Seven years before Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs invented the personal computer and decades before we were interacting with Playstation, Wii and Xbox 360, Ralph Baer was playing ping-pong on television.
The year was 1968, and Baer applied for a Patent for a "Television Gaming and Training Apparatus," based on an idea that he came up with in 1966. The equipment, later known as the "Brown Box," was built and demonstrated at Sanders Associates in Nashua. A multi-player, fully-programmable unit, the "Brown Box" was capable of playing ping-pong, volleyball, football, and gun games. Magnavox licensed the product and developed it into the Magnavox Odyssey in 1972. They did all this without the use of a microprocessor so the result was a series of simple graphics.
Ralph Baer was born in Germany on March 6, 1922. His family immigrated to the United States when he was sixteen in August 1938. They arrived in New York City as refugees, and he immediately went to work in a factory. Before long though, Baer was taking correspondence courses in Television Servicing. What he learned there gave him enough confidence to talk his way into a Radio Serviceman's job in Manhattan.
Ralph was drafted into WWII in 1943. While he was there, he became something of a weapons expert. He began learning extensively about the history and technology of the weapons and he used that knowledge to train the troops. When the War was over, he declined an offer to stay in the Army. Instead he returned to the United States and took a job at the Emerson Radio Factory, then went on to study Radio and TV Engineering at the American Institute of Technology in Chicago.
Baer moved to Manchester in 1955 with his wife Dena and their infant son, James. He had two more children in the years that followed, a son named Mark was born in 1957 and a daughter named Nancy was born in 1960. He was working as a Chief Engineer with a NYC firm called Transitron, Inc. that moved to Manchester.
By 1956, he had joined Sanders Associates, Inc. in Nashua as a Staff Engineer. His work for the defense contractor revolved around building airborne radio components and spy technology for use in Berlin to monitor Soviet transmissions.
As he moved up in the company, Ralph began to work with circuit board and projection technology. By 1967, he and his partner Bill Harrison had built the first chassis with transistors inside. They did a demonstration for their bosses. The response: "Show me how we can make money with this." The result was the first prototype to allow a user to control an image and interact with a screen.
His partner Bill developed the first light gun, later known as "TV Game Number 3." The game enabled users to shoot at a spot on the screen and if lined up correctly, the spot would disappear.
Once they had their "Brown Box" they introduced the idea to cable stations proposing that the cable companies create interactive video game channels. It was a hard sell. He then took it to the television companies, like RCA (which fell through) and finally to Magnavox. The Odyssey was born. By the end of 1972, Magnavox had sold 100,000 units in the United States. By 1975, that number would grow to 700,000.
Baer was also the inventor of the popular interactive "Simon" game by Milton Bradley, which was a big hit in the late 70's and early 80's. He also developed many other electronic toys and games, and consumer electronic products.
For his legendary work and his contributions to the gaming industry, Ralph Baer received many awards, including the National Medal of Technology, the highest honor a citizen can receive for achievements in technological progress. The award was presented to him by President George W. Bush on February 13, 2006 "in honor of his groundbreaking and pioneering creation, development and commercialization of interactive video games."
In February 2008, Baer was the recipient of the Developers Choice Awards "Pioneer" award, which recognizes individuals who have advanced the videogame industry.
In April 2010, Baer was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. His memoirs, Videogames: In The Beginning, are available by mailorder from Rolenta Press or via Amazon.com.
Ralph Baer passed away surrounded by family on December 6, 2014, at the age of 92.
Excellent (extensive) interview with Ralph Baer for Game Developer Magazine (now appearing on Gamasutra.com: The Right to Baer Games