By Donna Loughlin
Not many people can say they helped create a $37 billion dollar industry, disrupted dozens of others and hired Steve Jobs — twice. Al Alcorn did all three, but it’s likely you’ve never heard of him.
San Francisco-born and Berkeley-educated, Al is a Silicon Valley pioneer who has been on the leading edge of countless major tech-industry developments over the last five decades. He’s the man behind Pong, the first-ever commercial video game. He was a driving force behind Atari’s first in-home gaming console, which essentially launched the video game industry. He also helped found Silicon Valley’s first tech incubator, where he advised scores of entrepreneurs as they developed their own world-changing innovations.
And then there was Steve Jobs.
Al is often credited as the man who launched the Apple co-founder’s career, giving Jobs his first gig in tech while leading Atari’s research and development team in the 1970s.
“We needed a tech and all of a sudden this hippie kid walks in — I guess he was 17 or 18 — and he had all of this passion and enthusiasm,” Al told me. “I figured he had to be cheap if he’s that age and he’s a hippie. If you had passion and were cheap, you got hired. And thank God I hired him.”
When Jobs and his friend Steve Wozniak first started working on what would eventually become the first Apple computer, Al became an early and informal advisor, even going as far as selling them Atari’s hardware at a discount. But he says he was skeptical that the average person would want or need a computer in their home.
“I didn’t think anything would come of this personal computer nonsense,” he says today. “Boy, was I wrong on that. But I was really close with them and I wanted to see how far it would go before it blew up.”
He may not have seen their original vision for Apple, but Al would eventually join the company himself in the 1980s — one of the many notable stops in his long career. Today, he is honored in the Computer History Museum and his work is displayed in both the Smithsonian Institute and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, something he finds both flattering and confounding.
“How the hell did that happen!” he said of Pong being displayed at the MoMA. “I never thought when I was a starving student at Cal fixing televisions that I’d be in the Museum of Modern Art. But I’ve been very fortunate. A lot of people smarter than me weren’t able to do [the things I did]. I was in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.”
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