Magnavox Odyssey, the first home video game

The first home video game. Odyssey at play, 1972

Odyssey - Ralph Baer and the Magnavox Odyssey

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Sanders Associates/Magnavox 1972

Ralph Baer: Heading Home on a Magnavox Odyssey

Born in Germany in 1922, Magnavox Odyssey creator 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. Still, Baer won’t forget his TV game concept, what eventually will become the first home video game system, the Magnavox Odyssey. 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. 

Logo for Sanders Associates, birthplace of video games

Sanders Associates logo, 1967

Making the Magnavox Odyssey: Ralph Baer Has 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 a group of executives at Sanders, including founder Royden Sanders, there is talk that Baer and his team are wasting company resources and that the game project be scrapped. The future of video games is only saved by the shooting prowess of Sanders corporate director of research and development Herbert Campman, who develops a skill at hitting the on-screen spot targets with Baer’s light gun rifle from the hip, and becomes more friendly to the project. Further work on the TV Game Unit is approved and funds and additional resources are forwarded. Now working alongside Baer and Harrison is engineer Bill Rusch, a highly creative, if not always super motivated, engineer. 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. We are ever closer to what will be the Magnavox Odyssey,

Watch and listen to Ralph Baer introduce the world to the video game, 1968 video

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.

Home Video Games! Online Shopping! The Participatory Cable Television System

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. 

Inventor of video games Ralph Baer and the Brown Box prototype of the Magnavox Odyssey video game system

Ralph Baer poses with the operating Brown Box video game prototype, 2000

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.

Image of Odyssey, a home video game console by Magnavox 1972

The Magnavox Odyssey, with game card inserted, playing cards surrounding unit

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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… 🙂


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