When Baer was eleven, he was expelled from school in Germany because of his Jewish ancestry and had to go to an all-Jewish school. His father worked in a shoe factory in Pirmasens at the time. Two months before Kristallnacht, he and his family escaped from Germany. In America, he was self-taught and worked in a factory for a weekly wage of twelve dollars. He graduated from the National Radio Institute as a radio service technician in 1940. In 1943 he was drafted to fight in World War II, assigned to Military intelligence at the US Army headquarters in London.
Baer graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Television Engineering (unique at the time) from the American Television Institute of Technology in Chicago in 1949.
Development of the First Home Console
Baer’s story begins some two decades before the final launch of the Odyssey console, when in 1951, he was working for a television manufacturer named Loral. Baer had only been under their employment for a short while, when along with fellow engineer Leo Beisler, he was set the task of designing ‘The best TV set in the world’. It was while Baer was musing over possible extra features that could be added to the set, that he first thought up the idea of an ‘interactive TV game’. In hindsight, it is clear that this idea was quite obviously one of considerable vision. But at the time it may have seemed like a flight of fancy to many, and Loral rejected his proposal of such an addition. This brainwave would not be acted on for the next 15 years.
A Fresh Start
By 1966 Ralph Baer was chief engineer and manager of the equipment design division at Sanders Associates, then a large military electronics development and manufacturing company. While his work no longer involved televisions, he still often pondered their potential for providing uses beyond the traditional. On September 1 of ’66 Baer decided to act. He produced a paper outlining the possibilities of games that could use a TV set as a display. Five days later he took this a stage further, and drew up a schematic outlining the circuitry required to place two controllable spots on a TV screen. Now things were finally happening, and Baer directed one of the technicians from his division, Bob Tremblay, to build a vacuum tube circuit that could produce this two-spot display. This was sufficient for them to be able to play a 'chase' game on the set, with one 'player's dot trying to 'catch' the other player's. The project was unofficial – it had nothing to do with the complexed military electronics that Baer’s division dealt with – but these were important first steps. Steps that would eventually lead to the launch of the first video games console: The Magnavox Odyssey.
However, in the 15 year between Baer’s initial idea, and the project at Sanders, technology had not stood still. In 1952, a version of ‘Tic-Tac-Toe’ for the EDSAC computer was developed at The University of Cambridge. Later, in 1961, a research assistant at MITS, Steve Russell, produced a more complexed computer game. Spacewar ran on the room filling ‘PDP-1’ system, and pitted two players against each other, both controlling an armed spaceship. It is now widely regarded as the first ‘proper’ computer game. Baer wasn’t even aware of Russell’s invention, but even if he had been, considering the technology of the day it would probably been of little influence. Indeed, while modern computers are closely related to current video games consoles, the situation was quite different in the 1960’s. The PDP-1 game would have been of little relevance to Baer’s project as computer technology was of no real relation to the TV games that Baer was trying to engineer. The race to create the first ever ‘video game’ was still on.
Back at Sanders in 1966, the TV game project continued to progress. The ‘fox and hound’ chase game was demonstrated to Sanders’ corporate director of research and development, Herb Chapman. The demonstration was a success, and shortly thereafter the project was granted the sum of $2 500 to maintain it. After a break for Christmas and New Year, in January of 1967, Baer brought another engineer onto the project, Bill Harrison. Later, in May, the team was increased further with the entrance of Bill Rusch on to the project. Now the creative ideas really began to flow. The old chase game got a machine-controlled third dot, as well as compatibility with the first ever ‘light-gun’ peripheral. Then Rusch came up with the idea of making this third dot a ‘ball’. Before long the two player-controlled dots were made into paddles, and the team were playing ‘ping-pong’. This game would stay with the project all the way through to its eventual commercial release, as 'Ping-Pong' became an important title for the Odyssey.
