An in-depth interview with the father of videogames, Ralph H. Baer. The man that started it all gives his opinion on violence in videogames, the media’s coverage of the gaming industry, the Nintendo Wii, and his honest feelings toward Atari’s former President Nolan Bushnell.
Not too long ago the following conversation took place amongst the Diehard Gamefan staff:
Bebito: I have secured an interview with Ralph H. Baer. The father of videogaming.
Bryan Berg: Sweet! Awesome!!!
Christopher Bowen: Goodness, what an amazing pick-up… Ralph Baer? Wow.
Bebito: Yeah. He’s one of the top five people in the industry I’ve always wanted to talk to. The man is a genius.
Anonymous Staff Member: I thought that was Nolan Bushnell.
Nolan Bushnell. Nolan Bushnell?!
Despite receiving the “Father of Video Game” award at the Gametronics Conference in San Francisco….
Despite receiving the “Inventor of the Year” award from the State of New Hampshire….
Despite his work exhibited literally all over the world at the Smithsonian, the Japan National Science Museum, the Heinz Nixdorf Museum, the American Computer Museum, and the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, NY….
Despite President George W. Bush presenting him with a National Medal of Technology during ceremonies in the White House honoring him for his groundbreaking and pioneering creation, development and commercialization of interactive video games….
Despite all that… There are a ton of gamers I run into and they’re all like, “Ralph Baer? Who?”
Here’s a quick history lesson: Way back before Halo, before Madden, before Mario, before Donkey Kong, before Pac-Man, before Pong… on a sunny day on the last day of August in 1966, there was a man sitting on a park bench waiting for a bus. That man was Ralph H. Baer. He was an immigrant from Germany under employment of an American Government Defense company. Ralph was on a business trip to New York City waiting for a co-worker to come into town for a meeting with a client. Who knows what inspired him to do so at that particular moment but he began jotting down some of his thoughts on a small spiral note book that was perched on his knee. It was about a concept that had been in the back of his mind since he designed and built TV sets under previous employment back in 1955. The subject? Using an ordinary home television set to play games. Those notes are gone but the idea remained. That September Ralph wrote a 4-page document describing his plans for creating the first videogames. By May of the following year the ideals were brought to fruition when the heavens opened up, the doves flew down, the light shined forth and Ralph Baer successfully created the first two-player game, signaling the birth of videogames the world over.
Things just took off from there. In June 1967 he demonstrated the first light gun game, a precursor to Duck Hunt, Virtua Cop, House of the Dead, and all other future arcade and home console light gun shooters.
By November he completed work on and demonstrated the first fully-functional ping-pong game, something that Nolan Bushnell (President of Atari) later copied and is attributed credit for with the “creation” of PONG.
In 1968 Ralph filed the first patent application for videogames and finished a unit capable of playing ping-pong, volley-ball, football and gun games. It was a prototype which spawned the “Brown Box”, the first fully-programmable, multi-player videogame unit. Ralph Baer showed off his creation to a variety of TV-set manufactures finally joining up with Magnavox and in March 1972 the “Odyssey” was launched, the very first videogame console. Always remember that name: “Odyssey”. It was the start of home videogames nationwide. The Playstation, the Xbox, the NES, the Genesis, the GameBoy, the Atari 2600 and everything before, since, and beyond… all of their lineage traces back to that console. All of them exist because of the trails blazed by the Magnavox Odyssey and the father of videogames, Ralph Baer.
Respect for his endeavors did not come easily. Numerous lawsuits were filed against many infringing videogame companies that stole Ralph Baer’s work. It took several years but they were all settled and in the end Ralph was vindicated for his contributions to gaming. Even so, I’ve seen “History of Videogames” documentaries that completely omit his accomplishments. Why the name Ralph Baer isn’t as widely recognized as Shigeru Miyamoto or the aforementioned Nolan Bushnell or many others within the gaming industry is beyond me. But maybe this shouldn’t be too surprising. Even with all of his accomplishments Ralph Baer was never a glory hog. He never had the undying need to put himself center spotlight. He was just doing what he loves. Videogames were simply born from that love.
