Welcome to our fifth Pivotal Moments blog. If you follow us on social media, you’ll know what this is all about. To paraphrase Confucius, it’s only by knowing where we’ve been that we can know where we’re going.
“Study the past, if you would divine the future.”Confucius
Born in 1922 to a Jewish family in Germany, Ralph Henry Baer (originally Rudolf Heinrich Baer) had a perfectly ordinary childhood. That is, if you count fleeing to America to avoid persecution against the Jews as “normal”. Settling in New York in 1938, Baer found a job in a factory that made leather cases for manicure kits. Aged 16, he invented a machine that would stitch five or six cases simultaneously.
On the subway one day, Baer noticed an ad in a magazine for a correspondence course in the electronics field. Spending a quarter of his weekly wages on the fees, he soon finished the course. And the advanced course. He then quit his job to fix radios instead.
In 1943, Baer was drafted into the army as an intelligence officer. In his spare time, he made radios from German mine detectors for his friends.
When the war ended, Baer attended the American Television Institute of Technology in Chicago. There, they awarded him with a unique bachelor’s degree in television engineering.
A Dream Takes Hold
Joining Sanders in 1956, Baer pushed his engineering mind to pursue projects for the military. He developed electronics that taught weapons aiming, but he soon returned to the concept of a TV set with a game feature.
In 1966, Baer had a moment of clarity in a bus station that would change the world.
After his Eureka moment, he outlined a “game box” that could be used with any American TV set to play games. His boss, intrigued at the potential, gave him $2500 for research and materials and assigned him two workers to assist.
Baer and his engineers, Bill Harrison and Bill Rusch, worked on their obsession in secret. They built seven prototypes until the device met their exacting standards. However, when Sanders tried to license it to pay-TV companies (much like today’s cable companies), they had no luck.
In 1971, Baer and Sanders Associates filed the first-ever video game patent, which was eventually granted in 1973. The patent held the legal monopoly on any product that included a normal TV with circuits capable of producing and controlling dots on the screen.
The Pivotal Moment
In 1972, after Sanders licensed the system to Magnavox, the company began selling the console as the Magnavox Odyssey. It was the first-ever home gaming console, and in its first year, 130,000 units were sold.
Odyssey was a simple console, compared to modern equivalents. There was a master control unit, which contained all the electronic gear. Each came with two controllers that directed players on the TV screen, and a set of program cards to support various games. It also included overlays that clung to the screen and added colour.
All of that may sound unremarkable, but the important part was inside the machine. Inside were 40 transistors and 40 diodes, and this hardware ran the entire console. Remarkably, Odyssey had no software. At all.
Not too long after they released Odyssey, the now well-known Atari released the first arcade video game: Pong. Eventually, Pong would become even more famous than Odyssey, and in many ways, it was an improvement – but Magnavox sued the company for $1.5 million for copyright infringement. Over the next two decades, Mr Baer often testified on behalf of Magnavox as they sued several other companies for over $100 million. Much to the ire of various other video game companies, including Nintendo.
Why Ralph Baer is Still Relevant Today
Though Odyssey sold around 330,000 units in the first three years, Baer was convinced that the console would have sold many more if it had been marketed at his lower, recommended price. Regardless, the console’s release was a critical point in the evolution of modern gaming, along with Pong from Atari.
Odyssey and Atari represented more than just fun and games, advancing electronics and sound into a far more complex realm than ever before. And all for the purpose of pleasing the audience.
From the Odyssey console, the likes of modern devices such as the PlayStation, Xbox, Wii and more have grown.
Baer’s modest little unit created a hunger in gamers across the world for more. More challenges, better graphics and sound, faster processing. The world of computers has constantly strived to meet those needs since, leading to a revolution in microprocessing that may have come about very differently if not for Baer’s contributions.
Yes, most advancements in modern computing power have stemmed from this simple desire for better gaming capabilities. Whether you’re a gamer, a digital marketer, SEO strategist or an eCommerce store owner selling painted pineapples – if computers or phones are an active part of your daily life in any way, then you owe a nod of appreciation to Ralph Baer.