Obituary: Ralph Baer, engineer and inventor

Prolific inventor who devised the first commercial home games console. Picture: AP
Prolific inventor who devised the first commercial home games console. Picture: AP
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BORN: 8 March, 1922, in Pirmasens, Germany. Died: 6 December 2014, in Manchester, New Hampshire, United States, aged 92.

German émigré Ralph Baer, widely regarded as the “father of the games console”, was an electronics engineer and inventor of the first ever commercial home games console.

Perhaps unknown to the modern generation of gamers, Baer’s Magnavox Odyssey paved the way for the likes of Atari and Mattel, and later Nintendo, PlayStation, Wii and Xbox, all of which used the basic premise and then adapted it, creating an industry that is today worth more than £60 billion a year, which exceeds that of the film industry.

“Not too shabby for an idea that took off from a few notes scribbled in New York in August of 1966,” recalled Baer.

There were glimmers of a digital future on the horizon as early as 1958, but the “brown box”, as it was known, was the first to capture the imaginations of countless proto-hackers. Due to patent infringement, there was a glut of lawsuits over the ensuing decades which Magnavox won, thanks to Baer’s diligence, careful documentation and the patenting of more than 150 of his inventions and ideas. Atari settled out of court, paying a one-off payment of $700,000, while other cases against gaming giants netted over $100million.

From his eureka moment, while waiting for a bus in 1966, Baer conceived and produced his “game box”, and licensed the concept to electronics company Magnavox. By 1972, the Odyssey, which linked up to a television, was on sale, three years before Atari’s home version of Pong. Although the Odyssey only worked in black and white – users had to stick plastic overlays on the TV to simulate colour scenes like an ice-hockey rink – and had no sound, it did feature an analogue controller and a complete selection of 12 “game cards” including cat’n’mouse, football and tennis, which consisted of little more than on-screen blocks and balls. Another 15 games were released later.

Nonetheless, with its futuristic looks, it sold 130,000 units in its first year and by 1974 had sold almost 350,000 units. Sales might have been higher if more consumers had realised they did not need a Magnavox-branded television to run the games, and if Baer’s original $19.95 sale price had been applied rather than Magnavox’s $100 price tag.

Later, Baer created a “light gun” accessory called the Shooting Gallery, which allowed Odyssey users to shoot on-screen targets, though pointing the gun at a nearby light bulb also registered as a “hit”; this was the first use of this technology in home machines and one of the first instances of a video game peripheral sold separately from its original console.

Born in Pirmasens, near the French frontier, Rudolf Heinrich Baer was the son of Leo, a cobbler, and Lotte. He grew up in Cologne but was expelled for being Jewish at the age of 11. With the rise of Nazism, the family fled Germany in 1938, and settled in the Bronx, New York.

Baer initially worked in a leather factory for $12 a week, but left to complete an electronics correspondence course with the National Radio Institute in Washington, which he completed in 1940.

After three years as a radio technician and running three shops, the Second World War intervened and he joined the US army for three years, with two years spent in Europe working for US military intelligence.

He became a firearms aficionado and collected 18 tons of “foreign” guns which he shipped back to the US and put in an official exhibition.

After demob, the GI Bill enabled him to study television engineering and graduate, in 1949, from the American Television Institute of Technology in Chicago. He began designing all sorts, from epilators and surgical cutting machines to low frequency pulse generating muscle-toning equipment.

In 1956, Baer joined defence contractor Sanders (now part of BAE Systems), where he remained until retiring in 1987. His primary responsibility was overseeing some 500 engineers in the development of electronic systems for military applications, such as submarine surveillance and tracking which used bars, dots and rectangles on screens.

He had long recognised the potential of the television set, which had enjoyed a surge in popularity during the post-war years with more than 40 million in households by 1955. To Baer, they seemed to be “begging” for a use beyond commercial broadcasts.

In 1966 he wrote a four-page outline about the “game box” and some possible games. After a somewhat muted response from his dismayed military-minded colleagues, a senior executive gave him $2,500, an office and two technicians, Bill Harrison and Bill Rusch.

They started work on a series of prototype consoles that could plug into a standard television. With their seventh prototype, called “brown box” due to its rudimentary construction and being held together with packing tape, they had success.

On a visit to a patent examiner’s office to describe the device, the meeting descended into one long gaming session. Baer explained: “I set up a small television set and my game console. Within 15 minutes, every examiner on the floor of that building was in that office wanting to play the game.”

Over the next two years Baer touted the concept to companies until TV manufacturer Magnavox stepped in. Thereafter, while still working at Sanders, in 1975 he started Baer Consultants to funnel his ideas for electronic toys and games to more suitable manufacturers. He enjoyed a number of successes including the Simon for Milton-Bradley electronic game in 1977, which was flying saucer-shaped and divided into four pads; Simon challenged players to recreate a random sequence of lights and sounds, which increased in frequency, by pressing the coloured pads in the correct order.

Perhaps fortuitously, it coincided with Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which was full of odd sounds and flashing lights. It proved one of America’s most popular toys of the 1980s, selling 10 million units within four years, and is still manufactured today in some guise.

Baer was once discovered by a colleague riding a bicycle in front of a computer and steering the bike down a road on the screen; a precursor of the technology that would enable a player to simulate playing games such as tennis, cycling, skiing and surfing which have become popular on the Wii console.

He also invented Bacova’s “recordable talking doormat”, the Chat-Mat, talking teddy bears and a talking speedometer.

In retirement, Baer continued inventing because he loved the thrill.

Baer married Dena Whinston in 1952; she died in 2006. Three days later he received the National Medal of Technology from President George W Bush. The same year he donated all of his prototypes and related documents to the Smithsonian Institute. He was inducted into America’s National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2010. In 2005 he published Video Games: In the Beginning.

He is survived by two sons and a daughter, who all enjoyed growing up with competitions and such technology at their fingertips.

Baer recently confessed to being bemused by the modern games consoles, but added that “his reflexes were not what they had been, and if billions of kids can play it, I must be doing something wrong”.

Steve Wozniak, Apple’s co-founder said: “I can never thank Ralph enough for what he gave to me and everyone else.”

Without Ralph Baer the entire nature of video games may well have been radically different.