Profiles In Gaming: The Odyssey of Ralph Baer

The father of home video games; Ralph Baer, circa 1975, demonstrating the Odyssey 200 system.

Even if you don’t know his name, you know his inventions. Simon. Computer Perfection. Maniac. Video game consoles.

But to identify Ralph Baer only with the electronic entertainment devices he created is to do a great disservice to one of the world’s most brilliant and prolific inventors. Since completing his tour of duty with the U.S. Army in 1946, Baer has accumulated over 150 U.S. and foreign patents to his name. He designed and built everything from military and espionage equipment to surgical tools. He was involved with the development of etched core memory and launch control equipment for the Saturn V rocket. In 2006 he was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President George W. Bush. In 2010, Baer was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C.

Video games have been a part of popular consciousness for over three decades. From relatively humble origins, the video game industry has grown into a multi billion-dollar a year behemoth. Games can now be seen in virtually every facet of modern life. It may be difficult to imagine a time when video games were not the pop culture juggernaut they are today. It may be even more difficult to imagine a time when they didn’t exist at all.

But all stories begin somewhere. And the story of video games as we known them, for all intents and purposes, begins with Ralph Baer.

Rodalben, Germany: birthplace of Ralph Baer.

The world was a troubled and very different place when Ralph Baer came into it on March 8, 1922, in a small southwestern German town called Rodalben. Europe was feeling the lingering effects of a monumentally disastrous World War, the root causes of which remained unaddressed by the vengeful peace terms that concluded it. In Baer’s native Germany, hyperinflation, economic collapse, and political extremism gave way to Adolf Hitler’s ascension to Chancellor in 1933, the same year Baer was expelled from school at age 11 for being Jewish.

Baer and his family fled Germany for the United States through the Netherlands in 1938, mere months before the events of Kristallnacht took place. Once in the U.S., he performed factory work while cultivating a love of electronics. He completed a correspondence course on the subject of radio technology before attending and graduating from the National Radio Institute in 1940.

Baer ran three New York City radio and television repair shops when he was drafted by the United States Army in 1943, during the height of the Second World War. He served one year stateside before being assigned to Military Intelligence in London, where he was attached to General Eisenhower’s headquarters. He was subsequently stationed in France. During his time in the army, Baer became an expert of some renown on military small arms; when he returned to the U.S. in 1946, he brought 18 tons of weapons with him and was instrumental in the creation and expansion of three official U.S. Army small arms exhibits.

Ralph Baer, during his service in World War II.

Once out of the Army, Baer went back to school again (let it never be said that he didn’t know the value of an education!), this time at the American Television Institute of Technology. He graduated in 1949 with a BS in Television Engineering; he was among the first people anywhere to be awarded such a degree.

During the ’50s, he got married and started his family, in addition to designing and building a plethora of different devices and electronic equipment, many of them under military contract. Such devices included a submarine-tracking analog computer for military aircraft radar use and a system used to monitor Soviet communications in Berlin. But even by 1951, while given the task by his employers at Loral Electronics to build the “best TV set in the world,” Baer had already conceived of games that could somehow be played on a television. His employers were not enthused with the idea.

It wasn’t until 1966, during his employment with Sanders Associates, Inc., that Baer first began conceptual work on a machine that would interface with a television set, display a set of objects on the screen, and allow the user to manipulate those objects. From this concept Baer, with assistance from fellow engineer Bob Tremblay, built his first game, which he concisely dubbed “Chase Game.” The game featured two objects on the screen (“spots,” as Baer called them). One “spot” represented a fox, the other a hound, and the game’s object, naturally, was for the hound to chase and catch the fox. “Chase Game” was certainly primitive, but the game (an unofficial project unrelated to Baer’s and Tremblay’s job duties, and for which they were not compensated) interested Baer’s employers enough to grant funding of $2000, with an additional $500 for materials.