I was fortunate enough to speak with Ralph Baer about the Odyssey, the inspiration for videogames, the struggle for validation, and his thoughts on the current climate of the game industry, his various other inventions, his life and his legacy.
Bebito Jackson: You were born in Germany, correct? When you were only around 16 years old you, your parents, and sister left for North America. For any unfamiliar with your life back then… Could you please explain what motivated your family to move to the USA?
Ralph Baer: Yes, I was born in Germany in 1922 and live in Cologne until my parents and my sister and I left for New York in August of 1938, just three months ahead of Kristallnacht. Had we still been in Cologne in November, chances are that both my father and I would have been marched off to a Concentration Camp. We were very fortunate to have a large family in New York (who had been there for three generations). They provided the necessary affidavits. We made it through the bureaucratic obstacles on the German side only because my father had the foresight to start the emigration process early enough.
Was it difficult for your family to adapt to the change? It appears you did all right because you became one of the biggest contributors to the business of inventing, developing, and licensing electronic consumer products of our generation. But for the family collectively, was it a challenge?
We arrived at the tail end of the Depression. Things were still tough. My father started a leather goods manufacturing business from scratch with the help of some relatives, my mother took in piecework from the factory where I worked in 1938-1940…of course it was difficult, However my sister and I were good English speakers even before we arrived in New York and had no trouble becoming integrated into life in America.
Ok Ralph, the big question. The inspiration for videogames, your eureka moment; how did it happen?
No idea, no invention starts off in a vacuum…I serviced television sets for several years before WWII (when I served in the Army in England, France and Germany for 3 years); I converted surplus radar scopes into TV sets for students in my college in Chicago where I studied TV technology, had a lab job after hours and also worked in the lab building TV studio equipment. So…I knew the technology. Furthermore, I was hired by Loral in 1951 to build a TV set with projection optics from scratch. So TV technology was my middle name. That clearly was the background for thinking about what to do with an ordinary home TV set other than watching one of the three or four channels that we then got on our rabbits’ ears or even via the early cable systems. It all came together in my head in May of 1966 and I formally started the process of building videogame hardware with a 4 page-paper, a Disclosure Document that is the genesis of the home console videogame industry. That Disclosure Document (as well as some five hundred additional documents that were generated in the course of pursuing videogame development and marketing the stuff starting in 1966 and ending in 1969) are now at the Smithsonian Institute and can be accessed by going to their site. (Click Here For The Link.).
I assume your educational background at the American Television Institute of Technology (ATIT) was a factor in your interest to develop interactive uses for television. Why did you decide to go there and obtain a BS degree in Television Engineering in the first place?
I left school as a 14-year-old in Cologne because after 1935 Jewish kids were summarily tossed out of school by the Nazis. I spent the next two years working in an office doing typing, taking shorthand for business correspondence etc. While I took and graduated from successive correspondence course (National Radio Institute, others) before the War and studied Algebra I and II throughout the war in my spare-time, I had no school credentials when I got discharged in 1946. On top of that, all colleges were then already filled to the brim with ex-GI’s who had been discharged early than I was. I came back from Europe with 18 tons of foreign small arms which were then set up in three exhibits in the US. I had made myself into a small arms expert in Europe and had two major museum-like displays in England and France where we taught our troops how to handle foreign weapons; ATIT was the only school that allowed me to take an entrance exam (which I passed no sweat) and they became an accredited college while I was there. My degree was the first degree in TV Engineering given anywhere in the U.S.
You were working as Division Manager and Chief Engineer at Sanders Associates, a Defense Industry company. Videogames had nothing to do with your work at Sanders Associates, but you allocated some of the company’s assets toward its research and development. Did you get much resistance when you started work on the project?
I had a ten-million dollar direct-labor payroll (in 1970’s dollars) in my division of some 500 engineers and techs, etc. Putting a tech to work on something I wanted done didn’t even ripple my overhead, so nobody had to know what I was doing until I had something significant to show. That was TV Game No.2 which displayed two square symbols on-screen and allowed two players to chase one-another (using Joysticks which we built) and to “wipe out”Â the other guy upon “contact”Â; we also had a light-gun game for shooting at targets as well as a lot of other, mostly trivial stuff. That was shown the management in early 1967. While everybody there with one or two exceptions thought I was wasting my time (and the Company’s) I did get some official funding. If you want to learn more about all the activities that took place after that during the next two years, read my book, “Videogames: In the Beginning”Â.
