Computers

Published on December 13th, 2014 | by Val Farrelly

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Ralph Baer “Father of Video Games” Dies

Last weekend, Ralph Baer died, aged 92, at his home in Manchester, New Hampshire. You may not have heard of him, but without him we’d probably never have played on an Atari, Amiga, Sega, S-NES, PlayStation, XBox or a Wii.

In 1966, Ralph Baer was an engineer overseeing a team of 500 military contractors when he had an idea: create a box that would enable people to interact directly with their TVs, which were starting to show up in many American homes.

For the next five years, Baer and a small team of researchers set about drafting and tinkering with dozens of prototypes. In March 1971, he submitted a patent for the first video game system, which his team had nicknamed the “Brown Box”. One year later, Baer’s team licensed their system to Magnavox. Magnavox named the system “Odyssey” and it sold over 130,000 units in its first year, becoming the first home video game console. The Brown Box / Odyssey earned Baer the nickname “the father of video games.” Its success helped to kick off the first wave of TV-connected gaming consoles and inspired an entire industry.

brown box
Ralph Baer was born in 1922, to a Jewish family in Pirmasens, Germany.  Baer came to America in 1938, fleeing Hitler and the Nazis with his family.  After settling in the Bronx, Baer worked to pay for correspondence courses in electronics that taught him how to repair and service radios and he became a radio service engineer.

In 1943, he was drafted into the US Army, where his ability to speak German led to him becoming an intelligence officer. While serving in the Army, he continued to tinker with electronics. In his spare time he used parts from captured German mine detectors to make simple radios. After the war, he used the GI Bill to earn a Bachelor’s in Television Engineering from the American Television Institute of Technology in Chicago.

As early as 1951, he had the idea of adding a game-play feature to a television that he was charged with designing, but the idea was rebuffed by his boss. The idea, however, seems to have stuck with Baer and 15 years later it was reborn as the Brown Box which is now regarded as the first video game console. The “Brown Box” console allowed two people to take each other on in several different games starting with a very basic version of table tennis. A total of 27 games were developed and released for the Magnavox Odyssey. The comparatively crude graphics enabled players to compete against each other in games like Baseball, Basketball, Brain Wave, Cat and Mouse, Dogfight, Football, Handball, Haunted House, Hockey, Interplanetary Voyage, Invasion, Prehistoric Safari, Shooting Gallery, Table Tennis, Tennis, Volleyball and Win.

odyssey_1600x1200

In addition to the Brown Box, which paved the way for everything from Atari to Xbox, Baer was also responsible for the popular 1980’s memory game Simon, which he invented in 1978. The early portable computer game paved the way for other popular home games, like Pac-Man and Frogger.  The Odyssey was the first of many game-related electronic devices that Baer invented, he also created the first light gun that could be used to shoot on-screen targets. In later work, Baer also helped Coleco develop some of its games consoles and he did work on collaborative play via cable networks.

In 2004, he was awarded the US National Medal of Technology and in 2010 was inducted into America’s National Inventors Hall of Fame. Next summer, Baer’s lab will go on view at the Smithsonian American History Museum in Washington, DC.

 

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About the Author

Val Farrelly

Val has worked in a variety of roles in TV & Film in Ireland and the US for over a decade. He has worked with companies ranging from start-ups to the Canadian equivalent of the BBC. Most recently he has been writing pilots for TV shows in Los Angeles. A long-time comic and movie geek, he is also the world’s worst living gamer, having been being afflicted with the eye-hand coordination of a stroke-afflicted sloth since the days of programming 8-bit games in BASIC on a Commodore VIC-20 as a child.



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