Everyone with a Play Station or a Wii, or even anyone who spends time playing games or using apps like Angry Birds, owes Ralph Baer a debt of gratitude. Baer invented the first the first home video game system and applied for the first video game patent in 1971. In 1972, Baer’s employer, Sanders Associates, licensed what he called a “game box” to Magnavox, which put the Odyssey video game console on the market. Baer, who collected more than 150 patents during the course of his engineering and programming career, died on Saturday at the age of 92.
The Odyssey console had a master control unit, player controls, and program cards to support various games. It also came with a deck of cards, poker chips, and dice (this was 1972, after all). Odyssey was all hardware, which included 40 transistors and 40 diodes. The console sold only 130,000 units that first year, but it started the age of video games, which has continued to barrel along ever since.
Sanders Associates and Magnavox immediately became protective over what they patented and sold. Soon after Odyssey hit the market, Atari emerged with its first video game offering, Pong. In 1974, Sanders and Magnavox sued Atari, who settled the case by paying $700,000 for the ability to license Odyssey. That was the first of many subsequent lawsuits, and Magnavox won them all—including a suit against Nintendo. In the video above, you can see Baer playing a game on the Odyssey that looks an awful lot like Pong. For the record, the first interactive computer game, Tennis for Two, was invented in 1958.
Baer also co-invented the game Simon, which I and many other kids played endlessly for years. It debuted in 1978 and has been upgraded a few times since then, but it is still being sold. Unfortunately, it hasn’t made kids any better at following instructions.
Baer was originally from Germany, and his family emigrated to the Bronx in 1938 to escape Hitler. As a 16-year-old, Baer worked in a factory making leather cases and was inspired to invent his first machine in order to make the work go faster.
He learned how to fix radios via a correspondence course, and later received a degree in television engineering. That’s what prompted the eureka moment in which instead of focusing on designing a television, he got to thinking about a “game box” that would allow people to play games on a television instead of simply watching it.
And the rest, as they say, is history.