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The Replay Interviews: Ralph Baer
In the first in a series of interviews conducted for his book Replay, journalist Tristan Donovan sits down with the man who started it all -- Ralph Baer, the inventor of the first video game console ever, the Magnavox Odyssey.
November 29, 2010
19 Min Read
[In the writing of his history of the video game industry, Replay, author Tristan Donovan conducted a series of important interviews which were only briefly excerpted in the text. Gamasutra is happy to here present the full text of his interview with the creator of the first game console, Ralph Baer, the first in a series.]
As founding fathers of the industry go, few cast as a long a shadow as Ralph Baer. He invented the first games console back in 1966 while working at the military technology firm Sanders Associates.
That console, the Brown Box, eventually got released in 1972 as the Magnavox Odyssey. It also boasted the first light gun accessory for a video game. The Ping-Pong game he created for the Odyssey became the inspiration for Atari's Pong. His electronic toy Simon also became a huge seller and popular culture icon.
In the first of a series of previously unpublished interviews conducted by Tristan Donovan in 2009 for his recent book Replay: The History of Video Games that will be published on Gamasutra in the coming weeks, Baer tells the story of how he created the world's first games console, the early days of the industry and how his colleagues thought he was "nuts".
In your book you mentioned that you had an idea for a TV game back when you were working for Loral in 1951. What was the idea?
Ralph Baer: I was building a television set from scratch at Loral in 1951 with another guy sitting in a screen room for an entire year. Building the whole thing from scratch. I think the only thing we bought was the front end -- the tuner. A 30-channel tuner. I think it was 30 channels then.
While building that television set, we used test equipment to check our progress and one of the pieces of equipment we used put straight lines, horizontal lines, vertical lines, crosshatch patterns and color bars on the screen. You could move them around to some extent and of course you used them to adjust the television set. When we applied that test equipment, moving stuff around the screen, moving the rectangles of the crosshatch pattern around -- it was kind of neat.
So the idea came to me: "Hey, maybe we ought to build something into a television set." I don't know that I thought about it as a game, but as something to fool with and to give you something to do with the television set other than watch stupid network programs. That was the germ of the idea. But it didn't come back until '66 when it came to me in a flash and it had absolutely nothing to do with what I was doing. There was me running a big division of 500 engineers, techs, and support people in a military electronics company.
Was it just a sort of a Eureka moment?
RB: I remember sitting on a stoop somewhere. I think on the granite steps going up to the bus station. Central Bus Station, downtown New York, waiting for my bus to come in. Then the idea came and I was scribbling on a notepad, which I tossed away the next morning after I did the five/four-page document that's in my book Videogames: In the Beginning and on the Smithsonian site.
So the idea came full-blown: "Hey, let's play games!" I was a bit conflicted when writing the proposal. The first paragraph of that document starts out a little conflicted. I am a chief engineer and division manager of a military electronics company. So how the hell do I write this stuff?
So the document starts out calling it by some terminology that sounds military. By the time I get half way through the paragraph, I've already basically said screw it. By the end I'm calling it Channel LP for "let's play".
And you did it as a secret project for a while?
RB: Well, yes. My division was on the fifth floor of the Sanders building. On the sixth floor, right opposite the elevator, there was an empty room that they'd not ever really used before. I commandeered that and I gave to the technician Bill Harrison the keys. I had a key and later that year or '67, Bill Rusch joined us.
But the total amount of work we put in that little room was only a matter of months, because Harrison would have to leave the job and go back to his primary job when there was a call for him. And Rusch only lasted for a few weeks and then we parted. He was constructive and creative, but he's a pain in the ass. He'd come in late and broke up for an hour before he'd get started. The lunch hour was always two hours, you know. No discipline. I hated that. But very creative, and very smart, and contributed a lot.
But, yes, it was just the three of us and nobody knew what the hell we were doing in that room. The only thing that gave away that something funny was going on was because Rusch brought a private project with him. He had been working on a gadget to take an electric guitar and divide the tone of each string by a factor of two. By an octave, so it would sound like a bass guitar. And I countenanced that nonsense.
