At the dawn of the television age in 1951, a young engineer named Ralph Baer approached executives at an electronics firm and suggested the radical idea of offering games on the bulky TV boxes.
“And of course,” he said, “I got the regular reaction: ‘Who needs this?’ And nothing happened.”
It took another 15 years before Baer, who died Dec. 6 at 92, developed a prototype that would make him the widely acknowledged father of video games. His design helped lay the groundwork for an industry that transformed the role of the television set and generated tens of billions of dollars last year.
Baer “saw that there was this interesting device sitting in millions of American homes — but it was a one-way instrument,” said Arthur P. Molella, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. “He said, ‘Maybe there’s some way we can interact with this thing.’ “
A refugee from Nazi Germany, Baer had training in electronics as a teenager. He spent much of his early career developing surgical equipment, loudspeakers, circuit boards and other technology for industrial and military clients.
He was a division manager and chief engineer for Sanders Associates, a Nashua, New Hamphire-based military contractor when, in 1966, the company allowed him to begin work on the video-game idea as a side project.
“The object of the exercise was to come up with a device that would attach to an ordinary TV set and play interesting games,” he wrote in his 2005 book, “Videogames: In the Beginning.” “Since there were over 40 million sets in the U.S. alone at the time, this looked like a business opportunity.”
Games had been played for years on computers — mostly large, expensive ones in university and military laboratories — but home use was a novel idea. The prototype that eventually became the first home-gaming console, developed by Baer alongside engineers William Harrison and William Rusch, was called the “Brown Box” because it was covered with adhesive tape that resembled wood grain.
Once plugged in, the console could be used to aim a “light gun” and play football, tennis and roulette games. After failing to attract interest from major TV makers such as General Electric, Motorola and Zenith, Sanders licensed the technology to Magnavox in 1971. The console, named “Odyssey,” arrived in stores the next year.
The Odyssey, ancestor of Sony’s PlayStation, Nintendo’s Wii and Microsoft’s Xbox, was primitive by modern standards. It was battery-powered, for starters, and it had no sound. Its games, however, presaged many of the genres that remain staples today, including racing, sports and shooting.
Magnavox priced the Odyssey at $100, and the company sold several hundred thousand by the end of the decade. Some consumers thought it worked only on Magnavox televisions, perhaps limiting sales.
The technology proved influential. Other firms licensed it from Magnavox, and one — Atari, co-founded by Nolan Bushnell, who had seen a demo of the Odyssey system and later created the massively popular “Pong” arcade game — became one of the industry’s defining companies. Atari’s first home system, the 2600, sold in the millions after it was released in 1977.
The consoles were marketed as modern arcade games and gained popularity alongside traditional pinball machines and jukeboxes. In the next decades, however, play-at-home games came to dominate sales as increased competition vaulted the technology forward. The electronic-game business ultimately evolved along four interwoven threads — console, computer, arcade and hand-held games — that remain in place today.
Baer advocated for the “play value” of older games even as new ones offered ever-improving sounds, graphics and storytelling. “You’ll find that that kind of play is simple and obvious,” he told the publication High Times in 2004. “It’s more fun, at least to older people who can’t manage today’s stuff. Anybody over 35 can’t play today’s games. Who has the patience?”
Ralph Henry Baer was born March 8, 1922, in Pirmasens, Germany. His family was Jewish, and they left for the United States months before the anti-Semitic Kristallnacht attacks.
The family settled in New York, where the teenage Baer (who had stopped formal schooling at 14) worked in a factory that made leather accessories. While riding the subway one day, he spotted an advertisement for a correspondence course promising a lucrative career in radio electronics.
“I said ‘sayonara’ to the factory,” he told the Boston Globe in 2007. “I memorized the entire handbook of vacuum tubes.”
He graduated in 1940 from the National Radio Institute in Washington and was a radio service technician for three years before Army service in Europe during World War II. On the G.I. Bill, he received a bachelor’s degree in 1949 from the American Television Institute of Technology in Chicago.
Baer continued to work in video gaming after Odyssey launched, but he turned much of his attention to electronic games and devices. His work for a company called Marvin Glass &Associates eventually led to “Simon,” one of the most popular toys of the 1980s.
The game played a series of lights and tones, challenging the player to recall and repeat them by tapping four colored pads. It grew more difficult as the player succeeded, the play becoming increasingly frenetic.
Baer, who had been hired by Marvin Glass to develop an electronic game, saw a similarly themed arcade game by Atari called “Touch Me” at a trade show in 1976 and figured he could improve upon it by making the tones sound pleasant no matter the order in which they were tapped.
The resulting game — made handheld and whose tones were inspired by the fourotes of the bugle — was developed with the help of Lenny Cope, a programmer, and Howard Morrison, a designer at Marvin Glass.
“Simon,” named for the children’s game “Simon Says,” was an instant success. Milton Bradley sold 10 million copies of “Simon” by 1982, launching a number of variations and updates — some of which Hasbro, which acquired Milton Bradley in the 1980s, still markets. Other companies released their own versions: Atari, too, eventually put out a handheld version of “Touch Me.”
President George W. Bush awarded Baer the National Medal of Technology in 2006. Four years later, Baer was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
His wife, Dena Whinston, died in 2006. Survivors include three children, James Baer, Mark Baer and Nancy Baer; and four grandchildren. Baer died at his home in Manchester, N.H, said his son Mark. He did not disclose the cause.
Baer understood the universal appeal of a well-designed game. During a visit to a patent examiner’s office to discuss his original system, he found himself largely ignored as his lawyer and the examiner conferred in technical jargon.
“While they were bantering back and forth about the claims, I set up a small television set and my game console in the examiner’s office,” Baer recalled. “Within 15 minutes, every examiner on the floor of that building was in that office wanting to play the game.”