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A paddle is a sort of input device, common on early video game consoles and home computers, consisting of a handheld wheel with one or more fire buttons. Unlike dial boxes, which spin freely, paddles rotate through a fixed arc, with stops on each end.

photo of two Atari paddles Atari Paddle by Miguel Durçan. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

What's the origin of the name "paddle"? Externally, the controllers look nothing like the sort of hand-held paddles you would use to play table tennis, nor to the ones you would use to propel a canoe. I suppose the dial part of the device does vaguely resemble a paddle wheel, such as one might find on a larger ship, but it also resembles pretty much any other kind of wheel, such as the steering wheel on a car. And like a steering wheel, but unlike a paddle wheel, the paddle controller has a fixed range of motion.

Does anyone know who first gave the name "paddle" to this sort of input device and what their rationale was?

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    Amusingly enough, your picture shows a pair of crossed paddles on each controller, which ought to be a clue! – Mark Williams Oct 11 '20 at 20:58
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    It ought to have been, but I simply didn't make the connection that the devices are controllers for paddles, not just devices named paddles. – Psychonaut Oct 11 '20 at 21:45
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    I was originally thinking of "paddle-style" Morse keys, but there is of course a language issue here: we speakers of British English play table tennis with "bats". – Mark Morgan Lloyd Oct 12 '20 at 17:56
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    Do you need to ask about "joystick"? – philipxy Oct 13 '20 at 4:26
  • Despite the tennis rackets on the controllers, my first thought was that the controllers resembled AED paddles :P – Kyle Delaney Oct 13 '20 at 20:15
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They're called paddles because they let you play (electronic) table tennis. :)

This article from CREATIVE COMPUTING VIDEO & ARCADE GAMES VOL. 1, NO. 1, 1983 explains.

The reason this control is called a "paddle" in the personal computer industry is that it originally got its name from the control which moved the paddies[sic] on the screen in the game of Pong. This was followed by the game of Breakout and by then the incorrect term, paddle, had taken hold.

The instruction plate on the PONG arcade machine doesn't refer to paddles at all, and the Atari Home Pong C-100 console manual refers to on-screen paddles, but refers to the physical controls as 'left knob' and 'right knob' (also listed as 'Left Control' and 'Right Control').

The right knob controls the right paddle; the left knob controls the left. Turn to move paddle up or down, to hit the ball on your side of the net.

The official Atari name for the knob-bearing controller for the Atari VCS in your photograph is 'Standard Paddle Controller'. That is, it's a controller for paddles, and this is how the manuals for 2600 and 5200 games go on to refer to it: as a 'Controller'. You can see it in the manual for the launch title Video Olympics (a compilation of Pong and Pong-like paddle and sports games) and on the box when bought separately.

However, as you can see, the unit itself has 'paddle' written on it, so...

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  • Spot on answer. – Raffzahn Oct 11 '20 at 20:32
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    Thanks. :) Incidentally, the 2600 has an official trackball accessory called the 'Trak-Ball Controller'. It doesn't control a trackball, though, it is a trackball. So if the 'Trak-Ball Controller' is a trackball, then surely a 'Paddle Controller' is a paddle. :) – knol Oct 11 '20 at 20:40
  • The trackball is the ball. (And English is English.) (Oh oh some pun about balls & english looming ....) – philipxy Oct 13 '20 at 4:27
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    Not sure what to say, I'm British. :) To me a paddle has a hard, flat, rounded surface (e.g. ping-pong, also used in auctioneering), a bat has a long surface (cricket/baseball), and a racquet has a net (tennis). – knol Oct 13 '20 at 14:46
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    @knol, I've now got the awful feeling that an enormous 'who knows paddle in the UK' comments poll will spring up, rather than one line being added to this otherwise excellent answer... Drive you bats :-D – TonyM Oct 13 '20 at 14:49
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Those analogue controllers were designed for tennis-like games (Pong, Breakout) where you control a rectangle which hits a ball.

It's paddle enough for me.

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