The Father of the Video Game: The Ralph Baer Prototypes and Electronic Games

The Brown Box
An old photograph of Ralph Baer as a baby in 1923

Ralph Baer was born March 8, 1922, in Germany—a dangerous time and place for Jewish children and their families. Baer faced increasing anti-Semitism growing up. The Nuremberg Laws—a series of highly repressive measures passed in 1935 that deprived German Jews of political and social freedom—forced him to leave school at age thirteen, though he pursued his studies on his own.

Unlike so many during that time, the Baer family was fortunate to have the means to escape Germany for America months before Kristallnacht—the Night of Broken Glass—in 1938. On November 9 of that year, Nazi troops throughout Germany smashed windows of stores and homes owned by Jews and set fire to synagogues, injuring—and even killing—German citizens of Jewish decent. These state-sponsored, anti-Jewish riots are considered to be the start of the Holocaust. Because most of his mother’s family had immigrated to the United States in 1895, there were plenty of relatives who were willing to sponsor Ralph Baer and his family, a key immigration law requirement in America at that time.

As a young immigrant, Baer had the freedom to choose his own future. He graduated as a radio service technician in 1940 and worked in the field for three years until he was drafted into the U.S. Army. He served one year stateside and two years overseas in Europe where he was assigned to Military Intelligence.
A photograph of young Ralph Baer working with electronics

After the war, Baer attended the American Television Institute of Technology in Chicago on the G.I. Bill. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Television Engineering in 1949 and was consistently employed as an engineer afterwards. In 1955, he joined Sanders Associates, an electronics firm that did most of its work for the military.

During this same period, Baer started his own family. He and Dena Whinston married in 1952 and they had three children: sons James (born 1955) and Mark (born 1957) and daughter Nancy (born 1960). To be closer to his family, Baer set up a lab in his basement to work on any after-hours projects.

A photograph of Ralph Baer in 1944, wearing an Army uiform

In 1966, Baer had an epiphany while waiting at a bus stop. He remembered how, as a new graduate in 1951, he had proposed to the television company that employed him that they should build games into their brand of television sets to differentiate them from those of their competitors. The proposal was rejected, but, fifteen years later, Baer realized that the idea still had merit. By the 1960s, millions of Americans had invested in televisions for their homes, which meant that there was already a large potential market for a product that would allow them to interact with their television sets.

The next morning at work, Baer wrote a detailed four-page memo specifying his ideas, and how they could be applied, to convince his company to support a modest research and development project. Baer, in an oral history interview that can be found at the National Museum of American History’s Archive Center, recalled that “what stands out is the intent. I’m in a military electronics company and I’m starting to write a document—it’s a disclosure—saying to myself, ‘How do I write this? This has nothing to do with anything! I don’t want anybody who reads this to get turned off.’ So, I made it sound like it applied to whatever the hell it was I was supposed to be doing. So the first thing I don’t do is call it a toy. But I can call it gaming.” Gaming was a term regularly used in the military and gave the project the appearance of being within the company’s scope of interest

However, even Baer recognized that this was going to be a stretch. This was one of the reasons he intended video games to be a commercial product from the very start. He would later admit that “I didn’t know whether to be embarrassed or what to be. . . . At Sanders, I was supposed to be running a division, not fussing around with TV games, which is what they were called for many years.”

Fortunately, this did not deter Baer’s supervisors. They agreed to a modest research project. In 1967, Baer with the assistance of Bob Tremblay, a technician who worked with Baer at Sanders, created the first of several video game test units. Called TVG#1 or TV Game Unit #1, the device, when used with an alignment generator, produced a dot on the television screen that could be manually controlled by the user.

Once Baer had established how it was possible to interact with the television set, he and his team, comprised of engineers William Harrison and William Rusch, were able to design and build increasingly sophisticated prototypes. Sanders senior management were impressed with Baer’s progress and charged him with the task of turning this technology into a commercially viable product. After a few years and numerous tests and advancements, Baer and his colleagues developed a prototype for the first multiplayer, multiprogram video game system, nicknamed the “Brown Box.” Sanders licensed the Brown Box to Magnavox, which released the device as the Magnavox Odyssey in 1972.

Baer continued to be interested in video game development and to be involved in various projects, both acting for Sanders and under his own initiative. When Sanders decided they wanted to be more directly involved with the video game business, Baer led a team to develop a series of arcade games for them to license. He also encouraged Magnavox to improve Odyssey.

When Coleco Telstar, another first-generation video game system, did not pass interference tests needed for Federal Communications Commission approval, the company turned to Sanders and Ralph Baer in hopes that Baer’s experience would be able to help them. Baer found their solution within the week. Coleco received its FCC approval and Coleco Telstar sold over one million units in 1976.

In 1975, Baer began an independent consulting business, separate from his work at Sanders, to develop electronic toys and games. He partnered with Marvin Glass & Associates in Chicago, the toy design firm responsible for some of the most successful American toys of the 20th century, on several electronic games. The most successful of these was Simon, the electronic memory game. Baer officially retired from Sanders in 1987 to work full time on his consulting business. He continued to invent electronic toys and games until his passing on December 6, 2014.

Ralph Baer donated his video game prototypes, objects, notes, and schematics to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in 2006. In 2014, the Museum collected his workshop to become the landmark object for its Innovation Wing.