Please briefly describe the “Brown Box”. Do you consider it the very first videogame console as opposed to the Odyssey which the “Brown Box” eventually spawned?
The Brown Box was the seventh developmental game system my tech Bill Harrison built for me between early 1967 and early 1969. Technically, it was designed with discrete transistor logic circuitry because early integrated circuits were still to expensive and were power hogs. That circuitry consisted of some forty transistors and 40+ diodes (mostly used in logical AND circuits) and a lot of other electronics components. It was the Brown Box that was demonstrated in 1969 to TV game manufacturers like Motorola, Sylvania, Philco, RCA, Magnavox and others which resulted in a license agreement between Sanders and Magnavox in 1971 (the lawyers having taken their sweet time). The Magnavox Odyssey game of 1972 was a production version of the Brown Box and was the first home videogame console anywhere, ever. Some 350,000 Odysseys were sold over the next two-and-a-half years.
When you, Sanders Associates and Magnavox came to an agreement to develop the Odyssey it was a milestone for the gaming industry. However by today’s standards the total amount of console units sold is modest. Do you still consider the Odyssey to be a success?
Selling 350,000 units to homes in the US alone translates into one to two-million individuals who played videogames…not too shabby a start for something totally new then. It is deceptive to look at 1960-70 statistics with the eyes of someone accustomed to sales numbers common to the current videogame industry. That ignores forty years of semiconductor progress and the resultant revolution in the electronics industry and all others touched by it. So Odyssey WAS a success and so was the Pong arcade game (of which Atari made 7000 in 1973 and Bally-Midway and others another 20,000 or so.) Those games certainly helped the sale of Magnavox Odyssey home games…no doubt about that; meanwhile their manufacturers were brought under license agreement with Sanders/Magnavox via lawsuits within a few years and had to pay up many tens of millions of dollars. (Photo of signed Magnavox Odyssey console used courtesy of Martin Goldberg and Electronic Entertainment Museum.)
When companies began infringing on your patents the subsequent law suits were a long and droning process. First you had to convince Magnavox to pursue the litigation at all. According to your agreement they handled all sublicensing activities for videogames. This took over 3 years of convincing. Why such resistance on their part?
No company can consider litigating patents unless the dollar amount of sales of the infringing product have reached a certain value. Lawsuits are extremely expensive. It was not until mid-1970 that the arcade game business and the home console business was large enough to warrant law-suits. That’s the long-and-the-short of it.
Multiple suits were filed with a list of infringing companies including Atari, Nintendo, Sega, Activision, and Mattel. The court proceedings went on for 15 years, correct? During that long period of time were you ever fed up with the entire process or began to doubt if it would all ever be settled?
The first lawsuit started in mid-1972. The last was in 1994-1996 for past infringement. To put it mildly, going through repeated depositions and spending as much as a whole week on the stand in various courts (Chicago, New York, S.F. Canada and England) got to be a big pain after a while, but it had to be done…and it certainly paid off for Magnavox/Philips and Sanders/Lockheed.
Close to $100 million was paid in patent infringements based off your technological achievements. However since you developed this under the umbrella of Sanders Associates you were not entirely entitled to it, is that right? Did you receive what you would deem substantial and fair compensation?
The short answer to the first and second question are plainly: YES and NO. However, when the returns from licenses and litigations became substantial, I no longer had to run a large division. That stress being eliminated, I could now basically do any R&D work at Sanders that interested me. In the process I got the company into other interactive video related fields such as weapons simulations and training which were of interest to our military customer. Above all, I got total freedom to do what I wanted as long as those dollars kept rolling in from videogame licensees and that changed my life completely. I became a Sanders/Lockheed Engineering Fellow which gave me all sorts of freedom within a large company. It also enabled me to start (and continue to run after leaving S/A-Lockheed in 1979 at age 67) my own electronic toy and game inventing, developing and licensing business which I have carried on to the present. Games like Milton-Bradley’s Simon were the result. I am still working on novel products 20+ years later
Many still consider Atari’s PONG to be the first videogame. This is of course false as you created Ping-pong along with a variety of other videogames, including volley ball, soccer, hockey, and several others, nearly 5 years earlier on the “Brown Box”. Your accomplishments to electronic entertainment, in my opinion, are not as widely known as they should be compared to others in the gaming industry. So often when I talk about the man that was the “father of videogames” people’s knee jerk reaction is to say it was Atari’s president Nolan Bushnell. Why do you think that is? Was the lack of recognition for creating the first videogames and console ever upsetting to you?
