Ralph Baer is the father of video games. Want to contest that crown? Then produce a document that can prove it – one that's earlier than his.
An engineer at heart, Baer has kept meticulous records of his work, from the first dot he displayed on a screen. In this interview, Baer discusses his roots, his work ethic, the problems with patents, and what drove him to create the first video games.
[A condensed version of this interview originally appeared in the March, 2007 issue of Game Developer magazine. Here we present the full, uncensored interview for the first time!]
Gamasutra: I've read that you were born in Germany in 1922. When did you first come to the United States?
Ralph Baer: 1938, in August, which was three months before Kristallnacht, when things got really nasty. I was damn lucky to get out just in time.
GS: How did you feel about the United States when you first came here?
RB: Well, I spoke English because I had English in school. I took English lessons, so it wasn't like I couldn't communicate or didn't know what was going on around me. Within a week after we arrived in New York, I was working from eight in the morning 'till six at night in a factory for the next two years.
Six months later, I see somebody in the subway with a magazine. On the back of the magazine [it said] "make big money in radio and television servicing," and somehow, that was me, so I spent a buck and a quarter every week out of my twelve dollars of wages on the correspondence course. I finished that in a few months, took the advanced course, finished that. Left the factory and started servicing radios.
[I] did it all: I picked up all deliveries, fixed radios, fixed early television sets, put up antennas all over the place on rooftops in mid-Manhattan, and then Uncle Sam came along and, yeah, I went back to where I came from. First England, then to France, you know, as a GI in '43.
GS: Did you enjoy playing sports as a kid, or other games like checkers, chess, or anything like that?
RB: Yeah, well sports I wouldn't put in the same category as board games. We played a lot of board games. We thought that all the board games we played were invented in Germany, because after all, if you were a German, everything that is and has ever been invented was invented in Germany. And we played things like Monopoly and stuff like that.
Yeah, we thought of them as German games, but they were all American games. [Laughs] We played board games. I played chess in Germany, and after I came over here for a while. But I wasn't very good at it. Sports? Yeah, in school, we all played soccer, but I was never any good at it
GS: What was the very first video game you created? Was it the "pumping" game?
RB: No, the very first thing was first to put one spot up. Once we had one spot up and we knew how to move that around, we said, "Oh, let's put two up and chase each other, and wipe one out when you catch up with him." The "chase game" was the first.
The unit is down in the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria. It's already been played by probably ten thousand school kids in the last year. And it's just a lot of fun. And it's played with joysticks. We had joysticks wired up to stuff. I made very, very inexpensive analog joysticks. You chase around, and if you're clever enough, [you] keep dodging the guy who's chasing you, and it's exciting! It's two frigging spots on screen and it makes one exciting game.
GS: Speaking of joysticks, don't they come from the aeronautical industry?
RB: Sure, they did. 'Cause the word comes from the joystick in an airplane, right? And early on, vector displays -- computer-driven vector displays in the '50s -- had joysticks to move a spot around the screen, so they were not an original idea. But the idea of using joysticks to play games with was original. We did that.
We came up with playing games on a television set. We came up with pointing a light gun and shooting at the screen. It was all original, all within the first twelve months. If you read my book carefully, you'll notice we only worked on stuff for a month or so, and then a technician has to go off on some other military program [that was] more important, right? And nobody's working on stuff for several months, and then we go back to it [and] work on it part time. When you string all the months together that we worked on the stuff, it was probably no more than a year and a half. Maybe two years.
GS: It was spread out over a long period of time.
RB: So spread out -- that's why it took so long.
GS: Could you describe the atmosphere of your lab at Sanders when you were developing the first video games?
RB: I had a little bitty room that once was the company's library when they first started on the fifth floor of the Canal Street building in Nashua. And you entered that directly opposite the elevator. You entered it, made a left turn, you were in that little bitty room. And I gave my technician -- the engineer who worked with us for a little while -- keys to the door and I had a key and nobody else had a key -- nobody knew what was going on in that room. It was a floor above where my division was, and it was nobody's business, and in fact, it would have been ridiculed by a whole lot of people if they knew.
