The Odyssey set, a home video game by Magnavox 1972

Beginning the Odyssey

Odyssey - Ralph Baer's Strange Odyssey


Sanders/Magnavox 1972

Heading Home

Born in Germany in 1922, Ralph Baer and his family escape amidst the growing Nazi tyranny and emigrate to the United States in 1938, when Baer is 16. Graduating from a correspondence course in radio repair, in 1939 – 40 he runs his own radio repair service in New York City. With the outbreak of the war in Europe, Baer serves three years in the US Army, from 1943 – 1946, the final two years overseas during WWII assigned to Military Intelligence. After leaving the army, via the G.I. Bill, in 1949 he graduates from the American Television Institute of Technology (ATIT) in Chicago with a B.S. in Television Engineering. In 1951 he is employed by U.S. defense contractor Loral Electronics Corporation, based out of New York City.

Ralph Baer, creator of the first home video game Odyssey

Odyssey creator Ralph Baer speaks at the 1977 Gametronics Conference, San Francisco

Among other assignments at Loral, he is given the task to develop “the world’s best television receiver”, a projection TV system  that would include so many technical advances that the public couldn’t help but want it, no matter what the price. It is during this project that his thoughts turn to the passive nature of television and how to tap into the market of 62 million homes already with at least one TV set, but his idea of working an interactive on-screen sports game into the design comes to naught as Loral brass decide the market wouldn’t bear the ultimate cost of their revolutionary TV. Having moved to Nashua, New Hampshire-based military contractor Sanders Associates by 1966, Baer continues to mull over his interactive television concept and one day while waiting for an associate at a New York City bus terminal he scratches down his concepts for a TV based videogame system, which he later transcribes into a 4 page paper. In this he outlines a low-cost device for attaching to a standard TV set, along with a list of game categories that would become staples in the industry, such as Action, Puzzle, Instructional and Sports.

Fun In the Game Room

By now the division manager of electronic design at Sanders, Baer has nearly 500 engineers and technicians at his disposal, along with the ability to authorize various projects dealing with electronics. He draws up a schematic based on his TV game design and begins developing the system on the side, and by late 1966 has breadboarded a symbol generator creating manually controlled spots of light that can chase each other around on a B&W TV set he finds in one of the labs. With the help of fellow Sanders employees Bob Tremblay and Bob Solomon, Bear continues his work in a lab inside Sanders on the sixth floor of the company’s Canal Street facility. Only Baer and his team have keys to this 10 x 15 ft. secret lair, invariably dubbed the “Game Room”. Scuttlebutt starts to pass between the hundreds of technicians in the building about just what the heck could be going on in there.

Photo of The brown-box prototype

The brown-box prototype

By December of that year they are ready to demonstrate a system that uses the moving spots in a rudimentary game. By using two circuits known as Spot Generators, they create a simple electronic game of “tag” with two spots chasing each other, if one is caught by the other it is wiped out. In January of 1967 Baer puts technician Bill Harrison to work to build the first multi-game unit. It plays chase games, has a light gun and a variety of other games, including a version of hockey where both impact velocity and angle geometry of shots are replicated. Through its various numbered iterations, the game system is titled TV Game Unit. It is more commonly referred to in the lab as the Brown Box, due to the wood-grain adhesive vinyl applied around the chassis by Harrison in an attempt to make the whole thing more attractive as a consumer device. Inside the faux wood casing is all discrete components; IC technology, at a price of over a dollar per chip in 1967, even in quantity, is too dear. ICs come with the additional issue of power consumption that is too high to work with the battery-powered design of Baer’s game unit. After demonstrating the system to Sander’s Corporate Director of Research and Development Herbert Campman, the project is approved and funds for further research are forwarded. Now working alongside Baer and Harrison is engineer Bill Rusch. Rusch designs a new game, and it is perhaps not surprising that it too harkens back to an archetypal playground activity, using three spot generators to produce two onscreen paddles along with a ball in a game of “catch”. Baer and Harrison further refine the play so that the ball can be served from off-screen when it has been missed by a player, creating a simple ping-pong game.

Click image to see footage of Baer demoing his electronic ping pong game in 1969

Click image to see 1969 video footage of Baer demoing the TV Game Unit

In early 1968 Baer files for the first video game patent, and by the end of that year they again demonstrate the system, capable of switching between ping-pong, volleyball, handball, hockey and even several shooting games to be used with a newly designed light-gun. Further, the games are outputting FM sound through a new colour 17″ RCA console purchased for the project early in 1967. Yes, in 1967 Baer has developed a TV game unit with colour: their ping-pong game is displayed over a field of green, with hockey taking place over ice blue. Midway through the year the TV Game box is finished, and feelers go out to have the technology licensed to interested parties.

