Over the past week the world lost a major name in video game technology, the man who originally developed the entire concept of playing games through a television screen display. Ralph Baer, a 2010 inductee of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, passed away on Saturday, December 6th at the age of 92. From his mind sprang a wide array of technological innovation; Baer was assigned 50 U.S. patents and another 100 international patents during the course of his life. However, it is console-based video gaming that would bring the inventor his greatest renown by breathing life into an entertainment industry which now reaps annual revenues which stretch well into the billions.
Today, we’d like to take a little time to honor the life of a true engineering visionary, one who understood the interactive potential of television sets decades before companies were willing to jump on board. In his long life, Ralph Baer exemplified the spirit of invention, developing his own ideas with a singular focus while conceiving an incredible breadth of useful technologies. Although the proliferation of video gaming consoles would gather steam late in the 20th century with the development of semiconductors, our Evolution of Video Game Consoles shows that early video gaming development that set the stage for all of the well-known consoles with which our readers will be familiar is solely the contribution of the German-American inventor Ralph Baer.
Ralph Baer’s Early Life and Education
Baer was born in 1922 into a Jewish family living in the Rhineland region of Germany. He lived his youth in a Germany decimated by debt and shame and saw the rise of policies excluding Jews from the national life under Hitler. Luckily, Baer’s family was able to escape intact to the Netherlands and then the United States by 1938.
Baer’s particular focus for innovative engineering, especially those involving broadcast technologies, began to be developed by the young man before he reached the age of 20. In 1940, he enrolled in a radio correspondence course offered by the National Radio Institute of Washington, D.C., graduating as a radio technician. After serving in military intelligence for America during World War II, during which time he wrote important technical manuals for soldiers which helped to win the battle known as D-Day, Baer returned to his studies in 1946, eventually earning one of the country’s first bachelor’s degrees in television engineering from the American Television Institute of Technology in Chicago.
Baer’s ability to innovate incredible feats of electronic engineering were already readily apparent by his early 20s. His knowledge of radio engineering before WWII helped him make a lot of friends by converting German mine detectors into radios so that his fellow soldiers could listen to music while away from the front lines of battle. The USPTO inventor’s profile of Ralph Baer, linked above, reports that Baer’s earliest invention came when he was 16 years old. The wooden jig he created held five or six leather pouches in place as they passed through a sewing apparatus en route to becoming manicure kit cases, making work much more efficient.
The Development of the Magnavox Odyssey
By the mid-1950s, Baer began to have visions of a video gaming future for television that wouldn’t be seriously pursued for at least another decade. Baer had been working in New York City as a television and radio set repairman and would work with larger electronic firms on certain projects. In 1955, while working with the Loral Electronics Corporation, Baer was asked to build “the greatest television set ever.” Part of the vision he developed included interactive gaming through the television. Executives at Loral found the idea to be outlandish and expensive and that aspect of Baer’s dream had to lie dormant for a while.
Step forward 11 years into 1966. When Baer first started studying for his bachelor’s degree in television engineering, only a few thousand sets were working in the United States; by this time, 90 percent of households in America had a television set. Color television had also been discovered, making the television watching experience much richer for the viewer. Baer had already been working at Sanders Associates, a military contractor, where he had risen to division manager, controlling the work of 500 employees while continuing to serve as an engineer.
In the summer of 1966, Baer’s vision of a television set that can provide users with a gaming experience floods back to him while he waits one day at Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. According to the account given in his New York Times obituary, Baer concocted a four-page outline of a game box using a yellow legal pad and a No. 2 pencil. From the outset, the inventor was certain that the system could eventually process gameplay for many types of games, from sports to action to board games. Herb Campman, the corporate director for Sanders, approved $2,500 to fund the project and additionally tasked Baer with developing a system that did more than chase a dot around a screen. This was the object of Chase, the first game designed by Baer for what would become the world’s first commercially successful home video game console.
Partnering with fellow engineer Bob Tremblay and working with two other engineering employees at Sanders, Bob Rusch and Bill Harrison, Baer worked on prototypes for two years until his team was able to devise the “Brown Box,” an electronic console with a wood grain adhesive finish that came pre-programmed with a list of games including Chase, Handball, Golf and Ping Pong. This original console also had peripheral equipment, a light gun that could be used for target practice games.
In April of 1973, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued U.S. Patent No. 3728480, which is titled Television Gaming and Training Apparatus. Assigned to Sanders Associates, it lists Ralph Baer as the sole inventor. The patent claims an apparatus, used in conjunction with a standard television receiver, that generates dots upon the receiver’s screen which can be manipulated by a user. The patent further claimed the use of a joystick control to manipulate the dots on the screen. As the patent states, the intended use of this invention was to create a means through which a television receiver can be used as an active instrument rather than as a passive one. Games implemented by this system would be designed to test a player’s skill, alertness, visual acuity and manual dexterity.