GS: That brings me to another question I have. How did it feel to be creating games, of all things... to be developing games amidst this military contractor that's probably usually pretty serious?
RB: Well, you know, to tell the truth, it was a piece of Jewish chutzpah. I'm running a division, heh, and it's certainly hard enough to think about commercial products, never mind coming up with things like video games. But, you know, I'm a creative guy, so I do what I do with it. Well, I mean, I run a big division -- I got certain prerogatives, right? [I get] a couple of guys, I put them on the bench and make them do something I want done, and nobody needs to know about it. It doesn't even ripple my overhead. And two guys out of three or four hundred, five hundred, doesn't even show up.
So I just did it. And when we had something that looked like it was neat, I called Herb Campman, our corporate director, and he saw it immediately. Then he gave me two-thousand bucks and made me honest. But within a month, I had to demonstrate to the president of the company, and all I saw was long faces. "What the hell are you screwing around with?" The board of directors was meeting that day, and they were all there. They were all watching my demo. But there were two people who were very supportive right off the bat. Guys with insight, guys who had foresight. And they sorta tolerated it.
"Quit screwing around with that." That was the question that was asked by my boss, who was the executive VP for quite a few years. I was asked that question many times: "Are you still screwing around with that stuff, Baer?" And I'd smile and say nothing, right?
GS: And then all your patents ended up making them a lot of money later, didn't they?
RB: Well, you know, when the money started coming in, everybody told me how supportive they had been. Yeah, sure. But when the money started coming in, my name and the name of the corporate director of patents, who had negotiated the licenses, were up on the towering neon lights.
Every quarter, we'd be in the quarterly meeting, along with other division managers, looking at the performance of various divisions, and our licensing income was always bigger than that of the biggest division of the company. So we could do no wrong, right? That's when I started going out and doing my own toy and game design.
I got out of under running a division and became the first Engineering Fellow at Sanders -- later, Lockheed fellow -- and I could do what I wanted to. No one's going to question me as long as I bring in all that money, you know.
GS: Yeah, I'm sure that freedom is priceless for an engineer who wants to be creative and just do their own thing.
RB: Oh, yeah. I mean, I've had a ball for the last twenty-five, thirty years. If I hadn't have gotten out of under running a division, I'd probably be dead and buried by now. You know, with all the daily stress that goes along with an ordinary job. When you have major responsibilities. Yeah, all that stress...I didn't have any of it once the money started coming in, and once I was identified with the money coming in. 'Cause I was constantly in Chicago, or in San Francisco, or in Montreal, or in other places in court, defending the patents and making tons of money for them. Money's what counts.
GS: Long ago, I read about your disclosure document from 1966 that allowed you to get your first patent on video game technology, and I think your story shows the value of keeping good, accurate records about what you've done.
RB: Oh, that's of paramount importance...
GS: Do you think it's important for an inventor's success to keep great notes and records of what they do?
RB: Absolutely. From day one. Even if they're just hen scratches. As you work on stuff, you make notes. And they're called schematics if you're building electronics hardware. Everything has to be kept, everything has to be dated and signed, and if you think you've got something really serious going on, get somebody else who understands the stuff to read it and sign it. Sign it "Understood, blah blah blah, name, date." Makes all the difference.
Memory doesn't count for diddlywink in court, because it's totally unreliable. Even with the best of intentions. I know I caught myself in court having said something, asserted something, in the morning and then going through some document in the afternoon which instantly tells me that I was full of crap. And just because memory is what it is. It's very unreliable.
GS: Where did you acquire that record-keeping acumen -- that practice?
