The Father Of Video Games
From a few notes scribbled on a notepad, Ralph Baer invented a new industry
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.
It was hardly the sort of destiny Baer had imagined for himself when he escaped Germany at age 16 with his family in August 1938, three months before Kristallnacht . Baer had already been kicked out of school two years earlier because of his Jewish heritage. His father saw the gathering storm clouds and somehow managed to get his family out before the Nazis clamped down on Jewish emigration entirely. "My father was active in getting us over," Baer re-members. "Without him we'd all be dead."
Arriving in New York City, Baer worked in a relative's factory for a couple of years, then enrolled in a correspondence course with the National Radio Institute. Back in Germany, Baer recalls, "I always had an interest in things mechanical, but electronics, radio, wasn't even a gleam in my eye." He remembers that he spent a lot of time building things as a kid with the German version of the Erector set, but his efforts were limited because he couldn't afford an electric motor.
In the United States, however, he was free to discover his passion for radio and electronics. After completing the advanced NRI course, he quit the factory and began to work on his own, fixing radios, PA systems, and the few early television sets that were around. When Uncle Sam came calling, Baer's sharp mind and fluent German got him assigned to military intelligence, both in the United States and in Europe, where he served as an interrogator and also trained other soldiers in identifying German uniforms and equipment. "At times I was lecturing two-star, three-star generals, and I'm still a private," he laughs. "Along the way I started collecting German weapons—and within two years I became the official expert in the U.S Army on foreign small arms." After the war, he brought home an 18- ton collection of small arms, using them to set up military exhibits at Fort Riley, Kansas, the Aberdeen Proving -Grounds, and the Springfield, Massachusetts, Armory.
He stayed with his parents temporarily, took a job at Emerson Radio, and tried to get into college, a process complicated by his lack of official school documents, which had been lost or destroyed in the chaos of Nazi persecution. Finally he ended up in Chicago at the American Television Institute of Technology, which granted him the first B.S. degree in television engineering in 1949.
Back in New York, he became the chief engineer of a electromedical equipment company, designing and developing surgical cutting machines and low-frequency muscle- toning equipment, then moved on to Loral, where, aside from creating television sets, he worked on power line carrier signaling methods and military applications for analog computers. In 1956 he left a vice presidency at another company to join Sanders, where he worked on radar and communications technologies for the military (including a system to secretly monitor Soviet signals in Berlin). Along the way, he married the former Dena Whinston and started a family, which eventually included children James, Mark, and Nancy.
Throughout all those jobs and his countless hours creating, designing, and building, Baer had been directly contributing to the steady, startlingly rapid evolution of electronics—from the glowing hot-tube circuitry of the mid-20th century to the sleek digital systems of the 21st. It was that same desire to stay down and dirty in the trenches with the circuit boards and test equipment that not only led Baer to indulge his video game ideas at Sanders, but also eventually to start his own company, R. H. Baer Consultants. Whatever accolades, bonuses, and promotions came his way from his video game breakthroughs, Baer was not about to let himself be fitted for a corporate straitjacket.
"I do have very specific recollections of him coming home and spending some time with the family and then running down to his little engineering palace downstairs," his son Mark remembers. "He just kept working. His vocation was his avocation, and his avocation was his passion." Yet Baer was far from the classic family-neglecting workaholic—he brought them in on his doings, always demonstrating his latest ideas to the kids. "I remember sitting there playing games on a black-and-white set," says Mark, "with a little hand box with masking tape on it, you know, just a little prototype, and I thought, this was pretty neat. Having the inventor of video games for a dad had another advantage. I recall being the first child to beat his brother's sorry ass at a video game. [My brother] will tell you the opposite story, of course."
As the home and arcade video game business grew exponentially in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Baer continued to improve upon his original game ideas and came up with endless new inspirations, including the handheld Simon game, the Maniac game, the Smarty Bear talking plush bear, the Laser Command game, the Bike Max talking bicycle computer, even the first talking greeting card. "All [were] single-chip microprocessor games with early-type processors, little 4-bit processors with 1 K of 4-bit memory," explains Baer. He also found himself spending a lot of time in court, either defending his own patents or testifying as an expert witness in the endless litigations that inevitably arose as companies jockeyed for a slice of the lucrative new video game industry.
Baer retired at 65 in 1987—officially, at least. Unofficially, he's never stopped working, and he continues creating, inventing, and building. He admits to being not much of a gamer himself when it comes to contemporary systems such as the Xbox or Wii, although he still plays a mean game of video ping-pong.
He isn't nostalgic or sentimental about past technology; on the contrary, his appreciation of the current state of the art runs deep, and he notes the explosive technological and cultural growth of the video gaming industry with great satisfaction and a sense of wonder: "Think of it, in 50 years we go from devices that have the equivalent of 10 or 12 transistors to devices that have 10 or 12 million, maybe even 100 million."
Baer donated most of his papers and prototypes to the Smithsonian in 2006. That February he also earned the ultimate honor for an American engineer, the National Medal of Technology, presented in a special White House ceremony by President George W. Bush. The director of the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, Art Molella, says that Baer's "is a big story about technology, the idea of taking one thing designed for one purpose and making it do another. That was his key insight that launched an industry."
Baer is certainly slowing down. He's been in remission from leukemia for several years now but continues to develop new ideas. "Every day," he says, "you'll see me at the bench down there with a soldering iron." Some might call him a tinkerer, but it's a description he fiercely resists. "I'm not a tinkerer. I'm not casual. I will never design or build anything unless it's with an end product in mind."
That same unwavering drive, coupled with an intense creativity and technical understanding, has guided Baer throughout his remarkable career. At the end of his interview for this article, he announced his next objectives: "I'll go and play my harmonica, have a drink, and go back to work."