Some Background to start with.....
As I have reported elsewhere in the story of "How
Video Games Invaded the Home TV Set", Magnavox'
original Odyssey ITL100 home game was first announced
to the public in May of 1972. Units finally were available
for sale at Magnavox' aurhorized dealers in the Summer.
By Christmas, nearly one-hundred-thousand game units
had been purchased and were installed in people's
homes, launching the home-TV game industry....the
descriptor "video games" had not been coined yet.
For me that was the end of a long trail, beginning
with my first> documented concept of video games in
September of 1966, followed by two years of hardware
and game development work and another two years of
trying to find a home for our revolutionary game ideas.
All of the early work had been done in a small lab
set aside for that purpose at Sanders Associates,
a large defense electronics company in New Hampshire.
I ran the Equipment Design Division there at the time.
The division's work had nothing to do with video games.
That activity was grudgingly allowed to go on by management,
presumably on a non-interfering basis with the "real"
work at Sanders (now a Lockheed company). The growling
and negative comments ceased once the first royalty
payments arrived at Sanders. Magnavox, being our prime
licensee, did the administring/collecting of royalties.
What they took in, they shared with Sanders on a 50/50
Having acquired a taste for electronic games during
those years of running a sideshow at Sanders, I began
to develop several handheld toys and games in my spare
time. It soon became obvious that the hardest part
of the job was finding licensees for my goodies. I
made a decision to look for help in the toy-and-game-inventors
In 1973 I wrote a letter to Marvin Glass & Associates
(MGA) in Chicago - then the pre-eminent independent
toy & game designers in the US . I inquired whether
they were interested in help with the design of electronic
games in general, and in some of my own game developments
in particular. Hand-helds were then in their infancy.
Mattel had started the business with a small hand-held
football game. Milton Bradley had small maze game....that
The Marvin Glass partners promptly sent Jeffrey Breslow,
one of their group of Associates to New Hampshire.
He spent half-a-day giving my home-lab and me the
once-over and then flew back to Chicago. He must have
been favorably impressed because I promptly got an
invitation to visit MGA. Their impressive studios
were located in a bulding they occupied on North LaSalle
Street. A week after Jeffrey's visit I got on a plane
and presented myself to the Associates. Anson Isaacson
was the senior partner at the time, Marvin Glass himself
having died a year or two earlier. Two hours into
the interview with Anson, Howard Morrison, Burt Meyer,
Jeffrey Breslow and the rest of the partners, I had
a handshake agreement; I became their "outside electronics
That association lasted for better than a decade and
resulted in such well-known products as Milton-Bradley's
SIMON game, Ideal's MANIAC, Lakeside's COMPUTER-PEEFECTION
and many other single-chip microprocessor-based hand
held games. Sanders Associates, my "full-time" employer
tolerated the arrangement because I managed to carry
it on in a non-interfering manner....more or less
! Furthermore, there was a certain synergism between
my work at Sanders in video games and that at MGA.
Most importantly, licensing income to Sanders via
Magnavox was beginning to make substantial contributions
to Sanders bottom line. Nobody at Sanders wanted to
disturb that process and I was the key to it. As money
started arriving in ever larger amounts, I needed
no other mantle of legitimacy.
For all practical purposes I now held down two jobs...and
got two paychecks every month....not bad! Herb Campman,
our Corporate Director of R&D was kind enough to protect
my derriere by signing off on an official Sanders
document sprinkling holy-water over the new arrangement.
Every fiscal quarter Lou Etlinger, Sanders' Director
of Patents (my partner in the video-game licensing
business) and I would sit through Sanders' Management
reports presented on the big screen in the auditorium
at our headquartes in South Nashua. Regularly, our
license income numbers beat those of the Electronic
Countermeasure Division, the company's biggest division.
Our names were up on the HQ tower in neon lights.
We were golden!
During my years with the Glass organization, I made
many a trip from Manchester, New Hampshire to Chicago
and back. At times, I flew there once a week to handle
ongoing problems. While there, I would frequently
meet and often have lunch with major players in the
T&G industry who had come for product demos. Among
many others, I met Arnold Greenberg there, Coleco's
president. That's how I got into the Coleco loop.
