'Father of Video Games' Ralph Baer dies aged 92

December 8, 2014 // 11:21 a.m.

Tags: #bill-rusch #brown-box #console #console-gaming #engineer #invention #kristallnacht #magnavox #odyssey #ralph-baer #video-games #video-gaming

Ralph Baer, generally recognised as the father of video gaming, has died aged 92, leaving behind three children and four grandchildren.

Born in Germany in 1922 to Jewish parents as Rudolf Heinrich Baer, Ralph Baer and his family fled the country in 1938 just two months ahead of the Nazi's Kristallnacht. Baer went on to study electronics, at the time a new field, and graduated as radio service technician in 1940 before being drafted into the US military in 1943. Using the GI Bill to his benefit, Baer earned a Bachelor of Science degree in television engineering - one of the first in the world - and began a long-running career designing and building electronic gadgets in a variety of fields.

It was his work at Sanders Associates for which Baer would become best known. While the company was a defence contractor by trade, Baer was able to work on a project to play games on standard television sets - unheard of at the time. The prototype 'Brown Box,' developed in partnership with Bill Rusch, proved the potential but licensing proved difficult. Through Sanders, Baer approached the major television manufacturers of the time only to be rebuffed by all, until Magnavox. The Magnavox Odyssey was launched in 1972, six years after its development, and launched as the world's first commercial games console, as well as the first light-gun game - appropriate, given Sanders' military ties.

The Magnavox Odyssey sold well initially, but poor sales practices - Magnavox salespeople having decided to tell customers that the Odyssey would work only with a Magnavox television, a lie that they hoped would convince them to buy both the console and a new TV set - coupled with increasing competition meant that it was never the success it by rights should have been. Nolan Bushnell's Atari, in particular, is notable for its reliance on Baer's work: the idea behind Pong, its first truly successful arcade machine, came from viewing the Odyssey and its tennis simulation.

Baer's story didn't end with the Odyssey: he partnered with Howard Morrison to release the pattern-matching electronic game Simon in 1978 - still sold today - and worked on inventions and creations until the time of his death. Baer has been recognised for his work in a variety of ways, including earning the IEEE Edison Medal in 2014, the National Medal of Technology in 2006, and being inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2010.

Baer's wife Dena Whinston passed away in 2006, while Baer himself is reported by his family to have died at home in New Hampshire on the 6th of December 2014. He is survived by three children and four grandchildren.

A short documentary on Baer, produced by PBS Digital Studios as part of its Inventors series, is reproduced below.


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