Today, Mr. Ralph Baer celebrates his 89th birthday. And for that, we should rejoice!
If you’re someone who is truly into video games, then the name Ralph Baer should hold a special place in your heart. In 1966, Ralph Baer and his colleagues began working on the Brown Box. The first machine of its kind; One that would allow a television owner to not just view the pictures on their TV screen, but be able to manipulate and interact with them. This machine would later be presented to Magnavox and born into the world in 1972 as the first ever video game console, the Magnavox Odyssey.
But the story of how this little miracle called video games came to be, that’s equally impressive.
Ralph Baer was born in March of 1922 into a Jewish family in Germany. In the summer of 1938, he and his family fled the country to the United States a couple months ahead of the Kristallnacht, the ransacking of the Jewish neighborhoods and detention of over 30,000 Jews into concentration camps by the Nazis. In the US, he graduated as a radio service technician in 1940. And three years later, he would be drafted by the United States Army working out of France in their Military Intelligence division.
When Mr. Baer came back from the war, he would later attend the American Television Institute of Technology, with a Bachelor of Science in Television Engineering. He would quickly work his way up the ladder until he joined Sanders Associates in 1958 overseeing 500 television engineers.
“I don’t do any snow blowing…I’m pushing 89 in about a month.” Ralph said as we began our interview, discussing the five feet of snow that had just fallen over New Hampshire early this last February. “I don’t go out shoveling or blowing snow anymore.” Completely understandable given that I’m only 32 and even I don’t want to do any snow blowing.
So I asked him, from the beginning, how he came to create the first ever video game system.
“In 1966, I was in New York with old idea I had at Loral doing something with a television set other than turning in channel two or channel four or channel seven if you were lucky to be in some big city and you could get three channels or four. The idea came to me the late last day of August hanging around New York waiting for somebody to come in to go to a client.
The next day on September 1st I put that four page document together…So what do I do with that concept? I’m running a division of 500 engineers, techs, support people. We’re working anti-submarine warfare; we’re working on radio countermeasures. We’re certainly not working on televisions (laughs). So, I’m in a position I report to the executive VP who in turn reports to the president so I’ve got a certain amount of freedom … I have the maintenance people give me a little empty room on the floor above our operation and the keys to the door and the my Technician Bill Harrison who worked with me before came out of the ranks… I called him in and I said “build me this.“
Bill Harrison put together a cabinet that allowed one spot on the screen to chase around another spot and wipe it off the screen. When they got that working, Mr. Baer sent Bill Harrison to the toy store to buy a plastic rifle. They gutted it, and put in the electronics necessary to be able to shoot at the spot on the screen and wipe it off. Thus was born the first peripheral for a gaming system, the light gun.
They built simple joysticks to go with their system and went from there. Seven models were built before the eventual Brown Box system came to be. His third prototype actually included the ability to play video games using superimposed images from CATV (Cable TV) which he actually demonstrated to Teleprompter. “I go down to New York repeatedly, I write technical specs, other guys are doing the business agreement and they ran out of money, there was negative cash flow and the whole thing quit.”
After Magnavox, Mr. Baer had tried to bring in the ability to have online play in the 1970’s using CATV, but the technology for the time was just too primitive. He also worked on motion control based systems in 1969, demonstrating how he could get a machine to track him around the room while he shot at targets on a screen, but once again, technology just needs some time to catch up with the ideas in your head.
Ralph Baer unknowingly created the beginnings of an industry that would raise profits in the billions of dollars, and sell hundreds of millions of consoles to the masses. Entire genres of games would be created, and industry conventions and trade shows would be dedicated to this one man’s idea. Granted, had Mr. Baer not come up with the idea of creating that little ball of light on a screen and shooting at it with a rifle, someone else likely would have. But Mr. Baer was the first, and all of us gamers, writers, developers and shareholders alike owe him a great debt of gratitude.
He does still make the occasional appearance at the odd video game related event and regular appearances via Skype at Video Games Live concerts. If you ever get the opportunity to meet him, be sure to shake his hand and give him thanks for everything he’s given us.
In the meantime, I think we can all say to Ralph Baer, have a very happy 89th birthday. Of course, if you’d like to do something a little more for Mr. Baer, “Buy my book,” he says laughing. “I’m still twenty five thousand dollars out of pocket.”