RB: To me, I'm just a logical guy. Yeah; I can't help it. Some people hate it, you know? I'm the kinda guy that goes into the kitchen...there's a piece of napkin on the floor. I gotta pick it up; I can't take it. If the faucet in the sink is wet, I gotta wipe it down. It's just me. So it never occurred to me that I wouldn't put down what I'm doing, and I certainly required it of everyone who worked for me.
At the time I wrote that four-page disclosure document, I was running close to five hundred people in a division, and everybody there was required to keep a daily notebook for the same reason. And mainly, it was required because the military requires it. If you work on a military program, you must keep a log and you must sign it, and counter-sign it, in some cases. [It's] part of the contractual requirement.
GS: So it kinda trickled down from the military influence.
RB: Yeah, discipline trickles down. It's a good thing it did.
GS: I think so too. That's what allowed you to make your case and prove it, obviously -- your records.
RB: You bet. And it was all there; you couldn't argue with it. You could see a schematic of what we did on December 29th, ya know? Don't argue with it. Show me a piece of paper of yours that says you did something similar a day before, or a year before.
I have yet to see the first piece of documentation from Atari. I know that Alan Alcorn, who designed the Pong machine, has got the original notes, which he's hanging on to. It's about time he gave that stuff up and gave it to the Smithsonian or someplace. But he's sittin' on them. He's also got some of the original wire-wrapped boards that he made. Some of that stuff exists, but not much. If you look for a running record of what went on in Atari in the first four or five years that's similar to the record we kept, you won't find it.
GS: It's definitely a case of two different cultures, I think. They were hippies, essentially, and you were a trained engineer.
RB: Yeah. Well, I'm a generation and a half, or two generations older than those guys. I'm an experienced, methodical engineering manager who's climbed up the ladder over the past twenty-odd years. These guys are 19, 20, 25...Nolan was a little older when he started Atari; he was about 28. But even so, he didn't have my level of experience and insight.
GS: While we're on this subject of records: obviously you've benefited from the patent system pretty well -- at least vicariously, anyway, through Sanders, who mostly benefited from your inventions. These days, there's a lot of criticism about the U.S. Patent system. Do you think it still works, or does it need fixing?
RB: I don't think it ever worked.
GS: You don't think it ever worked?
RB: No, because you look at the patents, and three out of four are garbage. Especially since it's so easy to do patent searches on the web; it's very easy. You look at that stuff: one piece of crap after another. How the hell did that ever get in there and clog up the system to where stuff that should have really been handled in an expeditious manner didn't make it through the damn office for three years or even longer? That's problem number one.
Number two...the kind of response you get from the examiners is very much a function of who the examiner is. I was very much aware of that fact [due to] going into the patent department very often -- Crystal City -- with one of our corporate patent lawyers to negotiate claims in the patent that we were responsible for. Some of the examiners were barely out of law school; it was their first job. They had no practical experience. And some of them had been engineers before, others had not.
It was a totally variable cast of characters. Like the guy who handled our first video game patent application. He was very nice, but we worked him by having the patent lawyer sit across the desk from him, discussing the various objections he had to the various claims, while I'm setting up a little white 10" black-and-white GE television set, and early Ping-Pong game.
I hooked it all up, and the examiner doesn't want to look at it, no-how. Because they don't, on principle, want to look at stuff. Within half an hour, he's playing games. He has half the corridor come in. People up and down the corridor come in and play games.
GS: Yeah, nothing works quite like showing people exactly what you're talking about. You can never really tell them, exactly. You have to show them.
RB: Exactly, and you rarely get a chance to do that. You know, it was a lot of fun. [Laughs] " I want to see it too. Hey, come on in, take a look at this!"
GS: "Come check this out!" Yeah, I'm sure they'd never seen anything like it, obviously.
RB: No, we had the Ping-Pong game going...
We didn't know it, you know, but by the time we had the fourth? No, fifth model Ping-Pong in late '67 and we demonstrated it to TelePrompter in January of '68 and on February 1st, the VP came up, and then the big chief cheese, the president, came up from New York. Both [came up] in blinding snowstorms in January-February '68, and we demonstrated Ping-Pong.
