As an inventor of video games, it was fitting that Ralph Baer always had a smile on his face. Whether fiddling with a homemade joystick, demoing a “participatory CATV [game],” or simply reflecting on decades of making, Baer did it all with an ear-to-ear grin. His work has inspired millions including engineers, game designers, and makers alike. And he will be missed.
This “father of videogames” passed away on December 6th, a few months shy of his 93rd birthday, but even in his 90s he was tinkering, soldering, and playing games. A self-taught student of electronics, Baer would go on to study correspondence courses and television engineering before working for a slew of engineering firms, eventually landing at defense contractor Sanders Associates.
It was here that Baer invented the now-famous “Brown Box,” an aluminum box covered in faux wood grain shelf liner that he described as the “first fully-programmable, multi-player video game unit.” That box, now part of the Smithsonian’s collections, took two years to develop and included cards that indicated which switch on the chassis should be flipped to initiate the respective game. Here are a few images of the Brown Box:
Games on the Brown Box were rudimentary at best, but the box wound up being revolutionary! After a cancelled contract with RCA, the unit would eventually be licensed to Magnavox and marketed as the Magnavox Odyssey, using cartridges and mylar overlays to turn television screens into interactive games simulating tennis, soccer, volleyball, and more.
Without getting lost in the where and when of a historical legal battle (for what it’s worth, read Baer’s account here), there’s no doubt these days that Odyssey’s Tennis, or ping-pong, directly influenced the design of a competitor’s arcade video game: Atari’s PONG. If you never read anything on this subject before reading this blog, without a doubt now is the moment when you’re saying to yourself, “Ohhh wow!”
Pong catapulted coin-operated entertainment into the mainstream, and has had a grip on popular — and indeed maker — consciousness ever since. Pong has been the inspiration for countless maker projects, including but not limited to:
- The world’s smallest [at the time] Pong game
- New Pong 2.0 built with two 8×8 LED matrix boards
- Pong with bananas – yes, really!
- Pong clock – it’s a clock, that plays Pong.
- Making Pong with KanoBlocks – updating Pong to contemporary code for the Raspberry Pi.
- Brain Pong Jumbo
More than 30 years after the release of ping-pong for the Odyssey — and by extension Pong — Ralph Baer would be awarded a National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2004 by President George W. Bush. Joining distinguished inventors and luminaries like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, and Dean Kamen, Bear is reported to have said upon receiving his award,
“Had I listened to all those people 40 years ago who were telling me to stop the nonsense or made remarks like ‘are you still screwing around with this stuff?” And hadn’t proceeded, we might all not be here today. Certainly things might have been different.”
Very different indeed.
Keep on making.
More on Ralph Baer: