Ralph Baer

Episode #5006


Contrary to what you might have been led to believe by fanboys, the father of video gaming is not Shigeru Miyamoto, Will Wright, or even Nolan Bushnell. And it certainly isn't Bill Gates.

What you may not know is that the technology that enabled the creation of video games was patented by engineer Ralph Baer in 1968, four years before Pong was ever introduced to gamers worldwide. However, Baer had developed the concept much, much earlier.

Born in 1922, Baer grew up Jewish in Germany during a time when National Socialism was just starting to take hold. As tensions mounted, Baer was forced to leave public school and go to a Jewish school, and his family decided to relocate to the U.S. in August 1938, three months before the Holocaust began. After his family settled in New York, Baer worked in a factory and paid for correspondence courses to learn radio technology. In 1943, Baer was drafted by the U.S. Army and served as an interrogator in England, narrowly missing the battle at Normandy due to an illness that landed him in the hospital. When he returned home, he attended classes at the American Technical Institute of Television and received his degree in Television Engineering.

After landing a job at a New York TV manufacturing company, Loral, Baer's first project was to build a television from scratch. Over the course of tinkering with the various parts, he had an idea that would change the course of entertainment forever--he wanted to make an interactive game built into the TV. However, Loral didn't go for it, so Baer put his idea on the back burner for fifteen years.

Brown Box - Odyssey prototypeIn 1966, Baer had a flash of inspiration while waiting at a bus stop and wrote down his idea for his first prototype of his "game box"--a box that could be hooked up to a TV and use a local signal to play interactive games. Of course, in 1966, this involved moving a spot around a screen, but it worked. Baer took the product to the board of directors at his current place of employment, Sanders Electronics, and the response was enthusiastic. Sanders granted Baer $2,000 in seed money, and Baer was able to assemble a small staff to build the project. However, once it was finished, Baer found that it was going to be difficult to get someone to purchase the 'brown box' for distribution. In 1979, Magnavox finally agreed to license the technology that Baer developed released it as the Odyssey in 1971. As the world's first home video game console, the Odyssey came with 12 pre-installed games...for a whopping $100.

Unfortunately, the Odyssey's high price and Magnavox's unclear marketing vision for the machine translated into fairly poor sales. To show the console off to the public, Magnavox takes the Odyssey around the country to trade shows, where a man named Nolan Bushnell tries out the console for the first time. Bushnell stated that he wasn't very impressed by the games but was impressed by the technology, which he then used to create Pong with Allen Allencord without permission from Baer or Magnavox. However, the popularity of Pong helps boost sale of the Odyssey, and by the 1975, 350,000 units of the Odyssey are sold.

Though sales were picking up, Pong was far more popular and selling better, and someone at Magnavox suggested they take Atari to court. Rather than pay immense legal fees to lose a patent case, Atari settles with Magnavox and decides to take legal action against other video game companies as well. Though the money starts to roll in, and continues to do so through the early 80's, when Nintendo and Sega entered the market with their 8-bit home consoles, Magnavox found it hard to keep making money on its own in the game market with the Odyssey. After the Odyssey 2 failed to compete with the Atari 2600, Magnavox scrapped any further plans for home game consoles.

Ralph Baer in 2001Ralph Baer also left Sanders and Magnavox and went on to create other such memorable gadgets as the Simon electronic memory game that became a cultural icon in the early 1980's. Baer is often brought up as an influential figure in the history of video games, but unfortunately it is often Nolan Bushnell that is incorrectly credited as "the father of video games." However, Baer delights in having been named 'Inventor of the Year' by the state of New York in 1979 and New Hampshire in 1980.

Ralph Baer