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. Among other assignments at Loral, he is given the task to develop “the world’s best television receiver”, which 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 TV sets, 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 projection TV. Having moved to 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 TV screen. With the help of fellow Sanders employees Bob Tremblay and Bob Solomon, Bear continues his work in a secret lab inside Sanders known as the “Game Room”, to which only his team has the key. 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. 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.
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 in colour with FM sound emitted from the TV used, a 17″ RCA console. As Baer and his team continue to refine the devices, eyes are turned to the developing cable TV market, with the gaming device bundled into an over-arching, viewer-participatory 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 singular, modular APB or All-Purpose-Box that would hook up to people’s television sets. Ultimately this is deemed a bit too far-reaching for the moment, and in 1969 Baer gets together with Lou Etlinger, Sanders’ Director of Patents. 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. While several companies such as G.E., Sylvania, Philco, Motorola, Magnavox and RCA express interest, there are no takers.
Magnavox Enters the Picture
Bill Enders, a member of the RCA team, is 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 licenses the device and all rights to patents and know-how in 1971. 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 that summer. But while Baer had envisioned a cheap TV add-on retailing around $19.95, the Odyssey sells for $100. And with the high price of electronic components, the machine’s inner circuitry is very limited. While Baer and his team had the various games displayed with backgrounds in colour, 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. Strangely, budget-conscience Magnavox increases costs by including with the basic Odyssey package a cluttered pack-in kit consisting of the overlays and six plug-in game cards, a pack of playing cards, poker chips, play money, a scorecard (as the machine itself can not calculate or display any scores) and a pair of dice.
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. 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. 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 as Magnavox’s Consumer Electronics Division faces $60 million in losses, as well as the prospect of Atari’s refined PONG home game released that year. 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 is able to collect nearly one-hundred million dollars in license fees and legal judgments resulting from various lawsuits against companies designing their own game systems, including a $700,000 payout from Atari over PONG and foreign rights.
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 functions, created by Bill Rusch. 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.
Bear’s original concept of a built-in TV/Videogame hybrid comes to fruition with Magnavox’s release of the $499 Model 4305 television set, featuring an electronic ping-pong game available at the touch of a button. 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.
Sources (inert links are kept for historical purposes)
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’
computerspacefan.com Videotopia – Home Games
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
The Odyssey² Homepage, archived Illinois newsapaper article, “Electronic Game Wizards”, by Herbert G. McCann, Nov 26 1981
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, Mar. 1982
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