The following year, 1967, saw the ever-innovative Baer making improvements on his game. Not the least significant of these was his development of a shooting game. Baer created and built a small photoreceptor into a toy gun while new teammate Bill Harrison designed the circuitry that allowed the gun to shoot the spots on the screen. And thus, light gun games were born.

Baer’s prototype light gun.

Later that same year, Baer worked up a concept for a ping-pong game with Harrison and Bill Rusch and demonstrated a fully-working prototype.

A little over a month later, in 1968, Baer filed his first video game-related patent application. By the end of ’68, Baer and his team had built and demonstrated a working prototype of an improvement upon the earlier game unit. Programmable by switches, the machine was now capable of playing football and volleyball games in addition to the existing ping-pong and gun games. Transparent plastic screen overlays provided color and background to the games.

A glimpse of things to come: the “Brown Box.”

Further developments and revisions culminated in “The Brown Box” in 1969, so named for the wood-patterned contact paper that covered the unit and its controllers.  Demonstrations of the Brown Box were performed for representatives of RCA, Zenith, Sylvania, General Electric, and Magnavox at Sanders Associates’ plant in Nashua, Hew Hampshire. A license agreement was drafted with RCA in 1970, but the deal fell through.

However, Bill Enders, one of the RCA men who had been impressed by the Brown Box, had left to become Vice President of Marketing at Magnavox. There, Enders championed Baer’s game machine. So, later in 1970, Baer and Sanders’ Corporate Director of Patents, Lou Etlinger, were invited to Magnavox’s plant in Ft. Wayne, Indiana to demo the Brown Box for their engineering, production, and marketing managers. It received a chilly reception from all except for the Vice President of Marketing for the TV division, Gerry Martin. And on his authority, Magnavox would pursue the TV games project, pending the approval of corporate management, which came nine months later in 1971.

Once a preliminary licensing agreement between Sanders Associates and Magnavox was signed, Baer’s Brown Box prototype and all related design documentation were turned over to the engineers at Magnavox, who quickly began development of a production version of the game unit. In 1972, Magnavox unveiled the finished product, called Odyssey, to Magnavox dealers across the U.S.; home video games had arrived.

The fruit of Ralph Baer’s labor: Odyssey, the world’s first home video game, from Magnavox.

During the development of the Brown Box/Odyssey, Baer conceived of games that could be played “online” through cable or telephone lines, decades years before online gaming as we know it came into being in the 1990s. He also designed “active cartridges” containing additional electronic components. These were to add more features to the games, such as sound effects, variable net position, and variable ball speed, but these were deemed unfeasible.

In the ensuing years, Baer assisted the development of follow-up Odyssey consoles, such as the Odyssey 100 and Odyssey 200, and Magnavox’s next-generation programmable console, Odyssey 2. He also supported Magnavox and Sanders in their patent infringement lawsuits against Atari and Nintendo, which Magnavox/Sanders won. Baer also consulted with Coleco on the development of their Telstar and Combat! game consoles, as well as their Kid Vid module for the Atari 2600 console. He also designed the classic handheld memory game Simon (inspired by Atari’s Touch Me game, in a somewhat ironic twist), as well as other early ’80s classics Maniac, Computer Perfection, and Amazatron. In addition to his games, Baer also created numerous toys and other consumer products.

Ralph Baer surrounded by his most famous inventions

Baer still continues to design, build, and tinker at the age of 90. He recently published a book in 2005 about the history of video games from his unique vantage point, titled “Videogames: In The Beginning.” From 2004 to 2006, Baer built an entire line of working recreations of his various Odyssey prototypes, which he donated to the Museum of The Moving Image in Astoria, New York. His original Brown Box now resides at the Smithsonian Institution, but he has an entire lifetime’s worth of invention and innovation under his belt, from medical instruments and military hardware to toys and talking doormats. And he shows no signs of stopping.

What will he come up with next?

Ralph Baer, age 90, in his workshop.

(c) 2012 Jeffery Koss

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