Did we know that that was all we really had to do? No, we went on through three more models with all kinds of additional stuff, including, of course, shooting at the screen with a light gun. And we could have stopped a year before and would have had all that we needed to have. But hindsight is 20-20. We didn't know. Who knew that Ping-Pong was all that was needed?
GS: Yeah, the Odyssey system came with a lot of overlays and all these little trinkets...
RB: Yeah, they had no clue that all that they needed was the Ping-Pong game. Or, in my opinion, the Handball game, which is a really a nice game. It plays well. You have a wall on one side and you take turns batting the ball and trying to bat the ball in such a way that the other guy has a hard time returning it. It's a really nice game. That was in there, and Volleyball was in there too; that was too hard to play. But Handball and Ping-Pong would have been enough.
The original Magnavox Odyssey (photo: wikipedia.org)
GS: Do you think that the fact that you worked for a defense contractor influenced your idea for making a light gun for your games?
RB: No. Once I saw a spot...you know, I'm the kinda guy who gets spontaneous ideas every five minutes. So it's just in my genes. Ain't nothing I have to work for. Sure as hell is a valuable asset. It's just me.
GS: I read that you got a Marksman's Medal in the Army...
RB: Yeah, well we all had to fire for record, you know. I started out in Combat Engineers, because I was five-foot six-and-a-half then, and all the other guys are six-footers. They're all Tennesseans, and Georgians, and Alabamans. And here I am...little Jewish boy. But I managed to hit the target just as often as they did with an M1, so I got a Marksman's Medal.
I was once up on the range after having had all four molars pulled -- you know, the cornerstones in your mouth -- with one dentist in the Army. One dentist holding a chisel, the other one hitting it with a hammer. And after I lay down on my bunk, the platoon lieutenant comes in and says, "Hey, we're firing for record, get up! Get off your ass." And he drove me up to the firing range in his Jeep, and I was standing out there with my jaws swollen and firing, alternately hitting bulls-eyes and missing the target. And then he forgot about me and I had to march back to camp. That was the Army.
GS: Let me get back to the light gun a little bit here. So you said you saw a spot on the screen. Did it just make you want to shoot it?
RB: Yeah. Right.
GS: And I guess it just popped into your head, "If it moves around, shoot it."
RB: Who knows where the idea came from. Shooting at the screen is certainly related to light pens, right? Where you put a sensitive light pen in contact with the screen to identify where you are or what you're pointing at. So I moved the light pen back about four feet, and if it's got enough range, figure ya got a gun, right? Put a trigger on it, and you got a gun. Who knows where...My idea might have come from somewhere in the back of my cranium there. I see these things instantly.
GS: How did you conceive of using an ordinary television set as a game medium? Is it one of those things that just popped into your head like the light gun?
RB: It was just a "eureka." You know, I look at the set and say to myself, "What can I do with this?" There are forty million of them in the U.S., and another forty million of them elsewhere, and all I can watch here is stupid channels 5, 7, and 9 -- if I have a good antenna. And if I'm lucky, maybe I'll get Public Television channel 2, and if I don't like what I see, all I can do is turn the damn thing off. And after all, it's a pretty complex display.
The only reason that so many people have it is that so many people buying it makes it cheap, right? Price-reduced item. If I could just latch on to plugging something into a set for one percent of them, that's 400,000 sets. What the hell is wrong with that as a business objective?
So I thought about it and said, "Maybe we could play games." Bingo. And on the next day, in the morning, I sat down in my office and wrote that four page paper. If you read the first paragraph, you can see how conflicted I was, because I first started describing it as a "display system" or some semi-military-sounding word for it. By the time I got to the end of the paragraph, I already said, "screw that." And I said, "Let's call the system 'LP' for 'Let's Play.'"
GS: Before you created the first video games, was there any other application that used a regular TV set to do anything other than receive broadcasts?
