the porting. Then realized that was dumb and went back to the negotiating table, getting it done for “computers.” All license deals went through the USSR at the time, and the Russian government was happy to take over the contract negotiations. So the USSR's Ministry of Software and Hardware Export gets involved. Through a company they setup for this called Elektronorgtechnica or ELORG, they negotiated the contract and did. That’s how by 87 Tetris spreads to the US. In fact, Tetris was the first game released from ussr to USA and was for Commodore 64 and IBM PC. It was so simple it was sold as a budget title. Apple II package came with three versions on three disks, 5.25 inch, not copy protected yet. Can you say honor system. In 1988, Henk Rogers discovers Tetris at a trade show in Vegas and gets all kinds of hooked. Game consoles had been around for a long time, and anyone who paid attention knew that a number of organizations around the world were looking to release handhelds. Now, Old Henk was the Dutch video game designer behind a role playing game called The Black Onyx and had been looking for his next thing and customers. When he saw Tetris, he knew it was something special. He also knew the Game Boy was coming and thought maybe this was the killer game for the platform. He did his research and contacted Stein from Andromeda to get the rights to make a version for mobiles. Stein was into it but wasn’t on the best of terms with the Russian government because he was a little late in his royalty payments. Months went by. Henk didn’t hear back. Spectrum HoloByte got wind as well and sent Kevin Maxwell to Moscow to get the rights. Realizing his cash cow was getting in danger, old Stein from Andromeda also decided to hop on a plane and go to Moscow. They each met with the Russians separately in about a three day span. Henk Rogers is a good dude. As a developer who’d been dealing with rights to his own game, he decided the best way to handle the Russians was to actually just lay out how it all worked. He gave them a crash course in the evolving world of computer vs mobile license agreements in an international world. The Russians showed him their contracts with Andromeda. He told them how it should all really be. They realized Andromeda wasn’t giving them the best of deals. Henk also showed them a game that there’s no rights deal for. Whether all this was intentionally screwing the other parties or not is for history, but by the time he walked out he’d make a buck per copy that went on the Gameboy. There was other wrangling with the other two parties including an incident where the Russians sent a fax they knew Maxwell couldn’t get in order to get out of a clause in a contract. This all set up a few law suits and resulted in certain versions in certain countries shipping then being pulled back off the shelf. Fun times. But because of it all, in 1989 the Game Boy was released. Henk was right, Tetris turned out to be the killer app for the platform. Until Minecraft came along it was the most popular game of all time, selling over 30 million copies. And ranked #5 in the 100 best Nintendo games. It was the first Game Boy game that came with the ability to link up to other Game Boys and you could play against your friends. Back then you needed to use a cable to coop. The field was 10 wide and 18 high in game boy and it was set to music from Nintendo composer Hirokazu Tanaka. The Berlin Wall is torn down in 1989. I suspect that was part of the negotiations with Game Boy. Can you imagine Gorbetrev and Reagan with their Game Boys linked up playing Tetris for hours over the fate of Germany? ‘Cause I can. You probably think there were much more complicated negotiations taking place. I do not. I tend to think Reagan’s excellent Tetris skills ended the Cold War. So Pajitnov’s friend Vladimir Pokhilko had done some work on the game as well and in 1989. He ran psychological experiments using the game and with that research, the two would found a company called AnimaTek. They would focus on 3D software, releasing El-fish through Maxis. While Tetris had become the most successful game of all time, Pokhilko was in a dire financial crisis and would commit suicide. There’s more to that story but it’s pretty yuck so we’ll leave it at that. Pajitnov, the original developer, finally got royalties in 1996 when the Parastroika agreement ended. Because Henk Rogers had been a good dude, they formed The Tetris Company together to manage licensing of the game. Pajitnov went to work at Microsoft in 1996, working on games. The story has become much more standard since then. Although in 2012 the US Court on International Trade responded to some requests to shut competitors down noting that the US Copyright didn’t apply to rules of game and so Tetris did file other patents and trademarks to limit how close competitors could get to the original game mechanics. After studying at the MIT Media Lab, that 16 year old programmer, Vadim Gerasimov went to become an engineer at Google. Henk Rogers serves as the Managing Director of The Tetris Company. Since designing Tetris, Pajitnov has made a couple dozen other games, with Marbly on iOS being the latest success. It needs a boss button. Tetris has been released on arcade games, home consoles, mobile devices, pdas, music players, computers, Oscilloscope Easter eggs and I’m pretty sure it now has its own planet or 4. It probably owes some of its success to the fact that it makes people smarter. Dr Richard hayer claims Tetris leads to more efficient brain activity. Boosts general cognitive abilities. Improved cerebral cortex thickness. If my cortex were thicker I’d probably research effects of games as a means of justifying the countless hours I wanted to spend on them too. So that’s the story of Tetris. It ended the Cold War, makes you smarter, and now Alexy gets a cut of every cent you spend on it. So he’ll likely thank you for your purchase. Just as I thank you for tuning in to another episode of the History of Computing Podcast. We’re so very lucky to have you. Have a great day! Now back to my game!

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