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The Father Of Video Games
From a few notes scribbled on a notepad, Ralph Baer invented a new industry
Fall 2009 | Volume 24, Issue 3
Back in 1951, television was still fairly new and mysterious. Whether they could afford a set at home or just settled for watching one in a radio shop window or other public place, most people were perfectly content to do nothing more than stare passively at the small, flickering, black-and-white screen, later inspiring some wags to dub television the "boob tube." But it wasn't enough for Ralph Baer, a creative young engineer working for the New York electronics company Loral.
Loral wasn't known for building TV sets but, recognizing a hot new market when they saw it, had tasked Baer with designing and building the best television set in the world. "To set up a television set after it came off the production line," he recalls, "you used test equipment that allowed you to put patterns like crosshatch, horizontal and vertical lines on the screen. In playing with this piece of equipment, you're doing something to the screen, basically making things happen."
That gave him an idea. Why not build such a capability into the set itself—putting dots on the screen, for example, that could be controlled and manipulated by the viewer? Maybe you could actually play games on a TV set. That way, Baer realized, TV didn't have to be only something you watched—it could be something you interacted with. It would certainly distinguish Loral's television set from the high-powered competition.
Baer took the idea to Loral's chief engineer, who was singularly unimpressed. "He said, 'Forget it, we're already behind schedule,'" remembers Baer. "That was the end of that."
Except that it wasn't the end. Fifteen years later, Baer was running a division of the military electronics contractor Sanders Associates in New Hampshire. One day, while he was sitting bored in a bus station, waiting for a colleague to arrive for a meeting, the TV game idea floated back into his mind. He grabbed a pen and began furiously scribbling down notes on a pad. "Next morning, September 1, 1966," says Baer, "I wrote a four-page document which lays it out, the basis of it all." No one, not even Baer, realized that the ideas carefully outlined on those four lined notebook pages would originate a multibillion-dollar industry. He had invented the home video game.
Not long after, Bill Harrison, an ex-Air Force radar specialist who had become one of the top technicians at Sanders, found himself mysteriously summoned to a meeting with his division manager. "I couldn't imagine what [Baer] wanted, so I was a little apprehensive," Harrison remembers. "He showed me a TV set with just a white spot on [the screen] that he could control a little bit. He said he wanted to play games on a standard television set, and would I work on this project with him?"
Baer commandeered a small empty room at Sanders to which only he and Harrison had keys. "And no one was to know what was going on in that little room," says Harrison. Over the next several months, in between their official duties on Sanders military contract work, Baer and Harrison transformed Baer's four-page outline into working devices. "We went through several generations of hardware," Baer recalls. The first were chase games in which one spot would chase another and wipe it out, or a light gun would be used to shoot at spots on the screen. "Then the idea of a third spot came along, and we were in the business of interacting with machine-controlled spots. That became ping-pong, handball, volleyball, and we knew we had something."
Baer showed his TV game system to the head of Sanders's R D department, Herb Campman, who approved official funding to develop the idea. Now legitimized, Baer and his technicians no longer had to skulk about company corridors and work part-time in secret rooms.
Eventually Baer's original concept reached fruition in a prototype dubbed the Brown Box, which allowed multiple players to engage in games of pingpong, volleyball, football, shooting targets, all through the generation and manipulation of dots on a TV screen. By 1969 Sanders began demonstrating the system to all the major television manufacturers, including GE, Sylvania, Magnavox, RCA, Philco, and Sears. RCA was the first to bite, but a licensing agreement fell through. About a year later, though, Magnavox finally licensed the technology (partly thanks to an RCA executive who had since become a vice president at Magnavox).
In May 1972, only slightly more than 20 years after the stray notion of playing games on a television set had first crossed Baer's fertile mind, Magnavox released the Odyssey, the first home TV game console. The model 1TL200 was hardly sophisticated: the display was only black-and white, with no sound. The console came with variously colored Mylar overlays to place over the TV screen. Nor was it exactly state-of-the-art electronics, either: although advanced integrated circuits were available by that time, they proved far too expensive for use in a consumer electronics product. Baer designed accordingly, using discrete transistors and other mainline components.
A major marketing push, featuring TV ads starring Frank Sinatra, helped Magnavox sell about 100,000 Odysseys that first year. Not long after, the Atari Company adapted Baer's ping-pong game into a coin- operated version called Pong, and the arcade gaming industry was born. Ralph Baer had created an entirely new diversion that would leave its mark on every generation of American kids from then on.