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GI Classic Interview: The Father Of Video Games, Odyssey Creator Ralph Baer

by Matt Helgeson on Dec 08, 2014 at 05:04 AM

Ralph Baer, the "father of video games" and the creator of the Magnavox Odyssey game systems, passed away this weekend. This is an expanded version of an interview with Baer that ran in the May 2009 issue of Game Informer.

[Photo: Jonathan Kannair, all rights reserved]

I read that you and your family left Nazi Germany when you were a kid. Is that right?

Well, I was 16. I'd been thrown out of school two years before that and worked in an office doing shorthand, typing, and all that stuff as a 14-year-old kid. You had two languages - English and German. When we came over, I worked in a factory and studied radio and television repair through a correspondence course. As soon as I graduated I quit [the factory]. I spent the next three years servicing radios and early television sets in New York. We had three stores, two on the east side and one on the west side. We did repairs, rewiring, including changing sets to AC/DC current. Around the store on 79th street and Lexington, they still had DC wiring left over from an old Edison plant. When people moved into the neighborhood with their AC sets, the transformer would burn up because of the DC. You could smell them coming in through the door. We used to charge about five bucks to change sets from AC to AC/DC. Then, the army got me and I spent three years in the service, most of it overseas - England, France. Right back to where I came from.

How did you end up at Sanders Associates?

There's a span of 10 or 15 years between me leaving the Army and Sanders. By the time I got to Sanders, I was a seasoned engineer and a VP in another firm. [Military contracts] were their primary concern. At first, it was mostly a Navy facility, but eventually it became an Army, Navy, and Air Force facility. When I joined, within a year, I was a division manager. Two or three years later, I had 500 engineers and techs reporting to me. We were all doing military work - submarine warfare, radar countermeasures. But I went to school after WWII in Chicago and graduated as a TV engineer, so I knew television transmission and reception equipment, having built both types.

Could you talk about when the idea for a home video game machine hit you?

Well, actually it struck me much earlier - I have records dating back to 1951, but officially, it was September 1st, 1966. I'd had the idea the day before, and sat down at my desk and wrote a full-page paper. If you're interested in looking at it, you can go to the Smithsonian website. There are 500 documents there that have been scanned; they are all accessible. But that full-page document is basically the Magna Carta of the home game industry. Within a year and a half of that paper, we were playing video ping-pong, handball, and shooting at the screen with light guns. We had joysticks, too; we pioneered a lot of stuff.

What about Steve Russell, who did the Spacewar game at MIT in 1962? Were you aware of the work he was doing?

My lawyers were happy as hell that I didn't know anything about any of that stuff. Part of the reason was that I was from an older generation. I didn't go to college when that stuff was current. Spacewar was a 1960s product. I was in college in the '40s. So I didn't know anything about that.

Ultimately, you developed the Odyssey game machine at Sanders and you ended up having to find a partner to manufacture it.

We paraded a whole bunch of TV manufacturers through the place, thinking one of them would take the device. None of them did at the time. In the '60s and '70s, we actually produced TV sets in this country - RCA, GE, Motorola, Magnavox, and others. They all said, "Hey this is very creative," but no one wanted to do a contract other than RCA, and that contract was so onerous that we walked away from it.

How did you end up with Magnavox?

Fortunately for us, one of the members of that team left RCA and became a VP of marketing for Magnavox. He was so impressed by what he saw that he convinced their corporate headquarters to take another look. They invited us to come to Fort Wayne and demonstrate. We were in a big boardroom, with about 20 guys sitting around and looking glum. Nobody wanted to commit, but the guy in charge had vision. When we got done, it was thumbs up. We had the license agreement after about a year of lawyers fighting over the details. We took our hardware, the seventh version, which we called "The Brown Box" because it was covered with adhesive paper to make it look like a wood box, to Fort Wayne. Within nine months, early March of '72, we were able to show early models of the Odyssey to people in the trade. I got invited to see a show in Central Park West, at Tavern on the Green, where they invited the dealers to demonstrate the new lineup of televisions and cameras. At the end, they showed the Odyssey. It was hard not to jump up and down and yell, "Hey, that's my baby!"

What are you feelings about Atari's Nolan Bushnell? He took a lot of credit in the media as being the "father of video games."

There was a demonstration of the Odyssey in California, which was attended by one Nolan Bushnell. He played the ping-pong game hands-on. He went back to his partner, Ted Dabney, and they hired Al Alcorn. Al had just graduated from the university up there. Nolan gave Al the job of building a ping-pong game. Al got done, and it was Pong. Pong became the successful start of the arcade business. Almost simultaneously, the home and arcade businesses were launched. Look, I'm 87. I'm long past the point of carrying grudges, and I'm much more philosophical than I might have been 30 years ago. I always respected Bushnell for having the guts to start a company with almost no money, along with his partner Ted Dabney, who never seems to get any credit even though he did most of the work in the beginning. He was the only technical guy there. Nolan didn't know from anything, but he was a damn good marketer. He was good at hiring very good people, like Al Alcorn and some brilliant guys.