A Telstar is born - but there's trouble in RFI land
Now, fast-forward a couple of years: In March of '75
I got the word early about the development of a video
game chip being developed by two engineers at General
Instruments' labs in Scotland - an "unofficial" skunk
works project there. Meanwhile, I had previously met
Arnold Greenberg, Coleco's president, at the Marvin
Glass studios.. At my urging, Arnold met me at GI's
Hicksville, Long Island, NY plant where the AY3-8500
single-chip, multi-game device was demonstrated to
us by Ed Sacks. He then ran the plant there and later
moved GI's IC manufacturing to Phoenix, Arizona (it's
now Microcircuits). Thus Coleco became GI's first
and preferred customer for the AY3-8500, a chip around
which millions of off-shore games were built in Hong-Kong,
Taiwan and in Europe- on all of which Sanders and
Magnavox collected royalties, thank you very much!
Arnold Greenberg was impressed by what he saw at GI
and thus was born "Telstar", Coleco's wildly successful
However, this is not the end of my invovement in the
Coleco story: One late Tuesday afternoon in 1976,
I received a call in my lab at Sanders from Arnold
Greenberg. At the same time, his brother and CEO Leonard
was on the phone with Dan Chisholm, a Sanders' VP
now nominally in charge of Video Games licensing activities.
Why the double-barreled approach? There was a fire
burning at Coleco! They needed the Sanders fire brigade,
Coleco personnel had been at the FCC's Radio-Frequency-Interference
labs in Maryland for compliance testing of their "Telstar"
prototypes the prior Monday......and they had flunked
the RFI tests...too much radiation at harmonics (multiples)
of the Channel 3 or 4 signals which video games use
to get into a TV set via its antenna terminals. Their
Telstar units failed to qualify under Rules 15 of
the FCC. They were told to come back on Friday of
that week; and they were also informed that if they
could not get their problem fixed by then, they would
have to "get to the back of the line" - while the
FCC tested other companies' products that had been
scheduled for this week and the following weeks! Since
Coleco had some 30 million dollar's worth of Telstar
inventory sitting in their Connecticut warehouse ready
for distribution, there was panic in Hartford!
Fortunately for Coleco, Arnold Greenberg remembered
me; and even more fortuitously, there was an RFI test
lab at Sanders which I had set up years before in
my Equipment Design Division. Coleco was informed
that if they would sign Magnavox' Licensing Agreement
(which they hadn't done at that point in time), we
would be glad to help them. They showed up on Wednesday
morning with an executed copy of the Agreement; our
RFI-lab crew went to work on a Telstar console to
get its spurious radiation within FCC spec limits.
Tests took place on the partial fifth-floor roof of
Sanders Canal Street building; that day, we tried
various conventional methods to suppress the excess
radiation, all to no avail.....we didn't do too well
that day. I brooded about what to do next all evening
and half the night.
Early Thursday morning I was in the lab on the floor
adjacent to the roof test area. No one else had showed
up yet to begin the RFI-reduction job. As I wandered
through the large lab, I saw two pieces of electronic
equipment sitting on a test bench that were connected
together with some common coaxial cable. What attracted
my attention was the presence of a couple of small
ferrite toroids (powdered iron rings) through which
the cable had been looped, one or two turns, I forgot
just how many. On a hunch, I proceeded to ask around
among the few engineers present at that early hour:
Just what were those rings for? Lo and behold somebody
actually knew the answer. It turned out that during
operation of those two electronic boxes, the coax
had picked up stray signals from some nearby radio
transmitter which had screwed up the performance of
the boxes. So someone had the bright idea of suppressing
the surface wave created by that incident radiation
with some "chokes"...and that's what those ferrite
At that moment, a lightbulb went on in my head: I
ran around the lab opening storage cabinet doors and
desk drawers, generally poking around until I found
some ferrite toroids. When the RFI crew arrived on
the roof for further Telstar tests, I slipped one
of these toroids over the shielded coax cable of the
Telstar unit being tested . I looped the cable twice
through the ring - two turns- at the point where the
coax was just "leaving" the plastic case . Then the
crew resumed testing and ......BINGO! The unit passed
the spurious radiation tests. We sent the Coleco folks
back to Maryland. Telstar passed the FCC tests and
everybody breathed a sigh of relief.
Designing Coleco Video Game hardware
As a result of this episode, Coleco further relied
on Sanders to help with the development of their next
generation of video games. In the following year Arnold
Greenberg called my down to Hartford to discuss helping
Coleco with the design of their new line of video
games. That was music to my ears - it gave us a chance
at Sanders to put more license-income-producing hardware
on the market. We just had to figure out how to handle
such a support job within Sanders...it was all highly
irregular. Nobody seemed to be able to tell us which
overhead rates to use in calculating what the charges
to Coleco should be. Overhead rates at Sanders were
negotiated with the Government since virtually all
the work there was done under contract to the Military.
We figured it out somehow.