Nolan became our first licensee. I met him on the steps of the Federal District Court building in Chicago in 1975. Who knew then what the dimensions of the videogame business were going to be? For me, inventing videogames was just one successful thing I had done among many others. I thought of myself as an engineer and inventor who had done his job. Bushnell is a publicity hound (not exactly the wrong thing to be when you are promoting a company) and it was he who stuck his head in front of the camera at every possible opportunity and took credit for things he didn’t do (including such guys on his own staff as Ted Dabney who did all of the original development work of Computer Space and Alan Alcorn who converted Nolan’s description of the Odyssey ping-pong game into his Pong arcade game version) . He also spouted a lot of derogatory nonsense in public and in court about the Odyssey, about the Brown Box and other things that affected me but the lawyers kept telling me to cool it. Years later (and wiser) I know better and the end result is that it is Ralph Baer who went to White House and had the President of the United States hang the National Medal of Technology around his neck in a large, official ceremony…..and not Nolan.
While on the subject, what is your opinion of Nolan Bushnell? He’s accomplished much, but in the beginning for all intents and purposes all he did was steal your idea, put it in a larger box, paint it yellow, and slap a coin slot on it.
Nolan has been forced to tone down his assertions about who did what as the years went by. I respect the things that he actually did. He will not reciprocate. On a person-to-person basis, I have repeatedly tried to smoke the peace pipe with Nolan but have always been rebuffed. I recently shared the stage with Alan Alcorn at the Game Developers Conference in S.F. We had fun playing a (replica) Brown Box ping-pong game for the audience. Enough said.
Ralph, you invented light gun games back in 1967, a genre that now has a negative stigma against it due to the fact the controller is well, gun shaped. Do you think this is a justified worry some parents and politicians have due to the current climate in America, or do you think this is just fear for the sake of fear?
Light guns, blood all over the screen in certain games etc. and other forms of gore are a reflection of our culture (or the lack of it). I take no responsibility for that.
Did you ever expect video games would be blamed for multiple crimes? Do you think the media’s coverage of gaming these days is fair and justified?
Of course, I did not. The general press is all over both sides of all questions of morality, war and peace, blood and guts and is no gauge by which to measure the effect of anything, least of all videogames. Of course, there might be a relationship between pushing unbalanced kids into doing something murderous after years of fighting bloody wars in a virtual world; but then, reading books of similar genre can do the same thing to a youngster; regrettably, that’s just how it is.
Do you think videogames should be respected as much as movies and music?
Good ones, absolutely; they involve just as much art and science as any good movie or good music.
Recently there has been a shift with Nintendo attempting to capitalize on simpler games with the Wii console. Like Pong and other (older) classic games, these games are widely accessible to a greater audience. Do you view Nintendo’s vision of making games this accessible to be beneficial for the industry or a step backwards?
Absolutely. As it turns out, I have been preaching the use of accessories that involve the whole body of the player for years; in fact I demonstrated such accessories to various manufacturers’ (Konami. etc.) representatives in 1990 and thereabouts. I was rebuffed then and have no piece of the present action, but I approve of the direction in which Nintendo is going. Others will follow.
You openly admit you lost when playing your first two player game. I find that wonderfully amusing. What game was it and who beat you?
My tech, Bill Harrison, in a Notebook entry of his wrote in May of 1967: “Played first game. Name of winner will be withheld”Â- i.e.: never make the boss angry. This Note follows a schematic and a description of a two-spot chase game which he had built and got to work, whereupon he called me into the lab room to play the game with him…so I lost. What would you expect…..he had been fooling around with that stuff on the bench for a couple of weeks before I got a chance to play that game. Besides, Bill and I still meet several times each year and I often beat him at ping-pong when we demonstrate replicas of the Brown Box at various public venues……..and he is 14 years younger than I am.
