Video game

Conceived on a summer day in a bus shelter in New York

Ralph H. Baer (Pirmasens, March 8, 1922)

Ralph H. Baer visited Germany for the first time in a long time in mid-2007: 'I could never imagine living with the people who massacred my father's family,' he said. At the video game academy in Berlin, he was the big hero in those days.

Because it was he, Ralph Baer, in 1966, long before gaming pioneer Nolan Bushnell founded Atari, who invented and helped bring the video game for the television screen to market. His firm won all patent wars afterwards because Baer was so well documented.

"Don't listen to your mother and don't throw away your old notes," was his advice to the youngsters at the academy. In 2006 he was awarded the National Medal of Technology by US President George W. Bush.

Together with Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple computer, he took the stage: the ultimate recognition.

Baer, first known as Hermann Rudolf Bär, comes from Pirmasens in Germany, not far from the French border, where his father worked in the shoe industry.

He went to school in Cologne and from there in 1938, three months before the Kristallnacht pogrom, he was able to flee to the United States via the Netherlands.

He studied radio engineering, served in the United States Army in Europe from 1943-1946, and in 1949 was one of the first batch of TV engineers to graduate from Chicago.

He specialized in all things radar and started working for the weapons manufacturer Sanders Associates from 1956. He became the head of eight departments for the design of electrical equipment, later of laser systems.

But it was in August 1966 that, at the age of 44, waiting in a New York bus shelter, he had the impression that with the 60 million television screens in America at the time, there was something else you could do besides watch TV. They stood unused for most of the day, at least then.

He just pooled his knowledge of radar and television. He also knew immediately what his gadget should cost: $19.50.

On September 1, 1966, he wrote out his plan on four sheets of paper, the sheets that he would keep so well. On May 7, 1967, he played his first game on the TV screen with a friend – and he lost.

On October 1, he was able to demonstrate table tennis, volleyball, football and shooting games, using filters that had to be placed over the screen.

For example, you can see how on a black screen a clear square can be moved from one side to the other by two players with moving light bars. If one of the players misses the moving square with his bar, the other player gets a point.

Later he added, for example, hockey, cat-and-mouse, ski, roulette, 'the haunted house' and 'the submarine'.

By 1970, the TV producer Magnavox decided to market Baer's 'Brown Box'. At a demonstration at a California fair in May 1972, none other than Nolan Bushnell—the founder of Atari, the inventor of Pong—played the game.

Bushnell immediately went to work on his own initiative and in November he came out with his famous Pong ('ping-pong' had already been patented) to play in an arcade with the introduction of coins. But the Magnavox Odyssey of

Baer, the home video game on television, was indeed the first.

Magnavox sold 100,000 units that year in 1972. Another 350,000 from 1973 to 1975. Atari's Pong home console didn't hit the market until June 1975. Bushnell had to pay $700,000 in damages to Baer's firm for patent infringement.

Well, Bushnell had cheerfully signed the guestbook at his first Magnavox exercise at the California Stock Exchange in 1972!

Magnavox, however, was bad at marketing.

You could buy the Odyssey exclusively in Magnavox stores, giving the impression that you could only play them on Magnavox TV sets, which was wrong. And the new stuff was terribly expensive: $100 for the box of 6 track cards.

Five times more expensive than Baer had originally thought. By 1975, Odyssey was over. Although the patent wars with Atari and Nintendo still yielded more than 100 million dollars for Baer's company.

In 2006 he published his memoir: Videogames – In the beginning.

During his visit to the Berlin video game academy, seeing so many young people developing video games allowed the little old man to fully enjoy his invention. 'When the time is right for an idea, it can pop up all over the world at the same time; I was lucky," he said modestly.

The world game industry today is bigger than the movie industry. 'Remember: “You have to be tough”,' he told the students.

(See also: Wii, personal computer)