In order to accommodate Coleco, I asked Dunc Withun
to assemble a small group of engineers and technicians
and head it up. We created a separate little profit-center
on paper for the purpose. Dunc had been Electronic
Design Department manager to whom I had turned over
my Equipment Design Division in 1970. We picked a
small group of my old engineering buddies and some
techs for the job. I kept a close eye on what the
guys were coming up with. It was a fun job!
Under this contract, we helped Coleco to develop their
triangular Telstar ARCADE game, the COMBAT game and
a third game. We did the work, Coleco paid their bills
and sold a lot of games. If anybody doubts that story,
I still have reams of documents on the subject in
my collection. Every time I look at them, I break
out in a big smile. I always wanted get into the video
game-hardware development business......there was
no way Sanders would enter into it.......so we did
it subliminally by doing Coleco's development work
So much for my initial contributions to Coleco's video-game
business. There would be more several years later.
Working after hours and weekends with my friends at
MGA, we came up with AMAZATRON for Coleco in '78,
among the first hand-held game to use T.I.'s TMS-1000
4-bit microprocessor chip.
Working in my lab at Sanders now exclusively on Video
game and interactive video projects, I invented and
later ('82) licensed to Coleco a pre-schooler video
game attachment for the Atari 2600 which they named
Kid-Vid. My demo unit was a modified audio-tape-player,
a cute little white unit made by TIGER. This tape-player
was tied into an Apple II computer for which I had
written some code that simulated the 2600's functions.
My program presented a "Dr.Seuss One-Fish-Two-Fish"
story. I wrote and taped the "vocals" . All a pre-schooler
would have to do is hit a key and the "2600" would
turn on the tape-player (under computer control);
simple but cute graphics showed several fish swming
around on the screen while my voice droned on: "One
fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish, swimming 'round
this great big lake...don't they get tired, for goodness
sake ?...etc.". The the voice-over would then call
for some simple button pushing by the child; the tape
player would be paused by the Apple acting as a 2600
until the little game was over; then tape-player resumed
playing while the next segment of the story-line would
come on-screen, complete with voice-over and some
I took my demo down to Harford along with two other
items I was anxious to license to Coleco. Arnold Greenberg
and several others watched my "Dr.Seuss" demo...they
got the picture immediately. Within an hour we had
a handshake agreement and Kid--Vid was launched. Unfortunately,
instead of a cute little kiddie-tape-player, Coleco
in their corporate wisdom chose to modify a standard
black "shoe-box" tape-recorder for use with the system.
While that did nothing for its appearance, Kid-Vid
did become a nice product. Coleco had acquired several
expensive licenses for the Berenstein Bears, the Smurfs
as well as some Dr.Seuss titles and their programmers
did a nice job of coming up with suitable graphics
and voice-over. It should be remembered that sounds
from video games at that point in time were very limited
and here was this neat little machine playing real
voices, singing and speaking in sync with the screen
Unfortunately for Kid-Vid, it was introduced at the
same CES show as ADAM, Coleco's abortive venture into
the home computer business. ADAM almost killed the
company ...so there was precious little promotion
money available to push Kid-Vid sales. Coleco had
bigger problems than that. So much for Kid Vid.
Another invention of mine which I had taken with me
to demo at that same meeting in 1982 also resulted
in an instant license agreement with Coleco. I had
a demo promoting the idea of using a video-disc under
control of a ColecoVision game (and presumably ADAM,
later on) for interactive game use. To make this scheme
economically feasible, I had discussions with Jon
Clements - who headed the videodisc program at RCA
- about building a 5 inch version of their Selectavison
12 inch video disk unit...shades of computer and game
systems using shiny, round 5" CD-ROM disks for interactive
games...only twenty years too early.
Coleco started to negotiate an agreement with RCA
and all went well until the ADAM fiasco put a halt
to this development effort. That was too bad...and
nearly twenty years would go by until fully-digital
versions of that system would reappear in the video
game world. As for myself, I went on to develop interactive
video-disk-based systems at Sanders which were used
for military training-and-education purposes with
Coleco recovered courtesy of the ugliest dolls in
the world - the Cabbage Patch dolls - Although I tried
a few times, I would never be able to place a product
idea with Coleco again; electronics had become at
no-no at Coleco. The company finally went out of business
in the late eighties.
ColecoVision games continue to have a loyal following
in the Classic Games community....I'm still waiting
to see one of the retro-game designers interface it
to a CD-ROM to extend the machine's capabilities.
That would complete the circle I started in 1982 and
never quite closed. Is anybody out there listening?
Copyright Ralph H. Baer 5/2000