The annals of videogame history must be updated this week, as we have lost Ralph H. Baer, widely regarded as “The Father of Video Games”. An immigrant to America, Baer left Germany in 1938, realizing it was not a great time to be a Jew in Germany. Becoming educated in televisions and engineering, he worked various positions and eventually started his own engineering firm. He worked on various electronic games and entertainment projects, and is credited with creating the memory game Simon. A pet project, the “Brown Box” was the first system of its kind—a unit that could be installed in a television set and played as game.
This project would later be sold to Magnavox and be renamed the Magnavox Odyssey: the first home console. Other than being the first home console (with Pong hanging on the coattails), what’s so special about the Odyssey? Well, given the limited technology of the time, it was actually quite innovative. Working with the tools and technologies you have and coming up with something truly innovative, rather than making incremental improvements like we see these days in gaming, is always something to aspire to. Also, as this was before the composite Red-White-Yellow plugs (or even coaxial), you had to plug the system into the port for the antenna—you know, for the over-the-air receiver. The plugin allowed you to also connect the television antenna as well, and switch between them.
1972, a Magnavox Odyssey
As shown in the commercial, the games are fairly simple. The controller uses two dials to control cursors in the X and Y axis. The game is augmented using these transparency overlays you put on your television to give a background. So, tennis and ice hockey are really the same game, but they play slightly differently and of course have the different transparencies. These days, you can’t even buy a game console that comes with any games.
The system and games were purely hardware. The game cartridges were just printed wafers with jumpers on them that command the Odyssey into different configurations by changing the logic gates. If you’ve ever installed an IDE hard drive, then you may have had to set a jumper to put the hard drive in master or slave mode, which is read by the motherboard. This is similar to how the Odyssey behaved.
So, we should give thanks for what Mr. Baer created for us. It’s certainly a bit primitive to consider, but think about how far we’ve come since 1972. While I’ve never met Mr. Baer and know nothing of his personality, I feel a comforted thinking of him as the delightful Cranky Kong. Not for his crankyness, but for their presumed shared love of the olden days of videogames.
For Mr. Baer’s lifetime of hard work and innovation, he was awarded the National Medal of Technology in 2006. For more information on the Odyssey, check out this website, which appears to have been written around when the Odyssey came out.