Ralph H. Baer, Inventor of First System for Home Video Games, Dies at 92

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Ralph H. Baer, Inventor of First System for Home Video Games, Dies at 92
Ralph H. Baer, who turned television sets into electronic fantasy lands by inventing and patenting the first home video game system, died Saturday at his home in Manchester, New Hampshire. He was 92.

His death was confirmed by his family.

Video games have become more than just a ubiquitous pastime and a gigantic market (by some estimates, total worldwide sales of console hardware and software and online, mobile and computer games exceeded $90 billion, roughly Rs. 5,57,280 crores in 2013). They are also an engine that has driven scientists and engineers to multiply computer speed, memory and visualization to today's staggering capabilities.

Flash back to the sultry late summer of 1966: Baer is sitting on a step outside the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York waiting for a colleague. By profession, he is an engineer overseeing 500 employees at a military contractor. Today, a vision has gripped him, and he begins scribbling furiously on a yellow legal pad with a No. 2 pencil.

The result was a detailed four-page outline for a "game box" that would allow people to play board, action, sports and other games on almost any American television set. An intrigued boss gave him $2,000 for research and $500 for materials and assigned two men to work with him. For all three, as they plowed through prototype after prototype in a secret workshop, the project became an obsession.

In March 1971, Baer and his employer, Sanders Associates in Nashua, New Hampshire, filed for the first video game patent, which was granted in April 1973 as Patent No. 3,728,480. It made an extraordinarily large claim to a legal monopoly for any product that included a domestic television with circuits capable of producing and controlling dots on a screen.

Sanders Associates licensed its system to Magnavox, which began selling it as Odyssey in summer 1972 as the first home video game console. It sold 130,000 units the first year.

Odyssey consisted of a master control unit containing all the electronic gear, two player control units that directed players on the TV screen, and a set of electronic program cards, each of which supported a different game. Plastic overlays that clung to the screen to supply color were included. To supplement the electronic action, a deck of playing cards, poker chips and a pair of dice were included.

But the guts of the device were what mattered: 40 transistors and 40 diodes. That hardware ran everything. Odyssey, often called the first home computing device, had no software.

Several months after Odyssey hit the market, Atari came out with the first arcade video game, "Pong." Though "Pong" became better known than Odyssey and was in some ways more agile, Sanders and Magnavox immediately saw it as an infringement on their patent.

They sued Atari in 1974 for usurping their rights. Atari settled with them by paying $700,000 to become Odyssey's second licensee. Over the next 20 years, Magnavox went on to sue dozens more companies, winning more than $100 million. Baer often testified.

"Magnavox isn't in the business of making video games," Howard Lincoln, Nintendo's vice president and senior counsel, groused in an interview with Newsday in 1989. "They're just in the business of suing people." (Nintendo, like all the game makers Magnavox challenged, lost.)

Baer's contraption represented the beginnings of a change in man's relationship with machines. Harold Goldberg, in his book "All Your Base Are Belong to Us: How Fifty Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture" (2011), said Baer made television "an extension of you, the player."

"It would let you interact with a square on a black-and-white screen, and if you had even the lamest imagination, it made you believe you were volleying at tennis, aiming carefully as a brave marksman, even playing the innocent as you saved lives," Goldberg wrote.

The roots of video games go back to universities and research laboratories. Some experts cite William A. Higinbotham's "Tennis for Two," invented in 1958 at Brookhaven National Laboratory, as the first interactive computer game.

"When technology is ready for something novel, when the components needed to build something new become affordable, it is going to be done by someone and more likely by several people," wrote Baer, who said he had never seen "Tennis for Two."

From Baer's modestly named "brown box" have sprung PlayStation, Xbox and Wii, all products of the ceaseless revolution in microprocessing. Two technical paths merged to power this revolution. One was computer science; the other was Baer's field of expertise: television engineering.

Baer had more than 150 U.S. and foreign patents, and his contributions ranged from talking doormats and greeting cards to submarine tracking systems. In 2006, President George W. Bush awarded him the National Medal of Technology. In 2010, he was admitted to the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Along with Howard Morrison, he invented the electronic game "Simon," which was introduced at Studio 54 in Manhattan in 1978 and became a pop culture phenomenon in the 1980s. A saucer-shaped plastic toy with four colored buttons, it lit up and emitted tones in a sequence that the player then had to reproduce. It is still being sold. "Coming up with novel ideas and converting them into real products has always been as natural as breathing for me," Baer wrote in his 2005 autobiography, "Videogames: In the Beginning."

Ralph Henry Baer was born March 8, 1922, into a Jewish family in Pirmasens, Germany, where his father worked in a shoe factory. His family emigrated to New York in 1938 to escape Hitler and settled in the Bronx. Within a week, Baer, then 16, was working from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. in a factory that made leather cases for manicure kits. He soon invented a machine to speed the process by stitching five or six at once.

One day on the subway he noticed an advertisement in a magazine somebody else was reading. "Make big money in radio and television servicing," it said.

So Baer spent a quarter of his $12 in wages every week on a correspondence course. He finished in a few months, then took the advanced course. He quit the factory after two years and fixed radios.

He was drafted into the Army in 1943 and became an intelligence officer. He served in Europe during World War II, and in his spare time studied algebra and made radios from German mine detectors so his friends could listen to music. Trained to be an expert in small arms, he collected 18 tons of German weapons, which were exhibited at military museums in the United States.

After the war, Baer attended the American Television Institute of Technology in Chicago, where he earned one of the first bachelor's degrees in television engineering. He then worked for a company that made surgical cutting machines, before joining Loral Electronics in the Bronx as a senior engineer.

Assigned to design a state-of-the art television set in 1951, he suggested adding a game-playing feature.

"Forget it," he recalled his boss saying. "Just build the damn TV set; you're behind schedule as it is."

In 1956 Baer joined Sanders, where he advanced to division manager. As he pursued military projects like electronic devices to teach weapons aiming, his mind returned to the idea of a TV set with a game feature. Those musings led to his eureka moment at the New York bus station.

Still, he said in 2007, the common reaction of most Sanders executives was, "Are you still screwing around with that stuff?"

One top boss, however, saw potential in Baer's idea. He assigned two engineers, Bill Harrison and Bill Rusch, to work with him, and gave the three $2,500 to spend. In a tiny room Baer described as an attic, they worked in secret, building seven prototypes. Sanders first tried to license it to pay-TV companies, the forerunners of today's cable systems, but found no takers.

Television manufacturers were also lukewarm. RCA expressed interest but backed out. Magnavox then signed on.

The Odyssey had sold some 330,000 units by 1975, but Baer thought it could have sold many more. He blamed Magnavox for limiting sales to its own dealers, giving the false impression that the system worked only on Magnavox sets. He also criticized the company for pricing it at $100, rather than the $19.95 he recommended.

Odyssey nonetheless marked a critical point. Along with Atari's "Pong," which had more advanced electronics and sound, it moved games into a faster, more complex realm, to the delight of an eager new audience. The accomplishment, Baer wrote, would amount to far more than just fun and games.

"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," he said.

In an interview, Keith Feinstein, a video game historian, called Baer's invention "the beginning of a revolution in thought."

Baer retired from Sanders in 1987 and started his own consulting business.

Baer is survived by two sons, James and Mark; a daughter, Nancy Baer; and four grandchildren. His wife of 53 years, the former Dena Whinston, died in 2006.

Baer donated his collection of early game hardware to several museums, including the Smithsonian Institution.

© 2014 New York Times News Service


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