So I let him bring this thing in with him and had my tech help him work on it off and on. And of course when you play the guitar, you know, it's going to be heard. So people were wondering "What the hell is Baer doing in this room?" Guitar music coming out of there.
We did that in, I think, either March or May of '67. By the time a couple of months had passed, we were already demonstrating moving a couple of spots around the screen chasing each other and one spot disappeared when you caught up with it and shooting at the screen. Good stuff.
So I decided "Jeez, I can't do this transitionally forever." I called the director of patents who was a good friend, Louis Etlinger, and Herb Campman, who was the director of independent research and development and had the money -- and demonstrated it. Herb really liked shooting the rifle, he liked shooting from the hip. He was pretty good at it. He gave me 2,000 bucks and 500 for labor and 500 bucks for materials, which wasn't very generous but made the job official. After that he fed me a few hundred bucks here, a few hundred bucks there.
Of course, sooner or later, I had to tell my boss, who was the executive vice-president at the time, about it. And at regular intervals he would ask me "You still screwing around with this stuff?" Of course, a few years later when the money started rolling in from licenses and from the results of successful lawsuits, nobody was asking anymore whether I was still fooling around with this stuff. Everybody was telling me how supportive they'd been.
The only supportive people I had were two directors. My boss came up with this idea that we better show this to Sandy -- Royden Sanders -- the president of Sanders Associates. It turned out that the day he wanted me to show it to them, the board of directors was in town. So instead of just demonstrating it to him and my boss, there were about six or seven other guys there, so I had a big audience.
So I thought "I better not screw this up" and recorded all my introductions to the seven games on an audio tape. So when they came, I introduced each game by playing this tape -- by pushing a play button on a tape recorder and out came instructions. "The first game is a blah, blah, blah. The second game is a chase game, etc." That worked well.
Well everybody was stone-faced during the demonstrations. Especially Royden Sanders. But there were two guys -- two directors -- who got pretty enthusiastic about this and said "that's great" and there were smiles. But they were the only two guys who were supportive. Everybody else thought I was nuts and wasting the company's time and their energy.
Was that just the internal reaction at Sanders? How did people outside react when they first saw your work?
RB: I'd say "no reaction", because we didn't show it until '68. January or February when the first VP and then the president of TelePrompter came up to visit us at my invitation. They were both pretty impressed and we went to write a contract between us, which meant I had to go down to New York to TelePrompter several times during the next two months to write the technical part of the proposal so that a bunch of novices could work on the actual details.
Then they ran out of money. Cable companies were very small then. I think TelePrompter had about 100,000 subscribers on the East Coast and maybe 100,000 in the California area. That was all. Their cash flow was negative, so the whole thing went down.
Then nothing happened for a year and a half because we didn't know what the hell to do with it. It finally dawned on me who is most likely to manufacture, advertise, distribute and sell something that's made with exactly the same components and the same manufacturing techniques as the television sets themselves.
So obviously it was, in those days, American television manufacturers. We brought in television manufacturers. We had RCA, Philco, Motorola, Sylvania, Magnavox, General Electric, several others -- all of whom made television sets.
We demonstrated it in '69 to all these companies. Every one of them was receptive and said "this is great". Except nobody moved off a dime except RCA. We worked out for almost a week between them and us and when we finally looked at it, we said "we can't live with that deal" and walked away from it.
Now one of the guys at RCA left the group, went to Magnavox, became a VP for marketing and persuaded them to take another look at what we had. They invited us to come and demonstrate. We went there and demonstrated it to a large group of people and Gerry Martin, division manager, who was in control of design, development and manufacturing at Magnavox said "it's a go". One guy with vision, that's how it all started.
What were you calling it at the time? Was it a video game? A TV game? Did it even have a name?
RB: Oh, it was "TV games" for at least two years. I suspect, we don't know for sure, that someone at Atari coined that word, "video game".
People were still calling them TV games for a long time, I've found references as late as '83, '84. But the term seemed to die out around the early '80s.
RB: Yes. There's a distinction between TV games and video games. Everybody thinks that if video shows up on a screen whether it's a cathode-ray tube or flat-panel display it's a video display, right? Well "video" is a very specific term that referred to nothing else but analogue video. If it was an analogue video signal that was displayed on a cathode ray tube, it was a video. And pretty soon, video became the generic term for any graphics or any pictorial content on the screen of anything.