As Baer and his team continue to refine the devices, eyes are turned to the developing cable TV market. The gaming device is bundled into an over-arching, viewer-interactive cable TV system called PCATV or Participatory Cable Television. This visionary system is meant to provide interactive TV games and an automated “impulse buying” at-home shopping system, all through a modular APB or All-Purpose-Box that would hook up to people’s television sets. It is even surmised by Baer that a television station will transmit via cable lines more detailed background graphics for the TV Game to be displayed on, backgrounds like a Vegas gambling table for electronic games of chance. This concept is further developed in a test between Sanders and a Warners Communications cable station in Boston: randomly moving symbols representing hockey players are broadcast over cable lines to Sanders, over which the dots of the TV Game Unit are superimposed. While their movement is random, Baer is surprised at how often the player figures correspond with the manually controlled electronic blips, making the whole game much more realistic and exciting. 

The PCATV system is first demonstrated to Irving B. Kahn of TelePrompTer, a company that had initially developed their namesake device and had since invested into the cable industry. Ultimately PCATV is deemed a bit too far-reaching for the moment, and in 1969 Baer gets together with Lou Etlinger, Sanders’ Director of Patents, to spin off the game unit. They invite all of the major TV manufacturers of the time to Sanders for a demonstration of the new gaming hardware, in hopes of finding a licensee for the technology. Several companies express interest, such as G.E., Sylvania, Philco, Motorola, and Magnavox. Sanders gets very close to a deal with RCA, which falls through at the 11th hour.

Magnavox Enters the Picture

Bill Enders, a member of the RCA team, is nevertheless very impressed with the demonstration, and when he takes a vice president position at Magnavox he convinces the company of the virtues of TV Game Unit. A demo by Baer and Etlinger at Magnavox headquarters in Fort Wayne, Indiana further impresses TV marketing division vice president Gerry Martin, and Magnavox agrees to hand-tool some units for testing in some of their dealers across the country in 1971. When these tests are met with encouraging results, Magnavox purchases exclusive rights to the device and all rights to patents and know-how. Sanders is to receive royalties of 50 cents per game sold,  with Magnavox required to aggressively pursue all infringers on related Sanders patents. After further development and test-marketing of what Magnavox initially calls the SKILL-O-VISION TV Game, they announce the first ever commercially available home videogame system as the Odyssey in May of 1972, with units rolling off the line in quantity that summer for sale over the Fall and Winter season.

But while Baer had envisioned a cheap TV add-on retailing around $29.95, the Odyssey sells for $100, with around 305 discrete parts within the case and controllers. While in the lab Baer and his team had had the various games displayed with backgrounds in colour and with sound, Magnavox cuts costs by going strictly black and white and no audio capabilities. The graphics are so rudimentary that the system comes with a set of two sizes of colour mylar overlays to put on the television screen to represent the various playfields, including Tennis and Hockey. There are 12 different plug-in circuit boards available to make the machine play different games; they contain no ROM components found in later programmable systems like the Channel F. They do, however, serve as a power switch for the unit. Also included are two controllers, rectangular boxes with rotary knobs for vertical as well as horizontal control of the player bats. An additional “english” knob allows players to curve the ball vertically after hitting it towards their opponent, which compensates for the lack of any kind of physics model in the ball trajectory. To help buyers of the game system get any kind of play value from two controllable spots appearing on their TV screens, Magnavox must include with the basic Odyssey package a cluttered pack-in kit consisting of the overlays and six plug-in game cards, a pack of game cards to tell gamers what to do, poker chips, play money, scorecards with tokens (as the machine itself can not calculate or display any scores), game boards and a pair of dice. It’s clear that the limitations of the system require the participation of gamers to utilize all of these physical aids in order to play “video games”.

The Odyssey game console is featured in this ad break on the Magnavox holiday Sinatra special, 1973 Magnavox sells 100,000 units during the fall/winter season of 1972, boosted by a TV broadcast hosted by Frank Sinatra, where he demonstrates the console for the audience. The Odyssey would also be highlighted in the 1973 Frank Sinatra: Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back special over the holiday season of 1973. Advertising material for the console is handled by design firm Lehner Bradford and Cout., who also develop the Master Strategy series of games for the later Odyssey² by Magnavox. One problem with moving the Odyssey from store shelves occurs due to the public’s belief, exacerbated by the company’s misleading ad campaigns and salespeople, that the game needs a Magnavox TV to play them. As well, initial distribution is limited to official Magnavox dealers, seriously limiting the Odyssey’s sales potential.

