Being Jewish in Germany in 1937 was a frightening experience, and when Ralph Baer was expelled from his school because of his ethnicity, his family knew their time in Europe was coming to an end.
Four years later, the Baer family moved to America and settled down in New York. Ralph became interested in electronics, and before long he graduated from the National Radio Institute. When he was drafted into the war, Ralph’s electronic background landed him in military intelligence, stationed in London. After the war, Ralph headed back to school and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Television Engineering.
Baer initially came up with the idea of the “Brown Box” in 1951. His idea – a system that would turn the home television into a game – would change the world. It would be another fifteen years before Baer found a company that was willing to fund the project. Sanders Associates gave Baer $2,500 and two engineers – Bill Harrison and Bill Rusch – to bring his concept to life.
With a prototype complete, Baer and the two Bills set about trying to sell the Brown Box. Five years later, TV manufacturer Magnavox agreed to buy the Brown Box with one change. There was no way they were keeping that name. In September of 1972, Ralph Baer’s invention – now called the Magnavox Odyssey – hit store shelves.
The Magnavox Odyssey ran on six C batteries, but there was an optional AC power supply you could buy. The system lacked any ability to make sounds and could only display monochrome white shapes on a blank black screen. Level layouts for games were provided by sticking a plastic overlay on the television via static cling. It also came with dice, cards, and other board game basics.
Still, it was 1972 and the world was starved for entertainment. Coming out before the term “video game” was coined, Magnavox called the Odyssey the “new electronic game of the future”. That title wouldn’t last long.
Before the release of the Odyssey, Nolan Bushnell attended a demonstration of the Odyssey. Impressed with the tennis game on the system, Bushnell went back to his business partner Ted Dabney and suggested that their newly formed company – Atari – copy the game for the arcades. Atari would release their game – Pong – just two months after the Odyssey was released.
Baer would spend decades arguing with Bushnell over who was the father of the modern video game. As Atari took over the game market, Baer helped build the Odyssey 100, which was then followed by the Odyssey2 (and we think Xbox was the first console to have confusing numbering).
Not content with just creating the home console, Baer also co-created the fun yet frustrating electronic toy we all love, Simon.
In 2006, Baer was given the National Medal of Technology for his “groundbreaking and pioneering creation, development and commercialization of interactive video games”. In 2014, at the age of 92, Ralph Baer passed away.
Each time we pick up a controller, each time our TVs let us run around alien worlds or race through the streets of Italy, we have Ralph Baer to thank.
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