THE INSTITUTEVideo game history buffs, you might want to pay a visit to Manchester, N.H., on 10 May to watch IEEE Fellow Ralph Baer’s hometown unveil a statue and plaza honoring the “Father of the Video Game.” He came up with the idea for a home console for video games in 1951. It let people play games on almost any television set and spawned the commercialization of interactive video games. Baer died 6 December 2014 at the age of 92.
In a news release, BAE systems (the successor company to his former employer) called the commemorative square a “fitting tribute to the man who helped the company develop a healthy disregard for the impossible.”
Called the Brown Box—which refers to the wood-grain, self-adhesive vinyl that covered the console—the soundless multiplayer system included some of the basic features most home video game units still have today, such as a pair of controllers. And it had some things unique to that era, such as clear plastic overlay sheets that could be taped to the player’s TV screen to add color, playing fields, and other graphics. It ran games off printed-circuit-board cartridges that controlled switches to alter the system’s logic, depending on the game. Users could play table tennis, checkers, and four different sports games, including golf and target shooting.
Over the years, The Institute has written several articles about Baer. We reported when his Brown Box was named an IEEE Milestone in 2015. Administered by the IEEE History Center, the Milestone program recognizes outstanding technical developments from around the world. In that article we wrote about how Baer got his idea for the console while working as an engineer at Loral Corp., a military electronics company in New York City. But the company could see no use for it, and it languished. Then in 1966, while sitting outside of New York City’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, Baer used pencil and paper to sketch the technical details for what he called a “game box.” At the time, he was an engineer at Sanders Associates (now BAE Systems), a defense contractor, in Nashua, N.H. An intrigued manager gave him US $2,500 for materials and assigned two engineers to work with him. The project became an obsession for the three men, who built prototype after prototype in a secret workshop.
In 1968, Sanders licensed the system to TV-set maker Magnavox, which in 1972 began offering a version of the Brown Box as its Odyssey system in the United States for $100. Some 130,000 units were sold the first year. Odyssey included football, a shooting game, and a table tennis game that predated Pong, Atari’s popular version, which was introduced in 1972. Baer’s 1971 patent on a “television gaming and training apparatus,” the first U.S. patent for video game technology, was based on the Brown Box.
Aside from today’s high-tech video game consoles, Baer also invented greeting cards that play a recorded song or message when they are opened as well as the electronic memory game Simon, which became a pop culture icon in the 1980s. The saucer-shaped plastic toy has four colored buttons that light up and emit tones in a sequence that the player then has to reproduce. It is still being sold. Baer also developed interactive video entertainment and educational and training games for consumer and military applications.
Baer with many of his inventions, including the electronic memory game Simon and the Odyssey gaming system. Photo: Ralph Baer/Computer History Museum
In 2008, Baer donated his video game test units, production models, notes, and schematics to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. His papers are kept in the museum’s Archives Center. The Smithsonian collected his New Hampshire workshop in 2014 and it is on display at the American History Museum.
The Institute also reported on his son’s quest to get his father elevated to IEEE Fellow status. I sat next to Mark at the 2014 Honors Ceremony held in Amsterdam, where he shared his journey with me. Mark and his son Alex were there to accept the 2014 IEEE Edison Medal on behalf of his father, who at 92, was unable travel to Amsterdam from his home in the New Hampshire. The medal recognized him “for pioneering and fundamental contributions to the video-game and interactive multimedia-content industries.”
Even though Baer was the recipient of many distinguished awards—including the U.S. National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2006 and induction into the U.S. National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2010—he placed that of IEEE Fellow above all the rest. There is no doubt that Baer qualified to receive the organization’s highest membership grade conferred by its Board of Directors, but only other IEEE Fellows can nominate a candidate. When you are a lone inventor like Baer, busily toiling away in a workshop that’s attached to your house, you don’t get many opportunities to meet these distinguished members.
Mark connected with IEEE Fellow and 2008 IEEE President, Lewis Terman, who helped him with finding other Fellows and took over the application and successfully completed the process. Baer was elevated in 2013 “for contributions to the creation, development and commercialization of interactive video games.”
In our conversation, Mark told me he has made it one of his most compelling personal projects to ensure his father’s legacy gets acknowledged. Mark is the one who notified me about this commemorative square. I think Ralph would be proud of the job his son is doing.
In my research for this article, I found out that Manchester also holds an annual Ralph Baer Day on 8 March, the inventor’s birthday. According to its website, the local community initiative believes the legacy of the Father of the Video Game “should be celebrated by exploring and encouraging creativity, play, and the inventive spirit.” Isn’t that what being an engineer is all about?
Kathy Pretz is editor in chief for The Institute, which covers all aspects of IEEE, its members, and the technology they're involved in. She has a bachelor's degree in applied communication from Rider University, in Lawrenceville, N.J., and holds a master's degree in corporate and public communication from Monmouth University, in West Long Branch, N.J.