Ralph Baer: The Father of the Video Game
We speak to the legend behind Pong, Simon, and much more.
Web2Carz Staff Writer
Published: October 8th, 2012
or those video game enthusiasts old enough to remember Pong- the primitive, two-dimensional simulated game of table tennis that came out in 1972, it’s not hard to marvel at how mind-blowingly sophisticated games like Call of Duty, Halo, or any number of them in the XBox or PlayStation catalog have become.
No one, however, is more amazed than Ralph Baer, the man responsible for inventing video games.
At 90, the New Hampshire based inventor can still recall horse-drawn carriages delivering milk, door to door to the homes on his street in Cologne, Germany where he spent the first fifteen years of his life.
Ralph Baer was born in the town of Pirmasens, Germany. When Adolf Hitler came to power, the Baer family—like all other German Jews—was forced to find refuge abroad when Nazi policies stripped them of their citizenship.
“My father, who had fought in the German army on two fronts in WWI, saw the writing on the wall and knew what was going to happen,” Baer told us.
"I can never thank Ralph enough for what he gave to me and everyone else." — Steve Wozniak, co-founder Apple Computers
“So, he immediately began getting the paperwork together and by September of 1938 we were finally able to leave Germany. Everybody on my father’s side, except for two children, was murdered in one of the lesser known death camps outside Riga. If it hadn’t been for my father’s efforts to get us out, we’d all be dead.”
The family settled in New York City where Baer taught himself electronics through a National Radio Institute correspondence course. By his late teens Baer was servicing radios and electronic devices for two repair shops on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Five years later he was drafted into the U.S. Army.
“I was beginning to wonder when I’d get that letter to make an appearance at the local draft board,” Baer said.
“But I was proud to be finally part of the action. On one hand, I was well on my way to feeling at home in the United States. Having had my life turned upside down by Hitler was another piece of the picture."
After basic infantry training, Baer was trained in military intelligence at Camp Ritchie, along with many other Jewish draftees from Central Europe. He also became an expert on both allied and German weaponry. After arriving in Paris following its liberation Baer was tasked to teach thousands of allied soldiers everything there was to know about German weapons, from identification to how to fire them.
“If I learned anything from the army it was about being able to get things done, no matter how tough the assignment, and it served me later in life,” said Baer.
After the war Baer attended the American Television Institute of Technology in Chicago and graduated in 1949 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Television Engineering.
Back in New York, he worked as an engineer designing and building surgical cutting machines and pulse generating muscle-toning equipment. He also designed power line carrier signaling equipment for IBM before going to work for the equipment design division at Sanders Associates, a defense contractor responsible for developing electronic surveillance and intelligence systems.
He found time to get married to Dena Whinston in 1952 and start a family.
He then worked on alpha-numeric projection displays for the better part of the 1960s, and in 1966 came up with the original concept for playing games using a home TV set. Baer’s was the first patent application for video games in 1968, which eventually resulted in his invention of the "Brown Box" console video game system licensed to Magnavox in 1972.
Under Baer’s supervision, the “Brown Box” became known as the Magnavox Odyssey, the world's first home video console. It was on the Odyssey that one of the earliest video games, Pong, first gained its popularity.
“I always used to get paraded about at places like Sanders and Lockheed as an example of how broadminded they were to support individual inventors,” Baer told us.
“They didn’t support us at all. It was just my chutzpah and the fact that I was pretty high up on the food chain—I had 500 technicians and engineers working for me in my division—that I was able to do the things that I did.
Baer is also responsible for the first-person shooter video game to feature a light gun peripheral pointing device, used for the first time on the Odyssey’s Shooting Gallery series. In the mid-'70s Baer started R.H. Baer Consultants.
“Among many things, I invented and developed single-chip, micro-processor-controlled handheld games for Marvin Glass & Associates in Chicago [toy & game design group],” Baer said.
Perhaps his most famous invention came in 1978 when he and partner Howard J. Morrison created Simon, an electronic game based on memory skill, named after Simon Says. A symbol of 1980s pop culture, Simon is best known for its four colored panels, each producing a distinct tone. The panels list up in a random order, which the player had to try to remember and then reproduce.
Baer has 150 U.S. and foreign patents—a significant amount of them resulting in toys and games that eventually went into production.
In 2006, President George W. Bush presented Baer with the National Medal of Technology, and four years later Baer was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
When asked if he was amazed by the all of the advancements in technology in the last 50 years, Baer replied, “Who could have predicted it?”
“But after all, the doubling speed of the semiconductor and producing a bigger size every two years was a prediction that came true. But even when you knew there were geometric changes coming along in technology, you just couldn't realize how fast everything would develop in the semiconductor industry, which is what drove everything. If the graphics weren’t good enough, you had to build better semiconductors. What’s going on now with games, the iPad and iPhone is complete and absolute magic. But what is magical to you won’t be magical to your kids.“
Ralph Baer may be slowing down physically, but his mind is as agile as it ever was and he’s currently at work on an auto-biography.
To read more about his many accomplishments visit ralphbaer.com.