Playing Video Games At Home Turns 40

The Magnavox Odyssey went on sale 40 years ago, sparking the home video game revolution

The Magnavox Odyssey console and controller. Photo: Evan Amos

Roughly 40 years ago today, the world’s first home video game console went on sale. Though most people are familiar with the Atari game Pong, and may even think of it as the first console game, the Magnavox Odyssey actually predates it by a couple of years. Gamasutra says,

The first home video game system, the Odyssey, was sold by television manufacturer Magnavox, based on patented technology developed in secrecy at a military defense contractor (yes, really). That technology was the brainchild of German-born American Ralph Baer, an engineer and inventor who holds what is probably the first degree in Television Engineering, issued to him by the American Television Institute of Technology in 1949.

One of the Odyssey’s biggest games, says Gamasutra, was an early version of video game tennis that even predated Pong.

Playing tennis on the Magnavox Odyssey. Photo: Michael Newman

Benj Edwards of PCWorld, who took one of these old machines apart to look at its electronic guts, says that since the Odyssey couldn’t display complex or colorful images, players had to affix translucent sheets onto their TV screens to give their digitized white dots some context.

Due to its simplicity, video games of this era weren’t quite sophisticated enough to make it into the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s The Art of Video Games exhibit, which focuses on games starting in the late 1970s. That exhibit runs until late September from the American Art Museum in Washington, but after that it will spend the next four years on the road traveling around the United States.


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