The Father of Video Games / 17th of December 2014
The name, Ralph Henry Baer will not be familiar to most gamers these days, yet there can be no discounting the work that this man put into establishing video games through his truly pioneering work on what would be the world’s first ever video game console, the Magnavox Odyssey. Now, with his passing on December 6th of this year, it is high time that more became aware of his contributions to the industry, and perhaps of his life in general, which was a long and, at times, troubled one.
Born within, what is now, the Rhineland-Palatinate state of Germany as Rudolph Heinrich Baer to Jewish parents, he and his family fled to the United States just mere months prior to the commencement of Kristallnacht; this was a night of orchestrated attacks against Jewish inhabitants of Germany and Austria, which resulted in numerous deaths and as many as 30,000 Jews being imprisoned within concentration camps, undoubtedly it was the first stage of Hitler’s final solution, but thankfully, the Baer’s fled Germany before going on to assist in the war effort against their homeland.
Ralph became a qualified radio service technician after graduating from Washington D.C.’s National Radio Institute, following which, he was drafted into military intelligence and stationed in London from 1943. After the war, Baer was able to secure funding that allowed him to continue his studies, attending the American Television Institute in Chicago, where he complete his degree. Following on from this, Baer took up positions with a number of companies, including IBM and Sanders Associates (a defence contractor established by former Raytheon employees) where he would remain for more than twenty years, before finally retiring in 1987. However, in the early seventies, Baer created something truly ground-breaking, a device whose impact would not truly be felt until around ten years after its creation and subsequent distribution, it was-of course, the world’s first game console.
In the years after the Second World War, the television became the centre of the modern family household, and over the following decades, they began to decrease in price, allowing ownership of such devices to become wholly widespread, and it was in this fabulous device that Baer recognised a potential, untapped market. He created a prototype game and wrote a design brief for a device that he was able to use to sway his employers at Sanders to invest in its development, they assigned him two additional engineers and a budget of over $2,000 to proceed with the project. Together, they created the “brown box”, an operational prototype gaming device that Baer was able to pitch to Magnavox, who rebranded the device as the Magnavox Odyssey and released it in 1972, whilst the project may have existed out-with the traditional lines of development that Sanders were used to, the Odyssey became the company’s most popular product, going one to sell hundreds of thousands of units before the end of the decade. Surprisingly, Baer had concocted the idea of using a device to play games on the family television in the 1950’s, yet few could see his vision as being a viable one, but of course, the Odyssey was simply the first step in what would eventually swell into being a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry, and it was not long before his pioneering work began to see a snowball effect.
The product inspired other companies to invest in video games, particularly Atari who would go on to create their Video Computer System (VCS) in 1976, a device intended to recreate the company’s arcade lineage at home. Development cost millions, and Atari were forced to seek outside assistance from Warner to fund the project, but ultimately, the Atari home console-especially during the time of the 2600-was an enormous success, going on to sell millions of units. So successful was the console at the time, that Atari comprised almost a third of the entire company’s income, yet it was not to last. However, Baer’s vision of home gaming, despite its many doubters had been truly vindicated, furthermore, following the crash of 1983, Nintendo would rise up with their Nintendo Entertainment System, sending the popularity of home video games into the stratosphere and effectively birthing what would develop into the gaming industry that we now know today.
As if this wasn’t enough though, Baer is also credited with creating the game Shooting Gallery and its rifle peripheral, marking him as the inventor of the first ever light-gun, though his creation was markedly more simplistic than more modern iterations, it only further cements his position as the true father of all video games. Ralph Henry Baer was an inventor who recognised the truly universal appeal of play, and as such, his is a name that the video game industry simply cannot forget, and nor should it.