It seems like Magnavox didn't really see the potential in what they had.

Oh, no question. They didn't know. It wasn't obvious, anyhow. Nobody can read the crystal ball. Even for me, what was that machine? It was an interesting adjunct. Could I see that it would develop into more and more complex machines as time went by and become a gigantic industry? Hell, no. I have 150 patents, but in no case did I foresee what was going to happen to the stuff that I did. Maybe you can see a couple of years downstream. But think about it. I'm sitting in front of a computer, and I talk to my kids and grandkids in Colorado and Salt Lake City and Seattle via Skype. There's a camera; there's a microphone; it's like being in each other's room. Go back ten years ago, that wasn't even conceivable. The public has no sense of how unbelievably fast things are moving. We're on the stretch of the geometric curve that's going straight to heaven. My only regret is that I won't be able to see what's going to happen in the next 80 years. It's unbelievable.

Back to your question about Nolan, I've made a number of efforts to get together with Nolan. We've been invited mutually to various game development conferences and had plans to play a Pong game together - he never showed up. Two years ago, I wrote a letter about Nolan and sent a copy of a memo I had sent him. At the end of the 70s, he was still at Warner. I knew he was in New York and I said, "Why don't we have lunch sometime?" I never got a reply. So, on a lark, I sent him a copy via email of an ancient, 30-year-old memo and said I'd like to get together with him - and I would like to get together. So, he wouldn't answer. Steve Bristow, Nolan's chief engineer for years, corresponded with him and I had him ask Nolan to send me a letter. So he did. And what was in in? The same crap I'd heard for 30 years, in court and out of court - in magazines and in front of the camera. All this "Baer never invented anything, the video games they built were analog devices." All this garbage. It was ridiculous. So, I sent him a polite and factual four-page letter rebutting some of the things he said. Of course, I never got an answer. So, when you ask me how I feel about him - he may be a nice guy, but as far as I'm concerned he's got some personality problems.

On your site, you mention several of your patents that you have that are being infringed. Could you talk about what you feel those are?

None right now, but back in the mid-'70s, arcade business had gotten big enough where there were enough companies to make it worth pursuing the infringement suits. Atari, Midway, and a bunch of others. We took them to court in Chicago in 1975. Atari and Nolan met with their lawyers and my lawyers and me on the steps of the courthouse. Nolan decided to opt out of the suit and take the license. They became our first licensee. It was a paid license under very favorable terms. He did that because, having done so, we'd get everyone else on the license for less favorable terms - creating a less than equal playing field for his competition. We won the initial lawsuit. It went to appeal; we won that. A few bucks changed hands. Next up was Mattel, with the Intellivision. We took 16 million bucks from Mattel over the years. Next came Activision and a bunch of Japanese companies. Nintendo finally decided not to deal with us and it actually went to hearing in New York. They lost that case and quietly settled for $12 million, which was a pittance. We won those lawsuits because everyone of those games infringed on some basic claims, claims that related to the business of having manually controlled symbols onscreen, like the paddles in a ping pong game, and machine controlled symbols onscreen, like the ball, and when the interaction between those things caused a reaction controlled by the machine. That was, of course, characteristic to all ball games - ping pong, handball, volleyball, you name it. That's all that was produced, or variants thereof, for the first few years. We had no trouble winning those lawsuits. More recently, I designed handheld games in my free time. Milton Bradley's Simon, that became a classic. Many other single-chip games came out of that. I'm still doing it, but obviously I'm much slower now. Another problem is that I made some of the guys that worked with me successful and they don't need me anymore! [Laughs] So, I don't have support. But I'm still downstairs in my lab and still doing both hardware and software. It's good to sit at the bench at age 87 to work with hardware and software.

What's your opinion of what games have evolved into?

It's utterly amazing. It's simply the result of the semiconductor industry going sky-high over the last 20 years. I have an early Apple computer; it had 32K of memory. You can go to the store and for $50 buy 10 gigabytes of memory on a semiconductor stick that plugs into a USB. It's like going from bows-and-arrows to the space age in 20 years. It's that progress in semiconductor capability that took everything along. 25 years ago, who did graphics? Nobody except designers that could afford very expensive equipment like the guys that worked at the automakers and designers of bridges. Nowadays, you look at a video game it's done on very complex software running on fantastic equipment and it resides in machines that are so powerful that 10 years ago we wouldn't have thought it was possible. No way in the world could I imagine what was going to happen. Nowadays, it's different. Everybody knows we can do anything. Nothing surprises anybody. People may ooh and ahh about the latest gadget, but they're not surprised it's there and that it does what it does. We're used to getting miracles served up every year. That wasn't the case back then.