These breakthrough developments occurred before the famous game PONG appeared in arcades, a game so often mistakenly referred to as the first video game. The game that launched ‘ Atari’ and the career of Nolan Bushnell, was essentially, a total copy of the ping-pong game developed by Baer’s team. Bushnell insisted that he did not take his idea for PONG from the Odyssey. But when Magnavox sued for copyright infringement, he didn’t have a leg to stand on. The matter was eventually settled out of court, as Atari became the first of many Magnavox sub licensees.
Of course, Baer’s team working in ’67 had no idea of the debacle that would eventually arise from their ‘ping-pong’ game, and progress continued. It looked more and more likely that Baer’s small team had come up with a genuinely saleable idea, and the project was given several more grants of money. But despite the technological progress made, and the clear potential their ‘TV games’ possessed, finding an actual marketable form for them was not a simple task. Sanders Associates was principally a high-tech, military-electronics firm, it did not appear likely that they would ever manufacture a Home TV Game product, nor did they have any experience in the distribution and marketing of consumer-products. Months passed without a solution, and Baer came under pressure to find a commercial direction for the project. The first real possibility that was pursued was connected with the then very young cable TV companies. Baer envisaged his TV games superimposed over full colour, detailed backdrops, provided directly from cable. The hockey game could have been played on top of a feed of an actual ice rink, for example. The team set about producing a prototype of the circuitry that would be required for incorporating a cable TV signal, with interactive games. They soon had this fully functional, complete with their own imported backdrops from a camera. Baer then contacted TelePrompTer, the largest cable supplier in the US at the time. Hubert Schlafly, a VP at TelePrompTer was interested enough in the possibilities of ‘cable-games’ to come up to New Hampshire for a demo. He left, sufficiently impressed to have Irving Kahn, TelePrompTer’s President, come up to Nashua for a demo in early in February of 1968. Mr. Kahn was impressed as well.
Setbacks and Success
However, commercial depression of the time led to lack of funding for new projects, and a deal failed to materialize. This was a major setback, and a disappointment for the team. Furthermore, Bill Rusch, the creator of Ping-pong, had by then moved on to pastures new. Baer himself was kept busy running his division of the company at this time, and so it was left to Bill Harrison to soldier on. Baer kept a watchful eye, to help with any problems that arose, and Harrison worked on refining the design, and reducing the cost of their technology. This resulted in a prototype programmable console, creatively named ‘Brown Box’, complete with two hand controllers and light gun accessory. And it wasn’t long before a new marketing possibility for TV games became apparent. Baer realised that the manufacturing of such an appliance would be the natural domain of TV set manufacturers, and invited several of them to a demonstration, and received uniformly positive reactions. Everyone agreed that playing games on a home TV set was an interesting concept. But only RCA proceeded to negotiate a licensing agreement in the Spring of 1969. Baer would again be disappointed though, as after months of negotiations, the RCA deal fell apart.
However, all was not lost. Bill Enders, a member of the RCA team, moved on to take up a position of VP at another television manufacturer, Magnavox. Enders had been impressed by demonstrations of the ‘Brown Box’, and urged Magnavox to take a look at it. A demonstration was given to key Magnavox managers, and at least one of them, Jerry Martin, was impressed. His opinion was important as he was the general manager in charge of TV set manufacturing and development. With his endorsement, Baer's technology looked like it would finally get a commercial release.
Even then, things were not straightforward though. It took months to pen a deal between Sanders and Magnavox. When that was complete, the ‘Brown Box’ prototype then had to be translated into a production model by Magnavox. This took time, and it was not until autumn of 1971 that Magnavox had completed their prototype version of the Odyssey. Demonstrations of the machine took place from then, on until spring of 1972. The response from Magnavox dealers was positive, and the machine went to retail May of 1972.
Sales figures for the Odyssey were not outlandish, but they were decent, ultimately reaching the respectable figure of 350 000. Weak by modern standards, but impressive considering this was a new technology, totally alien to consumers.
Of course, sales are insignificant when considered next to the great historical importance of the system. The Odyssey was the world's first games console – without it, the games industry may well have led a very different path over the subsequent decades.