If you own a video game console, you owe a debt to Ralph Baer, and an idea he had in 1966.
Baer, 92, died on Saturday at his home in Manchester, NH. He is known as “the father of video games,” for inventing the technology that made possible the Magnavox Odyssey, the very first home video game console.
Baer was born in Germany in 1922. He and his family fled Germany amid the rise of the Nazi Party in 1938 and settled in New York City. Baer served as an Army engineer in World War II, co-founded a military intelligence school in England, and was an amateur expert in period weapons technology. After the war, Baer returned to the United States and worked as an engineer before joining Sanders Associates, a manufacturer in New Hampshire whose chief client was the United States Defense Department, in 1956.
The very first video game, Tennis For Two, was invented by Dr. William Higinbotham in 1958 at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. Higinbotham’s game used an oscilloscope as its display device. Some believe Baer drew inspiration from Tennis For Two when, in 1966, Baer conceived his idea for a “game box” that could be attached to a television set to play a multitude of different video games.
Baer was given a $2,500 budget by Sanders Associates to develop his game box idea. His co-workers William Harrison and William Rusch built the first prototype console and came up with the idea of using “paddles” to control the console, respectively. In 1967, a prototype was shown to executives of Sanders Associates, the same year in which Baer also invented the first light gun that could interact with television sets.
The Brown Box console was the technology eventually shopped out to companies in the search for a distribution partner. The technology was licensed to Magnavox in 1971 and the Magnavox Odyssey, the first home video game console, was sold to consumers in 1972.
The Odyssey game Ping-Pong became an inspiration for the very first video arcade game, Pong, which was developed by Nolan Bushnell’s company Atari. A lawsuit filed by Magnavox against Atari in 1976 led to a settlement in which Atari became a licensee of the Odyssey system. From that point of view, one could say Baer also had a hand in the Atari 2600, which exploded home gaming into the mainstream.
Baer went on to develop display technology for electronic blackjack games in casinos, the memory game Simon for the Milton Bradley company, and provided technical assistance for the Telstar game console produced by Coleco.
Baer was awarded a National Medal of Technology by President George W. Bush in 2004. His autobiography, Videogames: The Beginning, was published in 2005. In 2008 at the Game Developers Choice Awards, the most prestigious awards in the video game industry, Baer was given the Pioneer Award.
Baer was also inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2010. At the time of his death, Baer held more than 150 patents. Baer’s wife, Dena Whinston, died in 2006. He is survived by two sons, James Baer and Mark Baer, his daughter, Nancy Baer, and four grandchildren.
Screengrab via David Friedman/Vimeo