On top of that, there is confusion between our early TV games, which had logic circuitry in them, but had nothing to do with computers because we're 10 years ahead of microprocessing. Microprocessing didn't exist. People keep calling them "computer games". They weren't computer games. There were no computers! And of course the public can't keep these things straight because most people don't even know what goes on when they turn a doorknob. What goes on inside the doorknob mechanism when you turn it?
I'd have to think... erm, no, haven't a clue.
RB: [laughs] Right. Much less know the distinction between a video signal or a television game or a computer game in terms of what goes on technically. It really doesn't matter, except almost every day there's another article that talks about me having invented computer games. Well, I didn't. And on it goes.
Were you very involved in the actual making of the games for the Odyssey, or was that down to the two Bills?
RB: Oh no. I mean once we had a spot out there, once you have two spots up there and you move them around, how many microseconds does it take to think of one chasing the other? I mean it's pretty obvious. I do have a creative mind -- I only have 150 patents worldwide and that's a very small fraction of all the stuff I've done. The game ideas are definitely mine. But the execution of the circuitry was mostly Bill Harrison because he was on the bench. He had years and years of bench experience and I didn't have the time.
When the Odyssey came out it had score sheets, poker chips, dice, etc., was that to overcome the technological limitations or was it to help people get used to the idea of playing games on their TVs?
RB: The Brown Box played seven games, of which maybe four are really valid -- like the Ping-Pong game and the Handball game, which I like better than Ping-Pong. Well while the engineers were basically converting the Brown Box into a commercial unit which became the Odyssey, they were working with a product manager in Fort Wayne on the games and on the literature and advertising -- all this good stuff.
And the product manager came up with some others, I guess, in meetings with the idea of all this other jazz. I was appalled when I saw the box and out comes 10,000 playing cards, paper money, and all this crap. I just knew, nobody's ever going to use this stuff. Everybody will put Ping-Pong on and that's it.
In the beginning, I didn't know that Ping-Pong was a good game. What made it really popular was that after the Odyssey was taken to market, Al Alcorn builds the first Pong arcade machine and it's out.
They built 10 or 12 units, which go out on display in various places, and people go nuts for them. So that's when you begin to realize, hell, all we had to do was stop after game number six. If we had known that it was Ping-Pong that was going to be the key to kingdom...
Atari ended up getting a lot of the credit for creating video games with Pong. It eclipsed your work in the public mind and it's only being corrected in the last few years. Did you realize that was happening at the time or did you realize later?
RB: In one word, later. But let me give you a little background. Nolan Bushnell sees an announcement that a Magnavox dealership in California in Burlingame is going to display the Odyssey on May 24th. So he goes there with a couple of Nutting Associates guys. They sign the book and he plays Odyssey Ping-Pong.
He goes home and hires Al Alcorn, who had worked with him at Ampex with Ted Dabney. Now Al needs a job. They hire Allen and tell him to build a Ping-Pong game. To what extent they discussed what it should look like and what is Al's in there -- 90 percent of it is stolen. You know the rest of the story.
Meanwhile, I know nothing about this. Al knows nothing about me. I know nothing about them. It was in the fall of '72 that somebody saw one of those on a navy pier in Chicago and reported it. That's the first time we heard of it.
When I heard of it, I said, "Go after them." And basically Magnavox said there is no business there -- you can't sue somebody who hasn't sold $7 million worth of product. So next year Atari is in business and they're making about 7,000 Pong machines, but Midway and others are copying the machines exactly. Midway made about 12,000 machines -- a lot more than Atari.
You got awarded the National Medal of Technology by the President a couple of years back for your work on the Odyssey. How did it feel to get that level of recognition?
RB: It doesn't get any better over here than that, so what do you think? I mean, I'm in a very large room in the White House, all my family's there. The families of all the other honoraries are there. There are a hundred cameras and press people up against one wall. And we get called up, our background story is read out and we talk a bit. Then we have a private audience with the President later where we discuss science and technology.
