Remembering the “Father of Video Games,” Innovator Ralph Baer

The lab, where the inventor of the video game and the electronic game Simon, goes on view at the American History Museum next summer

German-American game developer Ralph Baer, in 2009, showing the prototype of the first games console. (© Jens Wolf/dpa/Corbis)
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In 1966, Ralph Baer, an engineer overseeing a cadre of 500 military contractors, was struck with an idea: create a technology that would allow people to interact, directly, with their television sets, which were beginning to become ubiquitous in the American home. For five years, Baer—along with a small team of researchers—set about drafting and tinkering with multiple prototypes, eventually submitting a patent for the first video game system in March of 1971. A little over a year later, in the summer of 1972, Baer and his team licensed their system to Magnavox, who marketed the system under the name "Odyssey." It sold 130,000 units in its first year, becoming the first home video game console—and earning Baer the nickname "father of video games."

Baer, 92, died on Saturday, Dec. 6, at his home in Manchester, N.H., but his legacy lives on in the $90 billion industry born from his imagination in 1966. But to those who knew him, such as Art Molella, director of the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center, Baer's legacy goes beyond the games he invented or the industry he helped to start. "This was a very creative man, a very decent man, very humble. He was really a force," Molella says. "He represents the American legacy about invention. He really is an incredible American story."

Baer was born on March 8, 1922, in Pirmasens, Germany, to a Jewish family which came to America in 1938, fleeing Hitler and Nazi Germany. Settling in the Bronx, Baer worked to pay for correspondence courses that taught him how to repair radios and television sets. In 1943, he was drafted into the Army, becoming an intelligence officer. But he continued to tinker with electronics, making radios in his spare time from German mine detectors. After the war, he earned his bachelor's in television engineering from the American Television Institute of Technology in Chicago. In 1951, he had the idea of adding a game-play feature to a television that he was charged with designing, but was rebuffed by his boss. The idea, however, seems to have stuck with Baer—and 15 years later, the idea was reborn as the first video game.

"Who could have predicated a guy running away from the Nazis as a kid ends up being a major inventor in this country?" Molella asks, adding that "the thing that makes [Baer] what he is is he's just an incredibly creative man. He's driven to create."

Baer met Molella in 2001, after approaching the Lemelson Center with his son Mark. They were looking, Molella says, for a place to donate Baer's papers. Today, the Center is home to Baer's notes, photographs, diagrams and blueprints—as well as items from his home lab, which Molella visited and documented in 2001.

"He worked out of a basement and it was one of these environments that was so suited and tailored to him. It's this place that was not only a resource for all of the 'junk' he could put together in new ways, but it was also a place for contemplation," Molella says. "He built a wall in the basement like the outside of a house, with a mailbox and a little window through it, and to communicate with him while he was in the throes of invention you had to put a letter in the mailbox—even his wife had to put a letter in there. It was his retreat into thought." This July, Baer's lab will be installed in its new home on the first floor of the Lemelson Center, allowing the public to experience the kind of creative retreat where Baer worked.

But the Baer gem of the Lemelson's collection, Molella says, is the "brown box"—the original prototype for a video game console that paved the way for everything from Play Station to Xbox. "That’s the real treasure that we have from him," Molella says. "That's it; that started something."

In addition to the brown box, Baer is responsible for the popular memory game Simon, which he invented in 1978. The early, portable computer game helped pave the way for other popular games, like Pac Man. 

Baer retired from the contracting firm Sanders Associates, Inc.—the company for which he worked when he filed the patent for the first video game—in 1987, but he never stopped imagining new ideas. Molella recalls an award ceremony last year, where Baer was asked why, at his age, he continued inventing. "He said, 'Nobody would say that to Van Gogh,'" Molella remembers. "He said he was compelled to do it."

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