Ralph H. Baer: The Father of Video Game Consoles

Updated on July 3, 2017
Ralph H. Baer receiving the National Medal of Technology from President George W. Bush, on February 13, 2006.
Ralph H. Baer receiving the National Medal of Technology from President George W. Bush, on February 13, 2006. | Source

Early Life: Escaping the Nazi's

Rudolf Heinrich Baer was born March 8, 1922 to Lotte Kirschbaum and Leo Baer. They were a Jewish family who lived in Germany. When Baer was 14, he was kicked out of school because of his Jewish heritage and he was relegated to an all Jewish institution.

Because the Baers were worried about increasing hostility towards Jews, they moved from Germany to New York in 1938 on Baer's father's shoe factory worker salary. The family narrowly missed the infamous Kristallnacht incident.

SF Chronicle coverage of Kristallnacht
SF Chronicle coverage of Kristallnacht | Source
1944 photo of Ralph H. Baer in his Army uniform
1944 photo of Ralph H. Baer in his Army uniform

Early Career: Failed Initial Video Game Concept

Rudolf Baer's name was changed to "Ralph," and he eventually became a naturalized U.S. Citizen. Ralphs's first job in the U.S. was that of a factory worker for a weekly salary of $12. During that time, he noticed an advertisement for schooling in the electronics field, so he decided to quit his job and go study therein.

Baer's education and employment included graduation from the National Radio Institute as a radio service technician, a stint with U.S. Army intelligence during World War II, a Bachelor of Science degree in Television Engineering from the American Television Institute of Technology in Chicago, engineering jobs at Wappler, Inc., and Loral Electronics, a partnership with IBM, and Chief Engineer, and later, Vice President of Transitron, Inc.

In 1956, Baer joined Sanders Associates, which was a defense contractor in New Hampshire. His chief job at Sanders was to oversee 500 engineers in the development of electronic systems for military applications. It was during his work here that his concept for a video game console was fostered.

His initial idea for a video game console first came to him years earlier, but when he approached his employer, Loral Electronics, they weren't interested in the concept.

Brown Box Video Game Consoles

His idea had to do with creating a gaming system whereby users could use their television screen for game play. He proposed his idea to his supervisors at Sanders Associates, and they granted him $2,500 and the use of the time of two of the company's engineers, Bill Harrison and Bill Rusch. Together, the trio developed the "Brown Box" video game console. The unit was so-named, because of the brown tape they used to wrap the units, in order to simulate a wood veneer.

Replica of Ralph H. Baer's "Brown Box" Video Gaming Console, it was the first ever video gaming console system ever produced.
Replica of Ralph H. Baer's "Brown Box" Video Gaming Console, it was the first ever video gaming console system ever produced.

Video Game Console Commercial Success!

Baer shopped his system to various television manufacturers, but no one was buying it, until Magnavox took an interest in 1971. Baer licensed the prototype to Magnavox, and they renamed it the "Magnavox Odyssey," which was publicly released in May 1972.

The Magnavox Odyssey sold over 340,000 units, and was eventually sold with a shooter game, and light gun. The units became collectively known as the Shooting Gallery. Thus was the beginning of game development, although many in the industry didn't take it seriously at the time. Additionally, Baer's light gun became the first peripheral ever created for a video gaming console.

Magnavox Odyssey Console, the first successfully mass marketed video game console
Magnavox Odyssey Console, the first successfully mass marketed video game console

Enter Pong, by Atari, Inc.

The Magnavox Odyssey proved to be a success, and soon after, other companies began to get in on the action, one company in particular was Atari, Inc. In 1972, under the direction of engineer Nolan Bushnell, Atari created the first arcade game machine. The game Atari invented, was modeled after Ralph Baer's earlier idea for an electronic version of table tennis, which resulted in Pong.

Classic Atari "Pong" Game Play

Baer Secures His Spot in History & Simon Says, Success!

Baer eventually helped Magnavox and Coleco develop competitive concepts to Atari's products, and Baer and Bushnell continually duked it out over who was the true "father of video games." The industry eventually decided to accept Baer as the father of the home video gaming console, and Bushnell as the father of arcade machine gaming.

Ralph H. Baer went on to co-develop three wildly popular electronic games, Simon (1978) and Super Simon (1979) for Milton Bradley, and Maniac (1979), for the Ideal Toy Company.

Classic Commercial for Milton Bradley's "Simon" Game

Ralph H. Baer, his wife Dena, their sons Mark and James, and daughter, Nancy.
Ralph H. Baer, his wife Dena, their sons Mark and James, and daughter, Nancy.

Personal Life and Death

In his personal life, Baer wed Dena Whinston in 1952, and they remained married until her death in 2006. The couple had three children, and eventually four grandchildren. They made their home in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Baer has been awarded and decorated, both during his lifetime, and posthumously many times over by the gaming and electronics industry. By the time of his death, on December 6, 2014, Richard Baer had over 150 patents in his name.

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Questions & Answers

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      • Rachelle Williams profile image
        Author

        Rachelle Williams 11 months ago from Tempe, AZ

        Well, I'm a child of Generation X, so I was around for the birth of video gaming, so, it's all so interesting to me how far gaming has come. Thank you so much for the interactive comment.

      • NateB11 profile image

        Nathan Bernardo 11 months ago from California, United States of America

        Very interesting history and information, I'd heard a little about Atari's history but not too much about Baer; interesting how long ago they were developing video games.

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