Ralph Baer’s Brown Box Is Named an IEEE Milestone

Released as the Magnavox Odyssey, the interactive home video game system paved the way for today’s popular consoles

1 October 2015

Long before Nintendo Wii U, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One there was the Brown Box, invented by IEEE Life Fellow Ralph Baer. Known as the Father of Video Games, he came up with the idea for a home console for video games in 1951. It let people play games on almost any television set and spawned the commercialization of interactive video games.

The Brown Box was honored last month with an IEEE Milestone. Administered by the IEEE History Center and supported by donors, the IEEE Milestone program recognizes outstanding technical developments around the world.

YEARS IN THE MAKING

Baer got his idea for the game while working as an engineer at Loral Corp., a military electronics company in New York City. But the company could see no use for it, and it languished. Then in 1966, while sitting outside of New York City’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, Baer used pencil and paper to sketch the technical details for what he called a “game box.” At the time, he was an engineer at Sanders Associates (now BAE Systems*), a defense contractor, in Nashua, N.H. An intrigued manager gave him US $2,500 for materials and assigned two engineers to work with him. The project became an obsession for the three men, who built prototype after prototype in a secret workshop.

What resulted was the so-called Brown Box, a multiplayer system that included clear plastic overlay sheets that could be taped to a TV screen to add the outline of playing fields, color, and other graphics. Games ran off printed-circuit-board cartridges that controlled switches to alter the circuit logic, depending on the game. It had no sound.

In 1968, Sanders licensed the system to TV-set maker Magnavox, which in 1972 began offering its Odyssey system in the United States for $100. Some 130,000 units were sold the first year. Odyssey included football, a shooting game, and a table tennis game that predated Pong, Atari’s popular version, which was introduced in 1972. Baer’s 1971 patent on a “television gaming and training apparatus,” the first U.S. patent for video game technology, was based on the Brown Box. He died on 6 December 2014, at the age of 92. (The Institute wrote a tribute to Baer shortly after his death.)

A ceremony for the new IEEE Milestone was held on 21 September of this year. A plaque mounted outside of the lobby of BAE Systems, in Nashua, N.H.* reads:

The Brown Box console, developed at Sanders Associates—later BAE Systems—between 1966 and 1968, was the first interactive video game system to use an ordinary home television set. This groundbreaking device and the production-engineered version Magnavox Odyssey game system (1972) spawned the commercialization of interactive console video games, which became a multibillion-dollar industry.

This article was written with information provided by the IEEE History Center, which is funded by donations to the IEEE Foundation.

*This article has been corrected.