An hour before that we were roaming the east wing of the White House, we were served coffee and other things, and we were sitting on fancy furniture and looking at fantastic paintings. I really think it doesn't get any better. But my wife died on the Friday night before we went to Washington, more or less on the Monday morning. So then we had to come back home and bury her, we were married 53 years. So the whole thing was a bittersweet thing.
Can I ask you about your childhood in Germany or is that something you'd rather not talk about?
RB: You mean the first 16 years in Deutschland? I'll talk about it.
Yes, I just wondered what the background to your move to America was. Was it because of the rise of the Nazis?
RB: I realized after I wrote my book Videogames: In the Beginning that there's nothing of my background, no personal history in there. People started complaining about that right off, but it wasn't going to be my biography, it was a history of video games. But most people found that they didn't find out enough about Baer in the book.
I grew up in Cologne. The school, they threw me out of school when I was aged 14 and I worked in an office for two and a half years. I learned how to do shorthand and speak two languages, learned how to type. I did filing, bookkeeping, 15 years old. You do what you have to do.
My father, who saw what was coming, finally got all the paperwork together in 1938. We had lots of family in New York on my mother's side -- not on my father's. We went to Stuttgart and met the American Consular there and sat in his office. Him sitting on one side of this desk and we were on the other side of the desk. I spoke pretty good English and I guess being able to have that conversation with him might have made all the difference because the quota for being let into the US was very small. He signed the paperwork and we were in.
If we hadn't got into the quota then it would have been... [motions the slicing of the neck]
How surprising was the success of Simon?
RB: It was a big surprise, I'll tell you. It was just one of four different games we did. We didn't know it was going to be that popular. We did three more after that: Computer Perfection, Maniac, and Mazetron -- all on the same TI 4-bit chip. Simon was the only one that really made it big.
Its success was down to a lot of things, not least of which I think was the four tones I picked. I looked through an encyclopedia until I found an instrument that does all its repertoire with four notes: G, C, E, G, and that's the bugle. So I picked those four notes and no matter what sequence you play them in they sound good. Another thing that didn't hurt was the movie that came out simultaneously with Simon.
RB: Yes that's right, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There was this flying saucer that looked for all the world like a Simon and made a noise just like it. That didn't hurt. But I guess, Simon was intrinsically a good game and a whole lot of people took to it. It was like Tetris, right, it was something that took off. Tetris didn't take off immediately but once it did it was unstoppable.
What do you think of games today and the industry you've spawned?
RB: When it takes $10 million to do a video game and a group of 75 to 100 people with all kinds of different qualifications -- guys that do sound, guys who do the graphics, guys who do nothing but worry about shadows or clouds -- it's a production like a movie today. There's no comparison with what I was doing.
Today if your company doesn't make a million, a billion dollars worth of business they're a non-entity. When we were in business in the '60s and '70s, if you were doing a million dollars it was a big deal. This is a totally different world.
Of course I've developed too and I learn too. The choice of games I design nowadays aren't the same as I did in the Simon days. But when you look at progress you've got to remember that everything in video games follows the development of semiconductor technology.
Look at what happened. The early programming I did was on an Apple -- 16k of memory and a plug-in card with another 16k of memory. That was a big deal. That was utterly fantastic. People have no sense of where we are today in respect of where the world was 50 years ago. It's a totally different world.
You may think that you can appreciate the difference. Mentally you can appreciate it, but you really can't. When I grew up they were still delivering milk in milk bottles, in glass bottles with a horse and wagon. 40, 50 years later they're putting a guy on the Moon.
You know I have seen that whole progress and people have no idea of how steep that curve is now. Look at the medical capabilities today. Thirty, 40, years ago what did they have? Nothing -- primitive X-ray machines. When you look at a thing like an MRI machine, the amount of calculations never mind the basic machine itself... But there's no sense, no feeling for that -- we're taking everything for granted.
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About the Author(s)
Tristan Donovan is the UK-based author of the book Replay: The History of Video Games and a freelance games journalist who regularly writes for The Times and Stuff. He has also written about games for Game Developer, Edge, The Guardian, Kotaku, The Gadget Show, GamesTM and many others.
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