Dec29

A Tribute to Ralph Baer

Posted by Kelly Kirkham

Whether you enjoy First Person Shooter or Real Time Strategy, let’s all take a moment to pay tribute to the pioneer of video games, Ralph Baer.

I find game design fascinating; it is a new way to make art work.” – Ralph Baer

The man known as the “Father of Video Games” passed away on December 6th 2014 at the age of 92 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Ralph Baer left behind a legacy so ingenious that it simply must be discussed and enjoyed. Rarely do we have the opportunity to celebrate the achievements of a good old-fashioned inventor, similar to the ones we dreamt of being as children.

Baer’s lifetime was full of many achievements despite his humble beginnings. Rudolph Heinrich “Ralph” Baer was born in Germany in 1922, and later fled war movements in 1938 when he and his family moved to New York City. Baer then enrolled in correspondence courses with the National Radio Institute to earn a degree as a radio service technician. Later Baer also received a degree in television engineering from the American Television Institute of Technology in Chicago.

In Baer’s life time he registered over 150 US and foreign patents for his innovations, although he is best known for his contributions to the video game industry. His first commercial  invention was conceived while waiting for a friend at a bus terminal in New York City in 1967. Baer had thought of a way to create an responsive multiplayer game to be connected to an average television set. Baer took the idea to his colleagues at Sanders Associates, Inc. to develop a prototype.

Ralph_baer_brown_box_prototype

Baer called his invention the “Brown Box”, and six years later it came to be known as “The Odyssey” by Magnavox. The device became a huge success, selling over 350 thousand units by 1974. This began the initial wave of television game consoles which later led to the Atari, Nintendo and Sega electronic games.

The National Museum of American History explains “the “Brown Box” could be programmed to play a variety of games by flipping the switches along the front of the unit […]. Program cards were used to show which switches needed to be set for specific games.” Unlike modern consoles, all featured games were included with the original $100 purchase.

Although Baer’s invention was not the first video game idea (there had been other prototypes in years previous to this) it was the first console to feature 12 different games including Ping-Pong – a precursor to the Atari version. His invention allowed people to enjoy electronic games in the comfort of their own home. Baer once told the press, “The minute we played ping-pong, we knew we had a product. Before that we weren’t too sure.”

Baer continued to invent products that were sold to various companies. A better-known example is the Milton Bradley memory games, OriginalSimonSimon in 1978 and Super Simon in 1979. The Simon games were immensely popular in the 1990’s. A lesser-known game is Manic, which also featured the memory concept and was considered much harder to play. Along with games, Baer also issued patents for electronic greeting cards and tracking systems for submarines. Ralph Baer certainly exemplified every sense of the word ‘inventor’, and will surely be missed.

So the next time you’re sitting on the couch with your controller in hand, think happy thoughts about Ralph Baer. Without the progress he made with his inventions we might never have experienced the thrill of finally saving Princess Zelda or defeating Bowser.

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