Ralph Baer passed away at the age of 92 on December 7, 2014. We look into his seminal contribution that evolved into the biggest industry in the world of entertainment.
You might spend many a sleepless night, locked up in your room or pleading with your mom for that extra five minutes on that game console, and that very same game console might even be your life. You might have fond memories of that first NES, those days spent playing Contra, Tekken on the PlayStation, Halo on the Xbox, but have you ever wondered what started all of this? Who was the father of the game console?
The man in question is Ralph Baer, considered by many to be the true, unsung hero behind the game console, one that most of the gaming community has forgotten about.
Ralph Baer, addressed by the video gaming industry as the “father of video games”, showed promising signs of engineering and invention and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Television Engineering (it was a big deal back then). After serving the US Army in World War II, he worked as a senior engineer at Loral Electronics Corporation in 1955, where he was assigned with the task of “building the best television set ever”. Being among the crazy ones, this was when the monumental idea of TV gaming struck him hard. He was, unfortunately, denied the go ahead by a management that failed to grasp the true potential of Baer’s vision. To them, the TV was still the idiot box that kept people glued to their living rooms and fed them incessant advertisements.
This unfortunate set-backed held back the video game console by almost 11 years. Imagine if you will, playing Uncharted on the PS4 way back in 2000. That’s the scale of the loss that a little bit of, maybe blameless, short-sightedness resulted in.
As colour televisions became cheaper, TV was getting more and more popular. The potential of the TV as a game platform couldn’t really be ignored and Baer, sensing another opportunity to put his ideas to the test, wrote up a four page proposal on gamifying the TV. He did this while working as the chief engineer for equipment design at Sanders Associates and teamed up with Bob Tremblay, a fellow engineer, to design a system that would allow users to control a white dot on a TV screen.
He eventually convinced two of his supervisors of the efficacy of his idea, received funding and managed to rope in the minds of Bill Harrison and Bill Rusch. The result was the “Brown Box”, a TV video game console that was released in 1969. Yes, 1969.
The device was called the Brown Box because it was, well, brown in colour. In its seventh iteration, it featured colour output and various games including Chase, Handball, Golf and even Ping Pong (renamed to Table Tennis because of a copyright conflict with Pong).
Once they realised that they had something that worked really well, Baer started looking for people to fund and manufacture his creation. Unfortunately, rejection followed him everywhere and he just couldn’t get his console to market till 1972. In 1972 he was finally able to convince Magnavox (you see where this is heading) to build his creation and release it as the Magnavox Odyssey, the first home video game console to ever be released to the public.
While the Odyssey used analogue circuitry, the televisions at the time were, after all, analogue, Baer was insistent that it was a digital device. It didn’t have audio capability and was powered by six C batteries or A/C power as required. Regardless of whether the device was digital or analogue, the sheer magic of seeing elements on a TV and being able to interact with them was, for the audience of that time, a magical experience. It was unlike anything they had ever visualised in even their wildest dreams. The future of modern gaming was born.
The success of the device started to attract other competitors, however. Nolan Bushnell, co-founder of Atari Inc. saw the Table Tennis game and realised that he could do better and with the help of Allan Alcorn, he created Pong in 1973 and officially acknowledged the inception of the modern, video game industry.
Baer didn’t stop at the Odyssey though. He kept working on improving the console and created what is possibly the more radical of his inventions, the Light Gun (you might remember it from “Duck Hunt”, if you’re old enough). He created a great many more gadgets and games and added a multitude of patents to his portfolio over the course of his life. In his own words, inventing was like breathing and even after retiring from the video game industry, he never stopped tinkering even when he reached the age of 90. It was the one thing that truly kept him alive.
His contribution to the video game industry just cannot be stressed on enough. It’s truly breath taking when you consider the strides that the games’ industry has taken since that first little white dot on the screen to the current pixel pumping monsters.
Interestingly, Baer has never been taken in by the games of today. His Odyssey is the catalyst that sparked the video game world to the multi-billion dollar industry that it is today and gave the opportunity for brilliant designers and developers like Shigeru Miyamoto (Mario) and even Nolan Bushnell to showcase their genius. Of course, someone would have probably invented the game console at some point in time, but it was thanks to Baer that the console was born when it was, even if it was 11 years later than he had hoped. But no one can deny Baer’s genius, he was a man with a purpose and a mission. He always wanted the game console to be a family affair, a tool to bring the family closer. Many will argue that gaming has degenerated from that ideal and we’re inclined to agree, but Baer’s vision and work are what we have to be thankful for.
During his lifetime, Baer was recognized for his work with many awards. He was awarded with the National Medal of Technology by President George W. Bush in 2006 for his pioneering and ground-breaking contribution to the video game industry. At the Game Developers Conference in 2008, he was presented the developers choice “Pioneer” award by none other than Allan Alcorn, a pioneer himself. He was also inducted in the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2010. A true pioneer.
Abhijit "BabuMoshaaye" Dey
This ape-descended life form believed that coming down from the trees was a bad idea until he was introduced to video games. Has spent endless hours playing Prince of Persia, Hitman, Assassin's Creed, Unreal Tournament, Half-Life and Left 4 Dead. This makes it three sentences, Half-Life 3 confirmed.