What happened this week in the History of Industry? It is to answer this question that Global Industrie invites you to rediscover, every week, a key event which occurred around this time… in another age. This week, let’s go back 32 years to the bringing out of a symbol of the 90s and of triumphant Japanese industry: the Game Boy.
THE UNDERSIDE OF THE CARDS
The "God of Toys", as Gunpei Yokoi is nicknamed in his country of origin, Japan, was born into a humble family in Kyoto on the 10th of September 1941. Developing a passion for handiwork from his earliest childhood, he made his own toys using pieces of wood collected from a carpentry workshop. When he went to university he chose to study electronics, but proved to be rather mediocre student who spent more time having fun than studying. In short, the sort for whom his teachers predicted a dim future. And yet…
After graduating, he applied unsuccessfully for work at his country’s biggest electronics companies, which were enjoying huge international success at the time. He thus resigned himself in 1965 to accepting a job in a small playing card manufacturing company in which his work consisted in maintaining the machine which glued the different layers of the cards together. The company’s name was… Nintendo. He was to stay there for more than 30 years, long enough to make it the international giant we know today…
A LUCKY HAND
Thus extremely bored, he spent part of his working time creating games, including a mechanical hand which his boss came across one day. Far from getting angry and firing him, and worried about the decline of the playing card market, he gave him the mission of turning this project into a marketable toy, the first one invented inside the firm. This led to the development of Ultra Hand, a game of skill which consists in using the hand to grab ping-pong balls and drop them in a precise place. Marketed in 1967, it was a big success and Gunpei Yokoi found himself propelled to the head of the company’s first research and development division.
One day, on the train, he saw an adult tapping discretely on a calculator to pass the time… This gave him the idea of developing the first small electronic games with an LCD screen, the Game & Watch series, the huge commercial success of which lifted the company out of its financial difficulties.
THE GAME BOY PLAYBOY
He did not stop there, however. Among the numerous projects he developed, he invented the cross key which has since been a feature of almost all gamepads. He then decided to work with his team on a portable video game console which would be powerful but have a black-and-white screen to allow both a low sale price and reduced battery consumption. There were therefore few people, even within the company, who believed in this project when it was marketed in Japan on the 21st of April 1989 before spreading to North America in October and Europe more than a year later, in September 1990. And yet… Despite more technically advanced consoles being brought out, and its minimalist graphic quality, it was an immediate success! When production stopped in 2004, 118.6 million consoles had been sold around the world. In France, 1.4 million were sold in the first year. What was the recipe for this triumph? Its small size, its low price, its long battery life and its vast range of games, led by the legendary Tetris and the famous Pokemon series.
As for Gunpei Yokoi, he resigned in 1996 together with several other employees to found his own company, Koto Laboratory, and produce games for… Nintendo. Unfortunately, he died a few months later, on 4th of October 1997, in a car accident. The "God of Toys" has since become a legend in the Land of the Rising Sun and in the world of gamers and other geeks!
OTHER EVENTS WHICH HAPPENED THIS WEEK:
- 18 April (1934): launch of the Citroën Traction Avant in Paris
- 19 April (1906): Pierre Curie dies in a road accident
- 19 April (1932): the American engineer Robert Goddard launches the first rocket stabilized by a gyroscope and fins
- 19 April (1971): placing in orbit of the first space station, Salyut 1
- 21 April (1968): the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union sign a rescue agreement for astronauts in difficulty
- 23 April (2005): the first video is placed online on YouTube
- 24 April (1864): launch of the Impératrice Eugénie, the first transatlantic ocean liner built in France
- 24 April (1967): Vladimir Mikhailovitch Komarov is the first astronaut to die during a space mission, on board Soyuz 1
- 24 April (1969): Eric Tabarly wins the first solo transpacific yacht race
- 24 April (1990): placing in orbit of the Hubble Space Telescope by the American shuttle Discovery