Patently Profitable

Even so, for three years the Odyssey is the only home videogame available on the market, and in total eventually 333,000 Odyssey units and light rifle packages are sold before the system is discontinued in 1975. Magnavox has been highly distracted over this period of the Odyssey‘s release: the company’s Consumer Electronics Division faces mounting losses in the tens of millions as they are slow in converting their line of televisions with solid-state components. Thanks, however, to the fact that they now hold the first videogame patent, along with a number of additional patents covering certain game features common to most of the following sports games, Magnavox begins launching multiple lawsuits against manufacturers of dedicated video game systems. Atari is the target of one such legal action, resulting in a $700,000 payout over PONG and foreign rights. Later in 1979, Magnavox also files suit against makers of programmable systems such as Fairchild and Bally. All this litigation results in nearly one-hundred million dollars in license fees and legal judgments for Magnavox.

After the outbreak of PONG, Ralph Baer makes a trip to Chicago and the November 1973 Music Operators of America (MOA) trade show, scouting out patent infringers. The display floor is booming with PONG clones, and when Baer returns to Sanders his boss looks at his memo listing the tens of thousands of PONG type units being sold and poses the question: “Why aren’t we in this business?”. Thusly is Baer forwarded some R&D cash and set up with a team of engineers to design upright arcade games, the highlight of which is to be a new circuit design that simulates realistic velocity and geometry functions, created by Bill Rusch. The ice conditions in the hockey game can even be adjusted from slick to mushy, according to the players’ skill. Several prototype units of three arcade TV sports games, titled Skate-N-Score, Hit-N-Run, and Pro-Soccer are created and then tested out in the field at a local arcade in Salem, NH called Electro Games. They get an encouraging reception from players, easily beating other games from competitors like Atari and Midway. Sander’s wariness over committing to the arcade market, along with a strict interpretation of the previous TV game technology agreement with Magnavox, eventually sinks the whole coin-op venture.

Magnavox follows up the pioneering Odyssey with refined versions, including the Odyssey 100 and 200 models. Bear’s original concept of a built-in TV/Videogame hybrid comes to fruition with Magnavox’s release of the $499 Model 4305 19-inch television set, featuring an electronic ping-pong, hockey and smash game available at the touch of a button. Two controllers, with 12ft. cords and game difficulty and reset switches are included. By the end of 1976, the industry Baer and his team have helped create has sold between three to four million game consoles in the U.S. Baer himself continues to invent and develop a remarkable number of videogame and electronic toy and game patents, with many ending up on the production line and to great success. Baer’s Simon for Milton-Bradley is a particular standout. Some others include a prototypal system to play games through cable TV, the first VCR based “nested data” interactive TV gaming system, the Smarty Bear VCR-cued interactive plush toy, and the Bike Max talking bicycle computer. logo_stop

Magnavox 4305, a TV/home video game hybrid

The Magnavox 4305 finally integrates the TV and video game, as Baer had originally envisioned, 1977

Sources (Click to view; inert links are kept for historical purposes)


