Pioneers: Ralph Baer and Odyssey

270px-Magnavox-Odyssey-Console-SetDuring the gift giving season known as Christmas, video games will be one of the most given gifts.  Today’s game console, such as the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft XBOX 360, owe their existence not to Atari or Nolan Bushnell, but to Ralph Baer and something called the Brown Box.

The humble beginnings of the home video game market actually go further back than Baer, but for our purposes, we will ignore Higginbotham’s ‘Tennis for Two’ as it was just a computer demo, on an oscilloscope and never commercialized. As Baer was actually able to see his creation hit the market, his will be considered the first home video game console.

Shot in 1968, Baer and associate are playing with the Brown Box.

Baer, an engineer for Sanders Associates, came up with the idea for a video game device in the mid 1960’s and built several prototypes beginning in 1966.  Sanders was a defense electronics company and had no interest in manufacturing the game, but allowed Baer to continue working on the device with the hopes of licensing the technology to a proper consumer company. 

Many companies were pitched the idea and Magnavox had the foresight to take out a license and actually market the device.

The Brown Box, the codename for the prototype, was primitive by today’s standards.  It consisted of discreet parts, no microprocessors (none were available at the time of the prototype development) so it was built of transistor technology. It employed several ‘spot’ generators which created two ‘players’, a ball and vertical or horizontal lines. The controllers allowed for vertical, horizontal and ‘english’, which applied a curve to the path the ‘ball’ would take. It had a ‘fire’ button as well. The prototypes were capable of color and sound, but the final product was monochrome and sound was absent. Baer proposed adding sound a year later, but the idea was rejected.

The game cards were really jumper boards that configured which spots were to appear and where.  There were twelve initial cards that could be used to play hockey, baseball, football, roulette, etc.  The ‘graphics’ for each game were really just plastic overlays in two sizes for the most common television screen sizes. They clung to the CRT screens via static electricity. It was a clever, but cheesy solution.  Packed in the console were playing cards, chips, the game cards, and various other accessories that were needed to play the game. In effect, the package was more traditional board game play with the television aspect thrown in.  The only game to actually resemble what it was, was the ‘ping pong’ game on card 1. 

Higginbotham’s Tennis for Two demo

Baer’s services  were called upon time and again to fix issues with Odyssey, Magnavox’s product name for the device.  Since Magnavox was a licensee, it was in Sander’s best interest to guard the patents and make sure that no one used the ideas without paying.  Unfortunately, other companies would try.  The most notable, at least early on, was Atari.

The story goes that Nolan Bushnell had attended a demo of the Odyssey and signed the guestbook.  When Atari introduced its Pong home console in 1974, they were sued. Baer trotted out his notes, patents and, most importantly, that guest book with Bushnell’s signature.  Atari settled out of court and got one of the most lucrative deals: perpetual rights to the home console for little money.  More important, for Sanders, was the precedent: they never lost a case.  I suppose one could argue that consoles like the Fairchild Channel F and the Atari VCS did not violate the patent since they were microprocessor based.  I don’t believe anyone did, though.

Baer went on to serve as consultant for Magnavox on the follow up Odyssey II, which was microprocessor based. In between, there were numerous ‘Odyssey’ labeled devices, but they were all variations on Pong and used a generic chip that was popular at the time.  Baer also invented the popular Simon game and other handheld games, but his contribution to video games is what he is best known for and deservedly so. 

Nolan Bushnell tends to get the credit for the home video game and not Baer.  Bushnell’s contributions were, no doubt, important-arguably there would be no market without him, but it was Baer who started it.

Odyssey was never a huge seller for Magnavox, though it was not a failure either. Magnavox sold the console only through its dealers, who knew nothing about how to market the device and Magnavox further muddied the waters by only demoing the console on Magnavox televisions, giving the image that one needed to own a Magnavox television in order to use the device.  And the accessory gun and games were almost never displayed along with the console, so they did not sell well at all.

I was lucky enough to own the console and the rifle.  It provided hours of fun back in the late 1970’s and led to an Odyssey 2 a few years later. I was a huge Magnavox fan and was delighted to find out, years later, that my Odyssey was a piece of history. Unfortunately, it did not survive one of my moves and has long since disappeared. (I did manage to score an Odyssey 2 last year via eBay.)

There were many pioneers who got the home video game market going, like Baer, Bushnell, Al Alcorn and others.  (And, no, again, Willy Higginbotham does not count.) Each one made significant contributions but it was Baer who got his ideas turned into an actual product for the home and, thus, the home video game came of age.

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