Nolan Bushnell is a businessman and electrical engineer. He is known for cofounding Atari, Inc., and is considered one of the founding fathers of the video game industry because he laid the groundwork for the entire industry. He also founded the Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre chain.
Bushnell sought a buyer for Atari to acquire capital for a new console, and in 1976 Warner Communications acquired Atari, making Bushnell a millionaire. Bushnell was eventually terminated from Warner Bros. in November 1978, which he later considered liberating.
In 1981, Bushnell created Catalyst Technologies—a high-tech incubator—which funded visionary startups. The company streamlined the business administrative part (like acquiring funding, get lawyers, hire management, find a building and furniture, sign contracts, handle payroll) so the company could focus on the technology.
Bushnell was considered ahead of his time and most of the startups eventually dwindled. “A lot of these things were so far ahead of their time that either there wasn’t the market, or the technology wasn’t there to take it to the stop where it could be commercialized,” noted Bushnell’s lawyer and business partner Larry Calof. “For example, we were doing HDTV before HDTV really could be HDTV. We had an essence of a video phone working before you could do that with the technology that was available 15 years later.” The technology infrastructure to make the ideas practical in the early 1980s was missing.
Meanwhile, his Pizza Time Theatre had overextended itself by building too many franchises and in 1984 Pizza Time filed for bankruptcy and was acquired by a competitor.
Bushnell had funded his Androbot project too deeply and couldn’t keep Catalyst afloat. The company was gone by 1986.
Since then, Bushnell “pushed Bushnell-brand home video games (Atari, 1988), computer/TV integration (Aaps, 1989), multimedia learning (Commodore, 1991), business-wide computer messaging and telephone integration (Octus, 1993), internet jukeboxes (PlayNet, 1997), casual games (uWink, 1999), networked gaming restaurants (uWink Bistro, 2006), and online education (BrainRush, 2015). Most recently, he’s dipped into mobile gaming and virtual reality.”
- What keeps Bushnell going, after experiencing decades of both stunning heights and painful setbacks? “It’s really the belief that no matter what happens, as long as you’ve got your health and your family is good, you can always make it again,” he says. “Money is actually not that important in the scale of things. It’s the projects.”
Bushnell was born on February 5, 1943, and raised in Clearfield, Utah. He graduated from the University of Utah College of Engineering with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. He worked his way through college by working for several employers, including Lagoon Amusement Park, where he was made manager of the games department two seasons after starting. He “liked the concept of getting people curious about the [arcade games] [on the Midway] and from there getting them to pay the fee in order to play.”
He is the author of Finding the Next Steve Jobs. Jobs considered Bushnell a mentor and offered him the chance to buy into Apple. “In 1976, Steve Jobs went to Nolan to get him to put in some money in exchange for a minor equity stake in Apple. Nolan remarked, ‘Steve asked me if I would put $50,000 in and he would give me a third of the company. I was so smart, I said no. It's kind of fun to think about that, when I'm not crying.’” Bushnell was married to Paula Nielson and they had two children. After their divorce, he married Nancy Nino and they had six children. He was raised a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, although he no longer is an active member.