Widely-known as the Thomas Edison of video games, Ralph Baer was a pioneering force in interactive entertainment, creating the first ever home video game console. He passed away in December 2014, aged 92 and will be fondly remembered as the grandfather of video games.
Fleeing the rise of Nazi occupation in Germany, Baer and his family immigrated to the U.S in 1938. At the young age of sixteen, Baer became fascinated with television and it’s communicative power. He signed up to a correspondence course before being drafted into the army where he designed surveillance technology for the military, which fueled his inspiration into creating something far less destructive and more akin to his passion for play.
After the war, Baer earned a degree in Television Engineering. However in a world full of post war blues something fresh, new and unique was concocting in Baer’s mind – something incomprehensible to the mass market – playing games on your television.
Baer decided to use joysticks that resembled the flight controls of airplanes. This was very much inspired by his militaristic background to control simple little white dots on the screen that are reminiscent to a blip on a radar. But with these dots you’d get the same amount of enjoyment today playing with the cursor on your computer! It seems primitive by today’s standards but was revolutionary in scope back in the early seventies. The prototype was dubbed “Brown Box” but it is better known by it’s commercial name, the Magnavox Odyssey.
To the first ever gamers in 1972, interacting with their entertainment was groundbreaking technology. Long before the days of HD they were colour overlays that used static electricity to stick onto your television screen for each different game you played. Audience’s back then had to use a lot of imagination while playing Ping Pong. Baer however provided the initial spark for games to evolve, with the founder of Atari, Nolan Bushnell applying this to his own home video console on the Atari 2600 which ditched the overlays for built in computer graphics.
There was however a legal scuffle over the licenses of Ralph Baer’s Ping Pong game and Nolan Bushnell’s Pong, which was eventually resolved in a million dollar settlement.
Peripherals were later introduced, including an incredibly authentic looking light gun that plugs into the console. If it were on the market today, parents would freak out.
Playing on an Odyssey today you won’t get much enjoyment out of it. Comparing it to the conventional video games of today, it barely (no pun intended) qualifies as a video game. That said, without Ralph Baer the landscape of the video game industry would not be the same today, perhaps even non-existent. In 2006, his legacy was also appreciated by George Bush awarding him the National Medal of Technology.
Gaming has evolved astronomically in its relatively short lifespan and when Ralph Baer named his console the Odyssey it was a very fitting title of the start of the video game phenomenon. RIP Ralph Baer thanks for the games.