Bertie the Brain


May 25, 2022

Bertie the Brain was an electronic computer game, one of the first ever to have been conceived in the history of video games. Conceived and built in Toronto by the engineer Josef Kates for the Canadian National Exhibition in 1950 in order to demonstrate the efficiency of the additron valve of his invention, it was a large computer about four meters high that allowed you to play tic-tac-toe against a artificial intelligence with adjustable difficulty level. The human challenger communicated his move through an illuminated 3x3 grid-shaped keyboard, which was recorded on the game screen and then shown via light bulbs that turned on. After two weeks of exhibition at the Rogers Majestic thermionic tube company pavilion, the machine was dismantled at the end of the exhibition and forgotten for a long time, dismissed as mere mirabilia. Bertie the Brain is indicated as one of the forerunners of contemporary video games, as it is probably the first computer game equipped with a primitive gaming screen, in which the current game could be viewed; it was also created only three years after the invention of the cathode-ray tube amusement device, the first interactive electronic game with an electronic display known to exist.

Game Modes

A match against the artificial intelligence of Bertie the Brain saw opposing the "Electronic Brain" of the machine and the "Human Brain" of the player, who respectively used the X and the O. In the turn of the human challenger, he chose the position its symbol on a panel with nine illuminated buttons; the move then appeared on a large 3x3 grid placed vertically on the computer, causing the bulbs to light up in the corresponding space, which would have drawn an "O". The computer would then make its counter move, illuminating another square in the shape of an "X". The machine responded almost instantly and at the highest level of difficulty, which Kates never programmed (especially when children were playing with it), it was practically unbeatable. At the far right of the screen there was a legend consisting of a pair of words that indicated, through the lighting of one of the two, the players' turn: when it was Bernie the Brain's turn, "Electronic Brain" would light up and when instead the challenger the word "Human Brain". Upon the victory of the latter, the word "Win" would light up.


Bertie the Brain was a computer game version of the famous tic-tac-toe game, conceived by Dr. Josef Kates for the 1950 Canadian National Exhibition. Kates had previously worked for Rogers Majestic as a designer and builder of radar tubes during World War II, then , after the end of the conflict, continue his university studies in the computer center of the University of Toronto, while continuing his work at the electronics company. At the university he contributed, with the engineer Alfred Ratz, to the design of the "University of Toronto Electronic Computer" (UTEC), one of the first working computers in the world, paying particular attention to its memory and operating system. However, the machine needed a lot of thermionic valves to work and Kates decided to solve the problem by inventing the additron valve, the patent of which was filed on March 20, 1951 (with code 6047) with the Radio Electronics Television Manufacturers' Association. The additron valve was much smaller than the thermionic one and capable of doing a greater amount of work: Rogers Majestic pushed Kates to design a device that would show the invention to potential buyers and make the general public feel the possibility of building "smaller, simpler, more reliable and cheaper" computers. He therefore designed and assembled, with