Odyssey Installation and Game Rules. N.p.: Magnavox, 1972. Internet Archive. Jason Scott, 29 May 2013. Web. 03 Oct. 2019. <https://archive.org/details/Odyssey_Installation_and_Game_Rules_1972_Magnavox_US/page/n23>. Instructions for Haunted House game, pp.25-26
Buckwalter, Len. “11 – Consumer’s Guide to Video Games.” Comp. The History of How We Play. Video Games. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1977. 141. Internet Archive. Web. 24 Sept. 2019. Image of Magnavox 4305 TV/video game hybrid. Other info: Games: Type: Tennis, Hockey, Smash; Not a game only, but a 19-inch color TV set with built-in game… [etc. etc.]
Baer, Ralph H, and The History of How We Play. Gametronics Proceedings, 1 Jan. 1977, p. 6. Internet Archive, archive.org/details/GamtronicsProceedings. Images; Ralph Baer speaking to crowd, Ralph Baer doing TV interview, Baer accepting Pioneer award, photos by Liane Enkelis; Other info: By the end of Calendar 1976, somewhere between three and four million Home TV Games had been sold to U.S. customers alone.; …pretty soon I had two spots chasing each other around the screen of a black-and-white TV set that was hanging around one of the labs for one reason or another.; We had bought an RCA 17″ color TV console set early in 1967…; with color and FM sound through the TV set. Even our earliest Ping-Pong games were played against a green background, while, naturally, Hockey was played against a background of blue ice.; The average cost of an ordinary multiple game device was well over a dollar…; and IC power consumption was such as to preclude their use in battery operated Home TV Games.; Out of that idea came circuitry that moved the ball in a realistic fashion…; an adjustment changed the ice conditions from fast to sloppy to give beginners a chance.; Magnavox expressed a serious interest in building a number of hand tooled units…; and market acceptance-testing them at several of their Home Entertainment Center locations in the U.S. An agreement was worked out in 1971;. …with background, which might be a card table – a slot machine face – or a playing field, provided by a Cable Channel transmission;. …the most interesting of these games was a Hockey Game in which both a colorful playing field was transmitted plus four randomly moving hockey player symbols…; It [Magnavox] had delayed in converting its television line to solid-state devices… 
Eimbinder, Jerry, and The History of How We Play. Gametronics Proceedings, 1 Jan. 1977, pgs. 159-165. Internet Archive, archive.org/details/GamtronicsProceedings. Baer assigned Harrison and Rusch to an enclosed 10 x 15 ft. office..; A working multi-game model was completed in mid-1967 and Sanders Associates began looking for licensees.; Demonstrations for potential customers continued through 1969 when, after a deal with RCA fell through at the last minute, an agreement with Magnavox was arranged.; The first Odyssey game, introduced in 1972 by Magnavox, contained approximately 305 discrete parts in its master control unit and hand controls.;
FlemishBot. “Magnavox Holiday Specials (USA, 1973).” Magnavox Holiday Specials (USA, 1973), Internet Archive, 12 Sept. 2018, archive.org/details/16-11-73_MagnavoxOdyssey. Video of ad break from Sinatra holiday special from Magnavox, 1973
Magnavox Television Catalog 1975. Magnavox Television Catalog 1975, The Magnavox Company, 1975. Images of the Odyssey 100 and 200 game consoles
Pong: The official site devoted to the PONG story, by David Winter
Pong-Story : ODYEMU Magnavox Odyssey emulator
Videogames, In the Beginning, by Ralph H. Baer, pg. 59, 94 – 100 Rolenta Press 2005
Ralph H. Baer Consultants Les débuts du Jeu D’
Image of Odyssey and packaging contents, and other information from Electronic Games, “Inside Gaming: Meet Odyssey’s Lords of the Rings” by Bill Kunkel, pgs. 8-9, March 1982. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Electronic Games magazine collection
computerspacefan.com
Videotopia – Home Games
Byte, “Byte News….:Magnavox Files Suit on Microprocessor Video Game Patents”, pgs. 193-194, April 1979
Radio-Electronics, “Videogames – Videogame History”, by Jerry and Eric Eimbinder, pgs. 50 – 54, July 1982
Image of Ralph Baer posing with an Odyssey box, along with other information, from Video Games, “Video Games Interview – Ralph Baer”, by Steve Bloom with some portions excerpted from his book “Video Invaders”, photo by Rob Gray, pgs. 20 – 24, 81 – 83, Vol. 1 Num. 5, Feb 1983
“Getting Into Games.” Personal Computing Nov.-Dec. 1977: 85-86. Personal Computing 1977 11 12. Internet Archive. Web. 25 Feb. 2016. I’ve [Ralph Baer, inventor of the Odyssey] been ranting and raving for ten years about the use of games on cable TV. The very first person we showed the concept to was Irving Kahn of Teleprompter, years ago. We were just ten years too soon. Images of the Brown Box front panel, Shooting Gallery rifle, game boxes, Odyssey with controllers plugged into the rear and Brown Box controller close-up taken at the Videogame History Museum display, CGE 2014 in Las Vegas
The Odyssey² Homepage, archived Illinois newspaper article, “Electronic Game Wizards”, by Herbert G. McCann, Nov 26 1981


New Scientist, “Anyone for tennis?”, by Nicholas Valery, pgs. 742-743, Dec 23/30 1976
GOOD DEAL GAMES interview with Ralph Baer
BTread Photobucket stream
Elder Geek: Magnavox Odyssey Inventor Inducted into Hall of Fame
Electronic Games, “A Decade of Programmable Video Games”, pgs. 20 – 23, 34, Mar 1982. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Electronic Games magazine collection
Capital Times (LA Times news wire), “New electronic TV games are sweeping the country”, by Margaret A. Kilgore, Feb. 3, 1977
Lima News (AP), “Inventor of tv games has new schemes”, by Jules Loh, Jul. 12, 1977
Magnavox Odyssey Page – www.iaw.on.ca/~kaos/systems/Odyssey/index.html
Magnavox Odyssey, by Sam Hart videogame.com’s History of Video Games Level Up – Life in the Video Game Ether
Thanks to Ralph Baer for providing the images for the Brown Box and the Sanders arcade game prototypes, as well as additional information for this article

Comments >>

  1. avatarRick D

    A toast to the one who set the ball in motion for the video game world. A wonderful story about a great person in many aspects. There would be no home video game console if it weren’t for Mr. Baer and his Brown Box… 🙂

    Reply

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