RB: Yeah, in the military, they had used television sets and modified them. In one case, in a German patent which I had to defend against many, many times in court, they used a spot that traveled across the screen that was supposed to be a missile that you launched. And then there was another spot somewhere that was supposed to be a tank you were supposed to hit. So they did simulations like that. But nobody thought of doing any of that on a home television set for individual, normal use. That was really the leap of imagination: [to] do something for people with their forty million TV sets.
GS: Yeah, I think that counts for a lot. Just to use a standard home television set...
RB: Yeah, that was the seminal idea.
GS: In the beginning, you called your games "TV games." Do you know how the term "video games" originated?
RB: They were always called "TV games." I have no idea who coined the term "video game." That happened somewhere in the coin-op period, maybe around '73-'74. 'Cause nobody called the original Pong game a "video game." Nobody had heard the term. Somebody came up with it...maybe Atari, maybe Bally-Midway...
GS: It could have even been a journalist, or a newspaper...
RB: Yeah, who knows. It could have been a journalist. To me, it was meaningful because the term "video" is now in use sorta generically for any kinda graphics, especially moving images, on a screen -- any kind of screen. But that's not how it was coined. A video signal was a very specific thing. It was a definitive term that only applied to raster-scan television.
GS: Yeah, if you look up "video" in a dictionary, it says something essentially the same. It's just television.
RB: Yeah, and then it got to be in general use, like how people call a "television set" a "television." [That] always grates on me...grates on my nerves. The frickin' thing is not a "television," it's a television set! Or receiver, right? So the word "television" suddenly becomes the generic noun for a "television set." And "video" just becomes a generic name for anything that gets displayed, especially moving imagery on a screen -- regardless if it's an LCD screen, or a plasma screen, or a vacuum tube set. But that's not how it started.
GS: Until very recently, people have considered video games to be mostly for kids. What I want to know is, when you first created the games, were you developing them with an audience of kids or adults in mind?
RB: No. Shooting at the screen is fun for anybody up to the age a hundred and twenty-two. And besides, if you remember, they were all two-player games to begin with, so it's a matter of family interaction: father and son, mother-daughter, mother and son.
GS: So from the very beginning, it was a multi-generational...
RB: Yeah, because who watches television? The family watches television, right? So the idea was a family game without it even being defined that way.
Now that you mention it, I never spoke of it that way. It was just the natural thing, because who watched television sets? It wasn't fourteen year-old Johnny in his bedroom with his personal television set, because hell no, we were lucky to have one goddamn set in the household, right? So it was a family affair. So the games [were designed that way] in my mind even without thinking about [them being] family games.
GS: Did your kids know what you were doing in the '60s with your video games?
RB: Yes, towards the end when we had more and more finished models, I often took the stuff home to do troubleshooting on it -- another big no-no in a military company. "Don't take anything home! It's classified." Not only did I do that, but I sometimes brought the technician into my lab at home. I had him work at home. That was an even bigger no-no. But what people didn't know didn't hurt 'em. [Chuckles]
GS: Did your kids like the games that you were doing?
RB: Yeah. We played games downstairs in my lab, and the kids played them. They thought it was pretty neat. I don't think I detected any great enthusiasm.
GS: Do you think they influenced your designs at all?
RB: No, not at all. Not in the least.
GS: Did any of your kids take after you in becoming engineers?
RB: My oldest son is an engineer. He puts very fancy electro-optics loads into satellites. If you remember last year, a satellite was launched with a payload that impacted on a meteorite up there. His optics were both in the impact vehicle and up above. So he's a good engineer; very talented guy, fairly imaginative. But nowhere near what I do.
My middle guy is Assistant Attorney General in Salt Lake City. My daughter's pretty creative, an artistic type. But we're all very different. And none of us are really game players. I'm not a game player. I love making games because I love to be able to come up with a design. A concept or a design...
GS: You like the creative process.
