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  • Angela Kay Dodge

Milton Bradley, the father of American board games


While I was researching how I could reproduce Milton Bradley's Checkered Game of Life, I also researched the man. Over 155 years ago Bradley changed the way that American families spent evenings at home.

Born November 8, 1836 in Vienna Maine to Lewis and Fannie Bradley, Milton moved with his family to Lowell Massachusetts in 1847. he graduated from high school in 1854. he found work as a draftsman and patent agent before enrolling at The Lawrence Scientific School in Cambridge Mass. Bradley never graduated as his family moved to Hartford Connecticut.

Bradley had no luck in finding employment in Hartford and in 1856 he decided to leave home and found work in Springfield, Massachusetts with the Locomotive works of Blanchard and Kimball. Unfortunately the company closed in 1858. That year a recession had spread across The United States forcing the closure of many businesses. Always optimistic, Bradley decided that he would go into business for himself as a mechanical draftsman and patent agent. He relocated to Providence, Rhode Island in 1859 to study color lithography. In 1860 he he opened his lithography shop in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Unfortunately for Bradley his fledgling new business failed.

He had been selling images of the little known Republican Presidential nominee, Abraham Lincoln. Business was good until a customer asked for his back declaring that the image was not an accurate representation. Lincoln had grown a beard! the prints were now worthless. Bradley burned those that he had in his possession. It was late summer 1860.

Bradley was depressed and troubled over his sense of personal failure. His expensive lithographic press was sitting idle. The recession that had started 2 summers ago was worse, and Americas attention was now focused on the crisis that was brewing over politics, Slavery and States Rights. He had been in Springfield for four years. He was poor, so poor that he felt he could not set a wedding date to marry his fiance' Vilona Eaton. How could he ask her to share in an uncertain future?

Bradley had one good friend in Springfield that was understanding about his circumstances. George Tapley could always cheer him up. His wit and humor gave Bradley Hope that things would get better. One evening his friend invited him over to play a game. "Cheer up Milton! Lets play a game" his friend said. As chance had it that nights choice of entertainment was a game that had been played for some time. Invented in Lowell Massachusetts, the puritan inspired game was called "Mansions of Happiness." As he and his friend played the board game, Bradley began to formulate an idea for a game of his own.

He could invent a game that would put his idle press to use. One that utilized the color capability of lithography. It would also have to debunk the idea that most Americans of the time held that games were frivolous and often sinful. He could not use a dice or cards. As he thought over his idea he decided that his game must be virtuous to succeed.

He settled on using a checkerboard pattern of 64 alternating squares of red and white. The red squares were neutral values, the white would represent either good or bad depicting such words as"Truth"and "Honor","Disgrace"and"Crime". The winner would have to reach "Happy Old Age" rather than "Ruin". He also created a points system based on ones successes in life. Negative outcomes would send the player to penalty spaces. Instead of a dice he settled on using a "teetotum" so as to not have the stigma of gambling that dice might bring to his game. The teetotum had been used for centuries and was a safe choice.

Bradley worked on his game steadily for a week, often working well into the night to get it just right. Finally satisfied with what he had created, he needed a name for his game. Studying the prototype board that he had made he noticed that the checkered pattern of the game resembled the pattern of his life. It resembled the pattern of life for many of the people he knew. Life was checkered, hazardous, uncertain in it's outcome. Life was like a game, you subscribed to fixed rules. You recognized the element of chance and you used all the skill and judgement to win at it! he would call his game "The Checkered Game of Life".

to be continued....


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