Postscript: Ralph Baer, a Video-Game Pioneer
BY SIMON PARKIN
Among the many engineers and inventors who purport to have fathered the video game, Ralph Baer, who died on Saturday at the age of ninety-two, has a stronger paternity claim than most. In August, 1966, while waiting outside a bus terminal in Manhattan, Baer formulated the concept of an interactive device that could be plugged into a standard television set. The following day, he hand-wrote a four-page outline of his “game box.” Within six years, the electronics company Magnavox had licensed his design and begun production on the Odyssey, the world’s first home console. The system’s black-and-white plastic casing evoked Kubrick more than Homer, but the name was apt—Baer’s journey to this invention, which accounted for just one of his more than a hundred and fifty U.S. and foreign patents, was meandering.
In 1938, soon before the Kristallnacht pogroms, the sixteen-year-old Baer and his German-Jewish family fled Cologne for New York City. Baer enrolled in correspondence courses at the National Radio Institute and worked as a technician around New York, fixing home and automobile radios, before returning to Europe, in 1943, to serve in the Second World War. (Baer told the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center in 2008 that, when he returned to the United States, he brought with him eighteen tons of foreign small arms, which he had begun collecting overseas.)
Baer attended the American Television Institute of Technology, in Chicago, on the G.I. Bill, graduating, in 1949, with a B.S. in television engineering. After a two-year stint at a small medical-equipment company, Baer returned to the Bronx, where he and his family had lived as newly arrived immigrants, and began working for Loral Electronics. It was here that Baer and his colleagues were asked to build a television set. A piece of test equipment that was used in the development of the technology allowed Baer to fill the screen with horizontal and vertical lines of various colors, which he could then manipulate. Baer suggested that the test should be built into the set—not as a game, but as something for the owner to do when he grew tired of network television—but the Loral team dismissed the idea. Still, the possibility of adding interaction to the television screen was seeded in Baer’s mind.