RB: I like the creative process. I'm like a painter, you know -- a portrait painter or...an artistic painter. And really, what I do is an art form. The engineering part is a part of it. But after you've done fifty-thousand different things, most of what you do is a combination of what you've already done seventeen times before. But the concept of a game -- that's always new; it's always fresh. I love to do that stuff.
GS: Do you have a favorite video game even though you're not a game player?
RB: I don't play. Recently, one of my grandsons brought an Xbox with him, and we played a race game. Well, I couldn't manage that damn thumb joystick. I was always hitting the walls. I couldn't steer the car worth a damn. After about fifteen minutes, I said "Forget it , I've had enough." [Laughs]
More recently, somebody played a PS2 game with me -- some kind of a game where you sail some kind of a boat. And I was always hitting the docks and the obstacles -- just couldn't really control the stuff. At this age, my reflexes are much too slow. My eyeballs don't work as well as they used to, so I can't play those games.
GS: Well did you ever enjoy playing them in the past, like in the Atari days?
RB: Oh, I did in the beginning -- certainly, I did. You know also, the early Atari -- if you remember reading my book, I built an attachment, Kid Vid, that plugged into the Atari 2600, which the 2600 turned off and on under program control, so that for the first time in the history of humanity, you had real music, you know, and real voices coming off a tape under control of the computer, the Atari machine. You know, I loved playing games on that machine.
Once that period was over...Nintendo? I only played on Nintendo because, right from the bat, it infringed sixteen ways to Sunday. Including...do you remember Robby [R.O.B. -Ed.], the little robot that came with it, or are you too young?
GS: Yeah, I remember it.
RB: What did Robby do? It looked at the screen, 3-4 feet away, and took commands -- optical commands -- off the screen, and then raised his arm, lowered his arm, turned his head, depending upon.... Well, I had an issued patent for...
GS: The video modem?
RB: Well, it was similar to the original video modem, yeah. They infringed. Did we go after them? No point to it because there was not enough money involved to make it worthwhile.
Meanwhile, they built games that infringed, so we went after them. Eventually, they started to settle, then didn't; decided to sue us. [They] got that sharp law firm in New York to sue us for misinforming the patent office, which is a Federal offence. But they couldn't prove it in Federal court in New York, and they lost, and then after that they settled for some nominal sum like ten or twelve million bucks.
GS: And that's when they brought up that Willy Higinbotham thing?
RB: Yeah, that's when they used Higinbotham as a witness. What did Higinbotham do? He put a creative little game on an oscilloscope. Any number of engineers did that before him and after him, including me. And it was just something that's natural, ya know.
The old oscilloscopes were very tractable in that respect because they had an accessible y-axis, which is typical to any scope, but also an accessible x-axis. Nowadays, in most scopes, the x-axis is controlled by internal sweep generators that make you go across the screen and...one microsecond, ten microseconds, a millisecond, and all that. But on the old scopes, you could also move the spot horizontally, so you basically had an x,y display...
GS: You could just point it to wherever you wanted it to go on the screen.
RB: ...so it was only natural for us to play games with that stuff. Not only did [Higinbotham] play a game on the scope, but he played it on a DuMont scope, which was the identical scope I had in my lab at home. 'Cause that's all there was at the time. And then he had, at his disposal, analog computers that cost a hundred-thousand bucks in those days, which is what he did all his work on.
So he had all the tools, he had the scope, and what he did was very interesting and was ingeniously designed, and it was a lot of fun. So, did he think of making a product out of it? Did he think of it as something he could play on a television set? None of the above. And the judge, of course, recognized all that: he said, "Ah, this is bullshit." Meanwhile, he got on the map, right? Nobody had ever heard of him before.
GS: Do you ever feel that if you hadn't been involved in so much patent litigation over two decades that you might have had more time or energy to innovate more, or do more inventions?
RB: No, I don't think so at all. 'Cause I know that if you add up all the hours I spent on preparations in court and out of court over the years, it probably doesn't even add up to a couple of years.
GS: So it wasn't