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Video games

December 12, 2000

A public radio commentary

The latest in video games, the Sony PlayStation2 is out, and, as always stories abound about long lines and scuffles. Some people have even camped out overnight to buy the first games sold. These night-long waits pale compared to a man who waited twenty years for his piece of every new video game. He's Ralph Baer, the inventor of the idea of the video game. His video game story begins in the 1940s.

Baer, a refugee from the Nazis, came to America and earned a degree in television engineering. In 1951 Baer was given the task of designing a new television set. Although he toiled for months the set never went into production, but Baer learned all about how TVs work.

Soon he moved out of the television industry and worked for a military contractor making all sorts of electronic gadgets that kept our armies at the ready. While waiting at a New York City bus terminal Baer, bored, let his mind rove.

Using what he'd learned while building a television set he conceived of a way to control the images on a TV screen so he could play games on it. When he got back to his office he wrote a four page memo listing the types of games that could be played: action games, board games, sports games, chase games, and so on. Under the guise of inventing a training tool for the military he designed a circuit to control two spots on a TV screen.

With help from a colleague, he built it, hooked it to a TV and then he and his co-worker played a "Chase" game: One spot was a fox, the other a hunter. Baer lost. Over the next year he refined this game and pitched it to television manufacturers.

Magnavox bought the idea and by 1972 brought out the first commercial video game. Called Odyssey it offered just about any combination of things you could do with a few blips: volleyball, handball, and wipe-out.

While modestly successful, video games became immensely popular when Magnavox's competitor Atari brought out Pong. But Ralph Baer and his company held the patents on the idea of a video game. Baer spent the next twenty years in Federal Courts in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. He won every case. So, in the 1970s and '80s Baer and his partners sold licenses to the big producers: Atari, Nintendo and Sega.

I sometimes wonder what Ralph Baer thinks of the latest Sony Playstation. I thought about giving him a call, but likely I'd have to pay him. Today, at age eighty - some thirty years after he invented the video game - Ralph Baer still runs his own consulting service telling manufacturers how to make better video games.

Copyright 2000 William S. Hammack Enterprises