A journey through the history of video games and interactive digital entertainment.

1941: Nim machine

Only rediscovered quite recently, a device designed by Dr. Raymond M. Redheffer at M.I.T. in 1941 and improved upon in 1942 could very well be the first instance of interactive electronic entertainment ever devised. The machine, to be publicly demonstrated not before 1948, played the traditional game of Nim perfectly against a human player.

Nim is a very simple combinatorial game that was the focus of several early experiments related to computer and video games (see also the earlier Nimatron,) because an automatic opponent can be so easily implemented. At the beginning of a round there is a certain number of objects—usually matches—from which players take turns to remove a certain number. Depending on the rules played, the object is either to be the player to remove the last object, or force the other player to do so (i.e., leaving only one match on the table for the other player’s turn). Commonly played setups include the objects being divided amongst 3 piles and players taking as many objects as they want from one single pile per turn; or all objects (usually 21) being on a single pile with players taking between 1 and 3 per turn.

Once understood, the game’s predictability means that it is easy to play a perfect strategy by always striving for “safe positions”. Given a specific initial setup and both players knowing this strategy, the matter of which player will win is simply a question of which player is allowed to take the first turn. While this simplicity led to Nim being the first game that humans were able to play against an automatic device, it also means that it loses its charm quite quickly. A player either knows the perfect strategy, in which case the games are entirely predictable, or they don’t, in which case they will always lose until they learn it.

It is the simple mathematical description of the game that has led Dr. Redheffer, as he states in his 1948 article in The American Mathematician Monthly (Vol. 55 No. 6, Jun/Jul 1948), to seek to implement it in an electronic circuit. The resulting device, using only electrical switches, was presented at various science fairs and open house exhibitions.

All but forgotten after the early 1950s, it seems that American toy designer and collector Mike Mozart was the one to rediscover the actual device in 2010, and determine its historical significance. While not identified beyond any doubt, the exact consistence between the device and Dr. Redheffer’s 1948 article, as well as the lack of almost any information about it before Mozart’s discovery, seem to suggest that it is in fact the original “machine for playing the game Nim” built at M.I.T. in 1941-1942.

« Return to Part I — Prehistory


Comments on: "1941: Nim machine" (3)

  1. Ray Redheffer’s middle name was not Thomas. His middle initial is M and his middle name is his mother’s maiden name.

    • Thanks for the correction! I’m not sure which original source I got the Thomas from. I can see several sources referring to him as Raymond Thomas, or even just “Thomas Redheffer” for no apparent reason. The original 1948 article clearly references R.M. Redheffer though.

  2. Ya'acov Koppel said:

    How does Redheffer’s invention relate to an almost identical machine developed at Maxon Co. and reviewed in The New Yorker magazine in August 1954?

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