The first video game was created by engineers at Sanders Associates, a New
Hampshire-based defense contractor. Like many large contractors, Sanders
had its share of sensitive and top-secret activities. But in 1967, some of the
noises coming out of one Sanders research lab had many people wondering
what was going on.
The Equipment Design Division of Sanders was led by a stern and meticulous engineer named Ralph Baer; a man with a background in radio and television design who had been with the company for more than ten years.
Baer was born in Germany eleven years before Adolph Hitler took power
in 1933, and he was largely self-educated. Being Jewish, he was kicked out of school at age fourteen. Two years later, his family moved to America, where he eventually took a correspondence course in radio and television servicing from the National Radio Institute.
Baer had a knack for realizing positive results from unlucky turns offate. After joining the army in World War II, he studied algebra while stationed in England.
One day, after a long study session “in the English mud,” Baer was diagnosed with pneumonia. Three days after he entered the hospital, the rest of his platoon was sent to invade Normandy. He jokes that Algebra II saved his “collectives.”
A year after he returned from the war, Baer enrolled at the American Television Institute of Technology in Chicago. It was his first formal education since being denied schooling in Germany.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in television engineering, he took
a job with a small defense contracting firm, turning down an offer from CBS
because the salary from the defense contractor paid five dollars more per week.
Baer quickly developed a solid reputation. When Sanders hired him in 1955, it was to manage a design department with a staff of200. By 1960, the staff had expanded to 500.
Baer spent more than 30 years at Sanders. The first 15 years were dedicated
to military projects. During this time, he weaned himselffrom vacuum tubes
and began working on transistor technology and early microprocessors.
Among Ralph Baer’s best attributes as an engineer was his methodical recording of every step of the inventing process. From the moment he began fleshing out new designs, Baer recorded the entire process, dated it, and filed it away. Because of his meticulous note-keeping, he knows exactly when and where he first got the idea to make games that could be played on a television.
The first man Baer allocated to game design was Bill Harrison. Once the
concepts were roughed out, Harrison, well versed in transistor-circuit engineering, did most ofthe implementation. Baer describes Harrison as a young,talented technician who had educated himself on the workings of television sets by assembling a Heath Kit television set.
In his younger days, Baer was extremely austere or, as he later described
himself, “uptight.” Working with Harrison, he created early video games using a crude mechanism for transferring images onto the television screen.
Their game designs, however, lacked entertainment value. The first toy they
made was a lever that players pumped furiously to change the color of a box on a television screen from red to blue. Though Baer would later prove to be an excellent electronic toy and game designer, in the beginning his work was more about engineering than game design.
When he first presented his invention to the executive board, including the
company founder Royden Sanders, most of the executives felt that Baer was
wasting the company’s time. Some suggested that Baer shelve the project.
Others wanted to pull the plug on it entirely.
In 1967, Baer added another member to the team-Bill Rusch, who brought
a needed understanding offun and games.
To keep Rusch productive, Baer allowed him to continue working on a
project that involved playing guitar chords through a box that dropped the
sounds an octave, changing the notes to the pitch of a bass guitar. With Rusch on board, the games began to take shape. Rusch made a game in which one player chases another player through a maze.
The first ones were all two-person games. Baer’s game machine was not powerful enough to control objects or run any form ofartificial intelligence. In May orJune of 1967, Rusch suggested a new game in which a hard-wired logic circuit projected a spot flying across the screen. Originally, the object ofthe game was for players to catch the spotwith manually controlled dots. Over time, the players’ dots evolved into paddles, and the game became ping-pong.
Sanders Associates had a rough time in the late 1960s, downsizing from
11,000 to 4,000 employees. As a military contractor, Sanders couldn’t suddenly
go into the toy business, so Baer had to find a customer for his invention. He
nearly licensed it to a cable company, but the depressed state of the cable industry prevented the deal from ever taking shape. As a last resort, Baer urged his bosses to notify television manufacturers about the project.
He had come up with the right audience. General Electric, the first TV
manufacturer to evaluate Baer’s toy, showed some interest. Then came Zenith and Sylvania. Both GE and Sylvania returned for second evaluations. RCA almost bought into the project-contracts were written but never signed.
In 1971, Magnavox hired a member of the RCA team that had nearly purchased the project. He then told other Magnavox executives about the
television game he had seen at Sanders. Magnavox arranged for a demonstration of the television game and immediately saw merit in the idea. After months of the team working out details, negotiations were completed and the contract was signed by the end of the year. Production started in the fall, and early units were shown at Magnavox dealerships in 1972. Magnavox called the finished product Odyssey.
While waiting for the Magnavox negotiations to finalize, Baer slipped into
a deep depression. The military contracting industry was undergoing difficult times. Burdened both by Sanders Associates’ troubled financial state and doubts about the value of his invention, Baer wondered if perhaps his bosses at Sanders were correct and he had wasted the company’s time and resources.
After helping Magnavox set up an Odyssey engineering group, Baer returned to New Hampshire. He went back to working on military projects.
This was after the layoffs, and few of Baer’s friends remained with Sanders.
During this period, he checked into a local hospital for an operation he had
been putting off.
Ralph Baer and Steve Russell never met socially. They would, however,
meet on opposite sides ofsome very important litigation. Russell, who never
filed for a copyright or patent, would become the symbol for those trying to
break into the business. Baer, whose employers jealously guarded all of his
patents, would become the spokesman for people trying to protect their intellectual property rights.
Russell and Baer are the forgotten fathers of the industry. Because Steve
Russell’s game ran only on extremely expensive computers, it had no practical application. Outrageously priced and poorly advertised, Ralph Baer’s game machine might also have gone unnoticed. But in 1972, the year Magnavox finally released Odyssey, another, rather similar, machine was about to change the way America played games.