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.
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.
Participatory Cable Television
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 test-marketing in the Philadelphia area of what Magnavox initially calls the SKILL-O-VISION TV Game, they do some further development of the system and eventually 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 an August release.
The Odyssey game console is featured in this ad break on the Magnavox holiday Sinatra special, 1973 Magnavox sells 100,000 units of its electronic “game simulator” 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 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 Odyssey‘s sales potential.
Even so, for three years Magnavox has the only home videogame available on the market, with a refined Odyssey introduced in 1974 that adjusts the size and square shape of the on-screen player spots and ball to more closely resemble PONG, introduced by Atari two years previous. The revision also keeps the ball in play on the screen without it wandering out of view. In total eventually 333,000 Odyssey units and light rifle packages are sold before the system is discontinued in 1975….replaced by a new game line introducing the Odyssey 100 and 200 electronic table tennis games that simplify things and eschew all of the pack-in bric-a-brac of the original. These versions also introduce sound effects, new games like single-player Smash, as well as offer on-screen scoring indicators. 1975 is the same year as the introduction of home PONG by Atari. 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. The new Odyssey line, along with Atari’s PONG and other companies that hop on the electronic ping-pong bandwagon, spur a buying frenzy among consumers that has most units sold out over the 1975 holiday season, with an average MSRP of $99. Units are picked up in order to appease the adults in the family as much as their kids.
Due 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.
Back to the period just after the release of Odyssey and the subsequent 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.
Sources (Click to view; inert links are kept for historical purposes)
Ralph Baer, Early Work
Videogames, In the Beginning, by Ralph H. Baer, pg. 59, 94 – 100 Rolenta Press 2005
Ralph H. Baer Consultants Les débuts du Jeu D’
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, photo by Liane Enkelis
Fun in the Game Room
Development of Brown Box, Odyssey Precursor Machine
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.;
Baer, Ralph H, and The History of How We Play. Gametronics Proceedings, 1 Jan. 1977, p. 6. Internet Archive, archive.org/details/GamtronicsProceedings. 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.; …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…
Pong: The official site devoted to the PONG story, by David Winter
New Scientist, “Anyone for tennis?”, by Nicholas Valery, pgs. 742-743, Dec 23/30 1976
Participatory Cable Television
Trying to Sell the TV Home Game to Cable Companies
“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 by William Hunter at the Videogame History Museum display, CGE 2014 in Las Vegas
GOOD DEAL GAMES interview with Ralph Baer
Magnavox Enters the Picture
Magnavox Buys Tech, Creates Odyssey Video Game Console
Baer, Ralph H, and The History of How We Play. Gametronics Proceedings, 1 Jan. 1977, p. 6. Internet Archive, archive.org/details/GamtronicsProceedings. 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
RetroNi. “Magnavox Odyssey 3D Boxes Pack.” EmuMovies. N.p., 24 May 2018. Web. 18 Aug. 2020. Images of the three Odyssey game boxes together: Table Tennis, Basketball and Interplanetary Voyage
Pong-Story : ODYEMU Magnavox Odyssey emulator
Videotopia – Home Games
Radio-Electronics, “Videogames – Videogame History”, by Jerry and Eric Eimbinder, pgs. 50 – 54, July 1982
Phipps, Jennie. “Come to the TV Sue, and I Shall Ping a Pong With You.” The News Journal [Wilmington, Delaware] 05 Apr. 1976: 21. Newspapers.com. Web. 1 Feb. 2021. Magnavox developed the original in the field in 1972. Philadelphia was a test market area for its complicated Odyssey.
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
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
Magnavox Odyssey, by Sam Hart videogame.com’s History of Video Games Level Up – Life in the Video Game Ether
Magnavox. The Spokesman-Review [Spokane, Washington] 1 Dec. 1972: 10. Print. Newspaper ad, Magnavox Gift Values…
Magnavox. The Province [Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada] 28 Nov. 1972: 14. Print. Newspaper ad for the Odyssey, “A new dimension in TV entertainment.”
“‘Odyssey’ Makes TV Sets Electronic Playgrounds.” Five Cities Times-Press-Recorder [Arroyo Grande, California] 12 Oct. 1972: 2. Print. Image of Odyssey Roulette being set up on television set, 1972
Odyssey. The San Bernardino County Sun 4 Dec. 1972: A-7. Print. Newspaper ad for Odyssey, “A Gift….”
Magnavox Odyssey. The Charlotte Observer Sun 14 Oct. 1973: 3G. Print. Ad for Odyssey, “Special Pre-Holiday Offer”
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 Dealers Introduced To Product Innovations.” The Roselle Register 27 July 1972: Section 4 – 6. Newspapers.com. Web. 30 Jan. 2021. …”Odyssey” is an all-electronic game simulator….. ;Available to Magnavox dealers in August…
The Odyssey² Homepage, archived Illinois newspaper article, “Electronic Game Wizards”, by Herbert G. McCann, Nov 26 1981
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
Hardware Created after Odyssey
Clarion-Register, 1974. ‘Odyssey’ Lets TV Be Used In Playing 12 Different Games. [online] p.8. Available at: <https://www.newspapers.com/image/183598327> [Accessed 31 January 2021]. ” In the improved Odyssey, the players are represented by rectangular spots smaller than the square shaped “players” in the original game and the ball has been reduced in size making the total field of play larger… ;The ball now remains on the screen at all times, except in very extreme instances when the English Control is used for a severe angular volley.”
Byte, “Byte News….:Magnavox Files Suit on Microprocessor Video Game Patents”, pgs. 193-194, April 1979
Phipps, Jennie. “Come to the TV Sue, and I Shall Ping a Pong With You.” The News Journal [Wilmington, Delaware] 05 Apr. 1976: 21. Newspapers.com. Web. 1 Feb. 2021. “Odyssey” and “Pong” went so fast that there was hardly one to found in Wilmington when most people began their holiday shopping, and sales of the $100 adult toys have continued to surpass all predictions, according to local merchants and national manufacturers. ;The games are selling to both adults and children with the emphasis on the adult market.
Newhouse, Nancy. “Black Box Turns TV Into Arena.” Lincoln Journal Star 08 Feb. 1976: 4TV. Newspapers.com. Web. 1 Feb. 2021. Electronic games played on television sets have been one of the hottest selling items in home entertainment this winter and Lincoln stores report they have had difficulty keeping them in stock. ;…staff merchandiser Dick Lewis said the games were “permanently out of stock” in Ward’s stores across the country before Christmas.
Baer, Ralph H, and The History of How We Play. Gametronics Proceedings, 1 Jan. 1977, p. 6. Internet Archive, archive.org/details/GamtronicsProceedings. 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. It [Magnavox] had delayed in converting its television line to solid-state devices…
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 doing TV interview, Baer accepting Pioneer award, photos by Liane Enkelis
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
Magnavox Television Catalog 1975. Magnavox Television Catalog 1975, The Magnavox Company, 1975. Images of the Odyssey 100 and 200 game consoles
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
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