Remembering Ralph Baer, the Father of Video Games

The IEEE Fellow invented the home video console

8 December 2014

Photo: Computer History Museum

Ralph Baer, an IEEE Fellow who paved the way for modern home video game consoles, died 6 December at the age of 92.

In 1966, while sitting outside of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, in New York City, Baer used a pencil and paper to sketch his idea for a “game box” that would allow people to play a variety of games on almost any American television set. He then collaborated with colleagues at Sanders Associates (now BAE Electronics), a former defense contractor, in Nashua, N.H., to develop a prototype console called the “Brown Box.” The soundless multiplayer system included clear plastic overlay sheets that could be taped to the player’s TV screen to add color, playing fields, and other graphics. It ran games off printed-circuit-board cartridges that controlled switches to alter the circuit logic, depending on the game.

In 1968 the company licensed the system to TV-set maker Magnavox, which named it the Odyssey. The company offered it in the United States in 1972 and sole 130,000 units the first year. It came with games that included football, a shooting game, and a table tennis game that predated Atari’s popular version, called Pong. Magnavox later sued Atari for patent infringement, saying Pong was a copy of Odyssey’s table tennis game. The case was settled out of court.

Baer’s Brown Box was recently named an IEEE Milestone. Administered by the IEEE History Center, the Milestone program recognizes outstanding technical developments from around the world. The date of the dedication ceremony is yet to be determined.   

Aside from today’s high-tech video game consoles, we can also thank Baer for greeting cards that play a recorded song or message when they are opened as well as the electronic memory game Simon, which became a pop culture icon in the 1980s. The saucer-shaped plastic toy has four colored buttons that light up and emit tones in a sequence that the player then has to reproduce. Baer invented the game with toymaker Howard J. Morrison in 1978. It is still being sold.

Baer also developed interactive video entertainment and educational and training games for consumer and military applications. He donated his original video games to the Smithsonian Institution, as reported on the IEEE Global History Network.

RECOGNITIONS

Baer received this year’s IEEE Edison Medal “for pioneering and fundamental contributions to the video-game and interactive multimedia-content industries.” He was elevated to Fellow in 2013 “for contributions to the creation, development, and commercialization of interactive video games.” He also received the 2013 IEEE Region 1 Technological Innovation Award and the 2008 IEEE Masaru Ibuka Consumer Electronics Award.

Aside from his IEEE accolades, Baer received the U.S. National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2006 and was inducted into the U.S. National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2010. He was also honored in 2008 with the Pioneer Award from the Game Developer’s Choice Awards program.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

Baer was born 8 March 1922 to a Jewish family in Pirmasens, Germany, where his father worked in a shoe factory. The family emigrated to New York City in 1938 to escape Nazi forces and settled in the Bronx. Baer immediately began working in a leather factory before leaving in 1940 to repair radios. He was drafted by the U.S. Army in 1943 and served as an intelligence officer in Europe during World War II.

After the war, Baer attended the American Television Institute of Technology, in Chicago, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in television engineering in 1949. He then became an engineer at Loral Electronics, a TV manufacturer, in New York City. In 1951 he attempted to add a game-playing feature to one of the company’s TV sets, but the company rejected the idea.

In 1956 Baer joined Sanders, where he quickly advanced to division manager. According to the New York Times, while he pursued military projects like electronic devices to teach weapons aiming, his mind returned to the idea of a TV set with a game feature. Those musings led to his “eureka” moment at the New York bus station. He retired from Sanders in 1987 and started his own consulting business.

You can read our recent blog post about how he enlisted the help of his son on his quest to be elevated to IEEE Fellow. You can also check out “From Pong to Playstation 3” to learn more about the history of video games.

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