NEARC Meets Ralph Baer

By Adam Vaughn

 

In October, a few of us from the club took a trip to meet with Ralph Baer. A very fascinating man, Ralph Baer is considered the father of home video games, as well as numerous other toys and devices, such as the Simon game. However, he has many connections to the world of radio, as well as early television.

 

Born in Germany in 1922, Ralph and his family immigrated to the US in 1938, at the age of 16, to escape the Nazi regime. Graduating from the National Radio Institute a couple of years later, he ran three radio stores in New York City for a few years, before joining the Army, where he was assigned to Military Intelligence overseas. After WWII, he completed his engineering degree, earning the very first Television Engineering degree ever conferred.

 

In the early 1950s, he had several articles published in Electronics Magazine, including the very first hands-free intercom system. Soon, he went to work in the electronics industry, desiging products for Wappler, Loral, and Transitron, moving to Manchester, NH during his tenure with the latter. Many of these companies built devices for the defense industry, and in 1956 he went to work for Sanders Associates, which built all manner of electronic devices for the US military, such as radar systems.

 

As early as 1951, Ralph had done research into creating what would later be termed a “video game” while still working at Loral in 1951, where one of his bosses tasked him with designing “the best television set in the world.” The boss dismissed the idea due to being behind schedule, but while working for Sanders in 1966, Ralph returned to the idea, and began designing a device that could be used for playing simple games on a television set. Early prototypes had a HeathKit TV signal generator at their heart, and generated two player-controlled dots. One of his other associates proposed adding a third dot which could be computer-controlled, resulting in another prototype which could play the game for which it would be best known, “TV-Tennis.”

 

After several more revisions (and a switch from vacuum tubes to then-new transistor technology), Ralph patented his invention, and began shopping his “Brown Box” around to several companies in hopes of licensing it to one of the major electronics companies. After being turned down by several, including RCA (which came close to being accepted, but fell through), someone at Magnavox saw the usefulness of his device, and the Odyssey was born. Released in 1972, the Odyssey saw limited success due to various marketing gaffes by Magnavox, including ads insinuating that it would only work with Magnavox television sets. However, the idea soon caught on like wildfire thanks to Atari, whose founder, Nolan Bushnell, had played TV Tennis at a trade show, and introduced an arcade version called Pong. Atari licensed Ralph’s patents, as did several other companies, making a large amount of money for Sanders Associates (something Ralph wouldn’t find out about until several years later!).

 

While still at Sanders, he started his own consultancy business in the mid-1970s, and started designing innovative electronic toys and games, including the “SIMON” memory game (sold by Milton-Bradley), among many others. He retired from Sanders in 1987, and went into consulting full-time, which continues to this day. He has received numerous accolades over the years, including several from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), including “fellow” status, and the National Medal of Technology, which he received from President George W. Bush in 2006. In addition, he donated the prototypes and papers pertaining to his “Brown Box” consoles to the Smithsonian Institute, where they were featured in an exhibition about the history of video games. He has been written about in several books, and has written his own, called “Video Games: In The Beginning” (published by Rolenta Press).

 

Recently, Mr. Baer emailed Bruce Phillips, President of the New England Antique Radio Club, and asked him to pay him a visit. Bruce, Membership Secretary Tom Scarpelli and I took a field trip to his modest Manchester, NH home, and got to visit with him for a couple of hours. The walls are lined with various accolades he’s received over the years, and his basement contains several examples of the devices he’s invented over the years, along with the workbench where he continues to design innovative toys. He even has replicas of the original “Brown Box”, which he has built for several museums to be used as working exhibits on the history of video games. I got to play a quick game of TV Tennis against him, and was handily schooled by the master!

 

Ralph talked to us for a long time, showing us pictures of articles and devices he’d worked on over the years, and detailed his early days in the radio repair industry, as well as the military. He talked about how he would often travel the NYC Subways carrying a radio chassis or two under his arms, on his way from one of his shops to the other, so he could carry on his customer repair work there! He also talked about the early history of television, and how his shop had an example of one of RCA’s earliest pre-war TV sets in the front window, which attracted countless numbers of curious onlookers. In addition, he discussed having to do conversion work on transformer-type radios so that they could be used in areas of New York City that were still supplied with DC rather than AC. He could detect these customers even before they talked to him, by the smell of the burnt-out power transformer in the radio they were bringing in!

 

All in all, we found it a very educational and intriguing experience. Mr. Baer gave the club a French-made vacuum tube tester, which he had apparently found on the side of the road during his stint in the military; apparently, it had fallen off the back of a truck! In addition, he was kind enough to sign my Magnavox Odyssey 300 video game system, which was a distant offshoot of the original Odyssey system. I feel privileged to have had a chance to speak with such a fascinating individual.

 

More info on Ralph Baer and his numerous inventions and accolades can be found at his website, www.ralphbaer.com.

 

About the author: Adam Vaughn has been collecting vintage electronic devices for nearly two decades, including numerous examples of classic video game systems. His website can be seen at http://www.electronixandmore.com/adam/index.html.