Although Sanders and Baer invented the console, the defense contracting company lacked the vision to capitalize on production of the technology, so outside licensing was required to move the innovation forward. Many well-known companies, including General Electric and Motorola, passed on licensing this product. Gerry Martin, the vice president of marketing at Magnavox, saw a great deal of potential for the device but it took him a few years to convince other corporate managers at the company. In 1971, Magnavox licensed the technology from Sanders and in the summer of 1972 released its Magnavox Odyssey Home Video Game System.
The Magnavox Odyssey cut some of the technologies incorporated by Baer in his original design, such as color circuitry and the switches used by players to select games. To switch between games, a user inserted a cartridge into a slot on a console, much like the popular Atari, Nintendo and Sega consoles that would come years later. Unlike those cartridges, which contained internal circuitry required to play a game, these cartridges served as jumpers which completed the circuit connection required to select a specific game; all of the Odyssey’s games came preloaded on the console’s internal circuitry, which included 40 transistors and 40 diodes.
The Odyssey was battery powered and produced no sound. Still, it was a successful product and 130,000 units were sold between the product’s September 1972 release and Christmas of that year. When the first model was discontinued in 1975, the Odyssey had sold a total of 330,000 consoles and another 80,000 light gun rifle packs.
Battles With Atari and Baer’s Legacy
It was not Baer, however, who would be the first engineer to market a video gaming system. Earlier in 1971, Nolan Bushnell tried to sell a coin-operated space-themed shooter known as Computer Space which sold to bars and related establishments but struggled to gain a following. In May 1972, Bushnell viewed a private demonstration of the Odyssey console, specifically the Table Tennis game. The next year, Bushnell and his colleague Al Alcorn, released the game Pong under the business name Atari Inc.
Atari would go on to dominate video gaming consoles through the 1970s and 1980s. Baer had ideas for improving the Odyssey system, but Magnavox was largely uninterested. Magnavox was interested, however, in obtaining licensing fees from Atari for what the company perceived as patent infringements on its Odyssey licensing. Magnavox sued Atari in 1974 and eventually settled for $700,000 in licensing fees. Over the years, Magnavox would earn $100 million through such lawsuit settlements, including at least one case involving Nintendo.
Baer testified as the inventor in many of these lawsuits, but for the most part his days in video game console design were over. His career as an innovator, however, was certainly not. After he left the Odyssey project behind him, Baer would work with Howard Morrison to develop one of the most popular electronic games of all time in the late 1970s, a cult sensation that is still being sold and played today: Milton Bradley’s Simon.
U.S. Patent No. 4207087, issued under the title Microcomputer Controlled Game, protects the underlying architecture for Simon. Issued in June 1980, the patent is assigned to Marvin Glass & Associates and lists both Baer and Morrison as inventors. It claims a sequencing game that includes a means for generating a sensorially perceptible time sequence of events, a means actuable by a participant for responding to the time sequence of events and a means for providing a repetition of the last generated sequence that was followed by a correct participant response. This earliest version of Simon was configured to enable interaction between two game participants or by a human user solely against the machine.
Baer never thought that video games should solely be thought of as a game for children. However, he has also publicly rebuked the violence in video games available for play on today’s consoles. Those games “cater to the lowest common denominator,” he is quoted as saying in an Ars Technica article linked above and here. This is interesting to consider in light of a study which we’ve cited in other columns published on this site from researchers at Rutgers University and Villanova University. The report found that the release of violent video games actually correlated with decreases in aggravated assaults and homicides in the United States.
In 2006, Baer was recognized with the National Medal of Technology by President George W. Bush, four years before the engineer’s induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Best known for his developments leading to the Magnavox Odyssey as well as Simon, he was also responsible for innovations such as tracking systems for submarines, surgical cutting systems and even talking books. Baer worked as an engineer with other major toy companies, such as Hasbro and Kenner, and as a consultant for Hallmark. His passing generated a major outpouring of gratitude from various social media, especially Twitter. In the Ars Technica interview, conducted in 2013 when Baer was 91, he insisted that he still had plenty of ideas for novel toys and games to keep him busy. The ability that Baer possessed to pursue invention successfully in many fields is perhaps the most inspirational aspect of the story of this inventor’s life.
In 2013 PBS Digital Studios put together the below video featuring Baer discussing his lifelong journey as an independent inventor.