What are some of your favorite videogames?
I date back to the Space Invader and the Donkey Kong games eras…that’s all I know about games except for what I watch over the shoulders of my grandkids when I am together with them…..I have watched a lot of interesting-looking games that way but I do not play them.
One of our staff members wanted me to ask you this, perhaps jestingly. Why was the Odyssey’s game “Pickaxe Pete”Â so hard?
He is referring to a game for the Odyssey2, an Intel-microprocessor controlled game of the late seventies. I don’t remember much about Pickaxe Pete. He can probably get an answer to his question by contacting someone via the web who is active in one of the numerous groups of hackers who still write new software for, and do assorted hacks on the O2. Most of these guys are in Europe and South America, but that’s no problem.
You’ve created so much more than videogames. Mentioning just a few… you’ve created recordable talking books for Western Publishing/Golden Books. You created a plush bear that interacts with the TV via VHS tapes and a toy line of Talking Tools for Hasbro. You also have numerous patents. Out of all of your inventions what are you most proud of?
If you go to my website at www.ralphbaer.com, you’ll see many more toy-and-game items. My favorite has got to be SIMON because it was and still is one of the most successful electronic toys out there and is still on the shelves of toy stores thirty years after I developed it.
Many on the Diehard Gamefan staff, me included, would like to thank you for inventing SIMON. That game made our childhoods a very happy place. It’s interesting that SIMON is still selling even today. To what do you attribute its lasting appeal?
SIMON has simple, easy to learn game program that anybody can learn in a few minutes but it manages to be compelling and won’t let you go because it is goal-oriented…beat the game. Subtle little things like picking four tones that are pleasant when played in any sequence (G,C,E and G, the bugle sounds) also have something to do with SIMON ‘s appeal.
Your invention of the “Chat-Mat” I find to be very cool. A recordable talking doormat that “speaks” voice messages when the mat is stepped on? Genius. That’s not really a question. I’ve just always wanted to tell you that. :)
That product was sold by a large mat manufacturer, Bacova only stopped because the Chinese manufacturer of the electronics did a poor job. I have an issued and still valid patent on recordable door mats…… maybe I’ll try to place that item once again. Everybody who sees it thinks it’s great.
What are you up to these days? Any special projects you working on?
When my limited time and energy allows it, I’m downstairs in my lab working on several new electronic game items…so I am still cranking….keeps me young.
Ralph, you’ve done so much and have had such a remarkable life. What do you want your legacy to be? When people think of the name Ralph Baer lifetimes from now what do you want to be known as?
I believe that my legacy is (already) well taken care of….There is the National Medal of Honor for Technology; there are my videogame and other novel hardware items, along with wartime documents and videogame documents at the Smithsonian – and that’s certainly a big piece of my legacy. The original Brown Box will be prominently featured near the entrance of the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History when that museum reopens next year. Functional replicas of the Brown Box are permanently displayed at many other places such as museums in Berlin and two other German venues (the Heinz-Nixdorf Museum and the Computerspielemuseum), at the Tokyo National Science Museum, in Britain and France at various traveling exhibits. A major exhibit with hands-on playing for school-kids (of which thousands have already been through) is permanently located at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, NY; Simon, Computer Perfection, Maniac and other hand-held games of mine are at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY as are the documents generated during their development. They will be scanned just like the ones at the Smithsonian and they will be available for general viewing via the WWW. Other replicas of the Brown Box are frequently on travel with me to US conferences, universities and museums all over the US and Europe. So I think my legacy is in good shape.
Thank you for your time, Ralph. It was truly an honor to speak with you.
My pleasure…but let’s not do this too often….too much like work!
(This was the cliff notes version of Ralph Baer’s life. Ralph graciously touched on subjects that can be learned in more detail in his book, “Videogames: In the Beginning”. I can personally attest it to be a fascinating must read for anyone desiring to know the true origins of their favorite pastime. You can also view the original Disclosure Document legally establishing Ralph Baer’s concept for videogames HERE.)