Son’s Quest to Get Father of Video Games Elevated to IEEE Fellow

Being named an IEEE Fellow is a highlight of Ralph Baer’s illustrious career

25 November 2014

Photo: PBS Inventors/David Friedman

It seems only fitting to me to end the 50th anniversary year of the IEEE Fellows program with this story about how important becoming an IEEE Fellow was to one well-known member.

You would think that Ralph Baer, known as the “Father of the Home Video Game,” would be satisfied with all the accolades he’s received since he came up with the idea for the home console for video games in 1966 known as the Brown Box, which has been acknowledged as the originator of modern video games and the subsequent industry. Or, perhaps that his most well-known individual game, Milton Bradley’s Simon, which is a single-chip, microprocessor-controlled electronic memory game, has sold millions upon millions of units and is still in production today.

And he has still other inventions including display systems for NASA; radar test equipment; electronic toys and games; an electronic organ with a split keyboard; and the coupling of audio tape players and video games. He also created talking greeting cards, picture frames, doormats, and odometers. After all, he holds at least 150 U.S. and foreign patents.

His many patents include one for automatic parachute deployment, similar to systems used or contemplated for use in outer space, and another patent calling for the digitizing of professional sports figures’ faces into related video games. The list goes on.

HIGH HONORS

For these achievements and more, he received the U.S. National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2006. He was further honored in 2008 with the Pioneer Award from the Game Developer’s Choice Awards program. He’s also been inducted into the U.S. National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2010.

His video game test units, production models, notes, and schematics are housed in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, in Washington, D.C., and his papers are kept in the museum’s archives center. When the National Museum of American History’s west wing reopens in the fall or winter of 2015, the concourse area will showcase Baer’s workshop. Replicas of his Brown Box can be found in museums around the world including in Germany, Japan, Montana, New York, California, and New Hampshire, where he came up with most of his ideas. His invention even made an appearance on “What’s My Line?”, the U.S. panel game show that ran from 1950 to 1967, where contestants were questioned about their occupation. He stumped the pane as to what “playing tennis on a television” could possibly mean.

It’s not that IEEE hasn’t recognized Baer’s contributions. He was the recipient of the 2008 IEEE Masaru Ibuka Consumer Electronics Award for outstanding contributions to consumer electronics technology. He also received the 2013 IEEE Region 1 Technological Innovation Award. And this year he made the cover of the April edition of IEEE Consumer Electronics Magazine, which published articles about his extraordinary career. This year he was also honored with the IEEE Edison Medal “for pioneering and fundamental contributions to the video-game and interactive multimedia-content industries.”

A SON’S JOURNEY

But there was one honor Baer placed at or above all the rest: that of IEEE Fellow, the organization’s highest membership grade conferred by its Board of Directors. No more than one tenth of one percent of the total voting membership can be elevated in any one year. The title recognizes senior and life senior members who have contributed in an important way to the advancement or application of engineering, science, or technology and have provided significant value to society.

There is no doubt that Baer qualified to become a Fellow but here’s the crux: someone first had to nominate him, and simply put, you have to know Fellows to become a Fellow because at least five, but no more than eight, of them have to serve as references and assess the candidate’s contributions. But when you are a lone inventor busily toiling away in your workshop that’s attached to your house, you don’t get out much and more important, you don’t get many opportunities to meet these distinguished members. And when you’re in your late 80s as Baer was when he started mounting his effort (he’s now 92), well, that whole nomination business can be pretty overwhelming. So he turned to someone he could count on to get the job done: his son Mark.

“I’m not an IEEE Fellow, why is that?” Baer asked Mark, who unlike his father, is an attorney. Still, like any good son, Mark wanted to help out his dad. But he had a few questions of his own: Just what exactly is an IEEE Fellow, what is the nomination process, and how does one go about finding these other Fellows to act as references? After much research and many phone calls and e-mails, he connected with IEEE Fellow and 2008 IEEE president, Lewis Terman, who helped him with finding other Fellows and took over the application and successfully completed the process. Baer was elevated in 2013 “for contributions to the creation, development and commercialization of interactive video games.”

I sat next to Mark at the 2014 Honors Ceremony where he shared his journey about getting that elusive Fellow status for his father. Mark was there, along with his son Alex, to accept the Edison Medal on behalf of Ralph, whose age made it difficult to travel to Amsterdam from his home in the states. In our conversation, Mark told me he has made it one of his most compelling personal projects to ensure his father’s legacy gets acknowledged.

“History is written by those who stand up to write it, and if you don’t stand up for yourself, you’ll be forgotten,” Mark said. “It’s not an unprecedented situation where the actual inventors get sidelined, outright forgotten, or don’t become financially successful. It is rewarding in and of itself that my dad gets his due recognition.”

In Mark’s speech, broadcast on IEEE.tv, he talked about his relationship with father and said this, “There are very few second chances in life, and I feel like I’m getting one. The old adage: ‘You don’t know what you have until it’s gone,’ is probably pretty accurate for me. I didn’t realize what I had in a father, an inventor, and a historical figure in Ralph Baer until recently. Time (for such acknowledging) luckily hasn’t passed.’”

Do you know an IEEE senior or life member who deserves to be elevated to Fellow status? If so, don’t wait until it’s too late. Improvements to the nomination process to make it easier were introduced this year. The system is now open and ready to accept nominations for the class of 2016.  The submission deadline is 1 March 2015.

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