Ralph Baer, Games Console Pioneer, 1922-2014


Ralph Baer, the man who created the first home games console, has died aged 92. His Magnavox Odyssey came out three years before the better-known Atari Pong machine.

Indeed, the Odyssey (pictured) was more like today’s consoles than Atari’s machine. Whereas Pong was a single-game device, the Odyssey allowed players to choose different games by using switchable printed circuit boards, a forerunner to game cartridges. The Odyssey range covered 27 games across 12 cards.

Baer was born in Germany, but his family moved to the US before the second world war. He worked for several engineering and tech firms, with his gaming work coming during three decades with defense contractor Sanders Associates.

Here he persuaded management to assign $2,500 to work on his games console idea, something that found favor as the military was already looking at creative ways to use TV set technology. He used the grant to develop the “Brown Box” which took its name from a simulated wood grain casing that was actually made using tape. That machine is now in the National Museum of American History.

Electronics manufacturer Magnavox licensed the technology and released the Odyssey in 1972. Three years later Atari released the home version of Pong, which certainly looked similar to the Odyssey’s bundled game of table tennis. That led to a legal battle, complicated by the fact that the first arcade console of Pong had been installed in a bar in the same month as the Odyssey went on sale. In the end Magnavox reached a settlement with Atari, something it repeated (either by negotiation or court verdict) with several other manufactures.

As well as conceiving and creating the home console, Baer was a pioneer in peripherals. The Magnavox included an optional light gun for a shooting game, the first such console add-on. Baer also worked on a golf putter peripheral, though this wasn’t released. The man was also the inventor of Simon, the handheld electronic game where players have to recreate a sequence of flashing lights.

Baer received numerous honors from the consumer electronics and video games industries. In 2006 he was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President George W Bush.

Geeks are Sexy needs YOUR help. Learn more about how YOU can support us here.