Three men playing video game in darkened room

The eccentric engineer: Ralph Baer and the origins of the games console

Image credit: Dreamstime

This is the story of a German man from humble beginnings, who was to make gaming history with his brown box.

If you have teenage children, you probably have, tucked by the TV, a gleaming games console that would once have been considered a supercomputer. This owes its origins to one man and his brown box. 

The Brown Box would not have existed to begin with were it not for a lucky escape. Aged 14, Rudolph Baer was expelled from school for being Jewish. Seeing which way the wind was blowing, the Baer family decided to leave Nazi Germany for New York, arriving in 1938 just in time to escape the Nazi Kristallnacht pogrom. In America, Rudolph became Ralph and a new life began.

Ralph’s great interest was the then burgeoning subject of radio communication. Having qualified as a radio technician, he was drafted into military intelligence when the European War finally came to America. After the war, America again helped Ralph out, thanks to the GI Bill which paid for his Bachelor of Science degree in the up-and-coming new technology of television engineering. 

Not that television was to play a great part in his immediate future. Working for a medical instrument supplier, he designed and built a new generation of electromechanical aids for surgery, as well as the ancestor of those electrical ‘body toning’ systems that were so popular in the 1970s and ’80s. It was not until his 1956 move to military contractor Sanders – where he was tasked with developing the Brandy spyware system for eaves­dropping on East Berlin – that he again encountered the sort of high technology that would lead to the Brown Box. 

The idea of playing games on a cathode ray tube had already been suggested, and if you owned a mainframe it was even possible, thanks to ‘Spacewar’ on the DEC PDP-1. Yet Baer imagined building a device to plug into the TV screen and turn that device from a one-way receiver into an interactive games machine. He had suggested a similar idea 15 years earlier to his previous employer and met with the usual response to engineering genius: “Why would anyone want that?” However, having remembered the idea in 1966 while waiting at a bus stop, Baer put together a quick four-page proposal and pitched his idea to the Sanders management, immediately receiving a $2,500 development budget to try to make it a reality.

By December that year, Baer and his team of two engineers had created TV Game No.1. It was not exactly ‘Halo’ – involving the operator moving a vertical line up and down a TV screen – but Baer had turned a passive device into an interactive one. If unimpressive, it was enough to secure the funding to make this an official company project, and Baer tasked engineer William Harrison with building the first prototype. While this went on, Baer had to think just what sort of a game was possible with technology that only allowed for one ‘spot’ on the screen. He sketched out ideas for driving games (using a steering wheel controller), card games, board games, chess, and even educational maths games. The first practical game had a player pressing a button to fill a vessel. 

With two-dot capability came more possibilities, including chase games, golf, horse racing and even football. 

Baer also created a schematic for a ‘light gun’ that could be ‘fired’ at the screen in shooting games or used as a virtual pointer. The shooting game appealed to Baer’s boss, who asked him to demonstrate the machine to senior management. With hindsight we can see this as the beginning of a multi-billion-dollar industry but the board members were less impressed. However, they did grudgingly agree to fund the project to completion, probably with the aim of selling or licensing the idea later.

The need now was to make a prototype that was engaging enough to sell but would come in around Baer’s ideal price point of $20. After some time, a new member of the team, Bill Rusch, came up with a way of having three controllable spots on the screen and suggested a ping-pong game that eventually became the first great video game – ‘Pong’. 

Seven prototypes later, the final version, wrapped in brown wood veneer tape, was ready. This was the famous Brown Box – the world’s first real video console. 

Patent filing saw queues of patents examiners lined up to play the games, and soon the prototype was being touted around prospective buyers. 

One of these was Magnavox, which manufactured early plasma displays for the military. After two years of negotiating, the firm signed up to make the commercial product as initially the Skill-O-Vision before settling on the Magnavox Odyssey, which hit the shops in May 1972. The rest is gaming history.

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