Ralph Baer, who invented, patented and released the first television videogame console, passed away the evening of December 6 at his home in New Hampshire, WIRED has learned.
On September 1, 1966, while working as Chief Engineer For Equipment Design at defense contractor Sanders Associates, Baer wrote a four-page hand-written document detailing a “Conceptual TV Gaming Display.” Over the next few years, Baer led a team of Sanders engineers as they developed prototypes of home videogame machines, patenting the “Television Gaming Apparatus and Method” in 1969.
While other inventors, hackers, and students had experimented with creating electronic games, it was Baer’s independent invention of games that could be played on a consumer television that directly led to the creation of today’s multi-billion-dollar home videogame industry.
In 1972, Sanders licensed Baer’s invention to the television company Magnavox, which released it as “Odyssey”—the first home videogame console. Odyssey was not a huge hit, but one of the games it could play, a simple version of tennis, directly inspired the design of Atari’s first arcade game Pong later that year. (Magnavox later successfully sued Atari, and Atari had to pay Magnavox a licensing fee for the technology covered by Baer’s home videogame patents.)
Born in Germany in 1922 to Jewish parents, Baer left the country with his family in 1938—“three months before Kristallnacht, when things got really nasty,” he told Game Developer magazine in 2007.
He learned to fix radios and television sets via correspondence course, and ran an electronics repair business in New York City in the early 1940’s. Drafted into the U.S. Army, he served three years, then attended the American Television Institute of Technology in Chicago upon his return. In 1947, he earned a Bachelor of Science in Television Engineering. Over the ensuing decade he worked at a variety of electronics firms, moved to New Hampshire, married, and had three children.
At Sanders, which primarily made electronics for military use, he developed videogames in secret at first, assigning a few employees to build proof-of-concept machines that would turn a normal home television set from a passive medium into an active one—moving a spot around on the screen. Once he got an official budget for the project, Baer and his team worked on a series of increasingly complex prototypes for television gaming. The machine that became the Odyssey, “TV Game Unit #7,” currently resides in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution.
After the Odyssey, Baer continued to invent electronic games and toys, including the hit memory game Simon from Milton Bradley.
Baer kept meticulous notes and records throughout his career, saving and archiving all of his ideas and designs. These would often be entered as evidence in the various court cases that Magnavox entered into with companies like Atari and Nintendo as it defended its patents on home videogames.
Baer usually shunned the spotlight, but he wrote in his 2005 autobiography Videogames: In the Beginning that having to prove he invented home videogames in these lawsuits was what kept his legacy alive: “Magnavox spent the money to pursue infringers of the patents… If they hadn’t, the revisionists would undoubtedly have prevailed and my contributions to the videogame business would have wound up on the ash heap of History.”
In 2006, President George W. Bush awarded Baer with the National Medal of Technology for his accomplishments.
Leonard Herman, a writer of gaming history books and a longtime friend of Baer’s, told WIRED that the inventor’s health had been declining steadily over the past two years. In 2008, at the age of 86, he traveled to San Francisco to present a panel at Game Developers Conference titled “How To Create An Industry.”