The Coast News Group
Joseph “JW” Wilhide of Carlsbad invented some of the first handheld video games with the Mathemagician and “Star Wars” Electronic Battle Command in the 1970s. He is now retired and lives in La Costa Glen. Photo by Steve Puterski.
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Carlsbad man on forefront of video games

CARLSBAD — More than 40 years ago, video games did not exist.

Today, they are a multi-billion-dollar industry with professional leagues and even universities incorporating e-sports for scholarships.

But just before the world was mass marketed the concept, one Carlsbad man had already begun work on his own handheld video game.

Joseph “JW” Wilhide, 79, spoke about his first video game invention, an educational game called the Mathemagician. It had limited commercial success, but Wilhide found another opportunity for a space game he created in 1976, which was licensed by Kennar and titled “Star Wars” Electronic Battle Command.

“Some toy companies turned the licensing down, it wasn’t obvious,” Wilhide said. “I went all over the place. They were all afraid of a space game. If ‘Star Wars’ wasn’t around at the time, Electronic Battle Command probably would’ve come out, but under a different name.”

Wilhide, who lives in La Costa Glen but is originally from Boston, started his career in education after earning his master’s from Northeastern University. He then taught at the school, while he and his late wife, Elizabeth, developed the two games.

Wilhide said he’s always had a curious mind and one drawn to coding, computer science and engineering. In fact, he still codes and is currently working on a project at La Costa Glen to incorporate a laser pointer into a mouse so seniors can have an easier way of showcasing their work.

“I’m an inventor and I got diversion thinking,” Wilhide said.

Wilhide did not disclose the financial agreement from Kennar, but funny enough, he missed the initial “Star Wars” craze of 1977 because he was so focused on his pitch. In fact, he went and propositioned 10 companies, met with nine before someone told him Kennar had the rights to Star Wars.

He eventually saw the original classic in a dollar theater more than six months after its release.

And while his handheld video games were a modest commercial success, Wilhilde was also working on writing code for an analog video game. However, he ditched the project when it was 90 percent complete due to the release of the Odyssey video game.

The next games were done digitally, and the market exploded with games.

Soon thereafter Wilhide focused on a career outside gaming and more in line with his previous work teaching. He started consulting, specifically with single-chip microcomputers, and moved to Wisconsin in 1984.

As for single-chip microcomputers, Wilhide was also the first person to independently design a prototyping system for the TS 1100 calculator from Texas Instruments. Initially, TI was suspicious, but Wilhide had worked out all the programming and masking needed to expand the memory.

“What I did was I designed a trapdoor that allowed me to put extra memory on it,” he recalled. “So, externally, I could go add another K (kilobyte) of memory.”