On Saturday, 92-year-old video game console pioneer Ralph H. Baer passed away in his home in Manchester, New Hampshire. He's known for creating and patenting the very first "game box," a prototype that would go on to become the Magnavox Odyssey. He also invented the electronic music-based memory game "Simon."
According to the New York Times, the idea for a game console that could connect to any TV arrived back in 1966 in the form of a detailed four-page idea scribbled on a yellow legal pad. After developing several prototypes, the first patent was filed by Baer and employer Sanders Associates in March 1971. This patent was finally granted in April 1973.
Before the patent was granted, Sanders Associates licensed the design to Magnavox, which in turn created and sold the Odyssey in the summer of 1972. This bundle included a "master control unit," plastic overlays that added color to the TV screen, electronic program cards that stored the games, gamepads, and more. The unit itself only had 40 diodes and 40 transistors, and there was no operating system.
Once the Odyssey appeared on store shelves, Atari came out with its own Pong console. Sanders and Magnavox immediately sued Atari for patent infringement in 1974. Atari eventually settled outside of court, forking over $700,000 and becoming the second licensee. However, Magnavox didn't stop there, suing other companies over the next 20 years. Baer was asked to testify in most cases.
Baer was originally from Pirmasens, Germany. To escape Hitler, his family escaped to New York City and found a new home in the Bronx. Eventually, Baer would come across an advertisement for making "big money" in television and radio servicing. After taking the course over the stretch of a few months, he took the advanced course and then quit his factory job to work on radios and televisions. He didn't join Sanders Associates until 1956, after serving in Europe during World War II.
Larry "Major Nelson" Hryb said on Sunday that he spent an afternoon with Baer earlier this year. During the visit, Baer agreed to be a guest on Major Nelson's podcast and gave him a tour of his workshop, which included his lab and the "game box" prototype.
"It was a magical afternoon that I shall remember for the rest of my life," Major Nelson said. "Thank you for everything Ralph and rest in peace."
Baer's invention changed the way humans interacted with machines. The "game box" (or "brown box") also revealed that there is an audience for this type of entertainment, and that they will continuously invest in newer "game box" technology.
"If it weren't for video game enthusiasts and the absolute commercial need to keep them happy with ever-better graphics requiring ever-higher processor speeds, complex computer graphics would still be found only in the high-priced domains of the business and science world," Baer once said.