inventor and engineer of the Magnavox Odyssey system, the
first commercial videogame, based off his '66 'Brown Box'
prototype. Created the Telstar Arcade and the 2600 KidVid
for Coleco, the handheld game SIMON, and so much more!
During the 40's, you began your career as a radio service technician.
I'm sure at the time, that you certainly had no idea that you
would one day invent the first videogame, especially since the
television had not even been created as of yet. However, did you
ever feel that you would one day become such a critical part in
the founding of many technologies and technological standards?
RB> The answer to both questions is a resounding "NO!"....there
is no way anyone could have predicted what I would be doing in
the fifties and sixties....I just wanted to design TV sets in
the early forties. My brother-in-law, reminds me, however, of
an incident in my lab on West 181 Street in 1949. He swears that
I demonstrated to him a spot being bouncing back-and-forth on
the screen of my DuMont oscillioscope in response to a couple
of push-button switches.....he called a tennis game...and I promptly
forgot about that. I certainly didn't then relate that to playing
games on a standard home TV set...that thought came a few years
later but didn't get formally implemented until after my Disclosure
Document of 2 September 1966, also on my website.
You served with the US Army during WWII, within the Military Intelligence
division. Did the military help train or direct your interest
in electrical engineering?
I served overseas in the Army's Military Intelligence service...none
of the work related to electronics. In fact, I became an expert
in foreign small arms and came back to the US with 18 tons collected
over there and intended for three exhibits back home which I helped
to set up in 1946. However, throughout my three years in the US
Army, I took technical home-study courses including college-level
math and it was the G.I. Bill that allowed me to go back to school
after the war was over and graduate with a BS in Television Engineering.
What was your involvement in NASA's Saturn V Launch Control Equipment?
In the 1950's and '60 I ran the Equiment Design Division at Sanders
Associates - a defense electronic company - now part of Lockheed.
Engineers in my division bid on and landed a large contract to
develop and manufacture consoles which monitored the Saturn V
vehicle just prior to launch. We had to develop stroke-type character
generators from scratch, build displays that would work at both
525 and 945 horizontal lines, mix stroke-written alphanumerics
with raster-scan TV in real time, all hard to do then. We were
definitely pushing the envelope. I also personally bid on, and
built, the handle for a GE TV camera that was supposed to go the
moon. That handle contained the power supply for the camera and
the rf. trnsmitter which sent the signal to the LEM. That development
job was mostly a heat-transfer design problem...everything had
to work whether the camera was in the shade or in direct sunlight
on the surface of the moon.
You initially conceived of the idea of playing games on a television
set in 1966, but the first home games weren't available until
the Odyssey was released in March of 1972, almost six years later!
Did you ever feel like it would not happen, or get impatient?
First of all, the thought of playing games on a TV set first occurred
to me while I designed a projection TV set at Loral in 1950....so
that idea lay dormant for a decade-and-a-half. While we were up
to our ears in game development work at Sanders in the sixties,
there were many times when I seemed to hit a dead-end in my search
for a viable licensee. Much of that is detailed in my story on
Games Invaded the Home TV Set" which you can read by accessing
my website at
and clicking the Video Game History button. The story is right
underneath the first picture.
Specifically, what was your role in the Coleco Telstar Arcade
Having helped Coleco get past the FCC's radio-frequency-compliance
testing for the first Telstar game, we at Sanders had a contract
with Coleco to help them with the board design of the Arcade and
two other game units. I have written a brief
story covering that subject which I plan to put into my website
in the near future.
Nolan Bushnell was present at The Magnavox Profit Caravan demonstration
of the Magnavox Odyssey in May of '72. Later, with the help of
Alan Alcorn, he built the first coin-operated game "Pong"
based on what he witnessed. As a result, did you feel flattered,
have ill-feelings, or other reactions?
Our initial reaction at Sanders when we heard about several Pong
units showing up on the Navy Pier in Chicago in the Summer of
1972, was that they infringed several patents which were in the
hopper at the time. I was certainly less than pleased at the time
time to see Nolan protrayed as the inventor of video games.......but
I got over that feeling once he became a licensee. As it turned
out, I eventually met Nolan on the steps of the Federal Court
house in Chicago. We were in the presence of our lawyers and shook
hands and exchanged some pleasantries. Atari was joined in a suit
with several other companies in an effort to get our patents disallowed
so they would not have to pay royalties to Magnavox and Sanders.
Nolan decided early on to step out of the lawsuit and became Magnavox'
first licensee under the patents....a considerable amount of money
passed from Atari to Sanders via Magnavox. That helped to keep
my lights shining brightly at Sanders...I have nothing but admiration
for the old Atari group..... and Nolan Bushnell was cerainly a
major part of that success story.
P.S. We won that lawsuit and many others over a period of 10+
years and a lot of money changed hands.
How did you "rescue" Coleco from the FCC in 1976?
Coleco flunked their FC Radio-Frequency-Interference tests for
Telstar. They came to Sanders on a Wednesday AM to get help from
my RFI lab; I found the solution to the problem the next day;
they went back to the FCC tests in Maryland on Friday (their drop-dead
date) and passed the tests. There were $30 million worth of games
in storage in Connecticut... so we helped prevent a major debacle
for Coleco. Besides, I had introduced Arnorld Greenberg to the
AY3-8500 GI chip in the first place. As a result, Coleco got a
leg up on delivery of this first (and most popular) multi-game
chip over all the competition.... and those chips were in short
supply. More on the subject is covered in my forthcoming Coleco
You licensed Coleco the KID-VID unit, a device which during an
appropriate point in a game, would start a tape recorder playing
a sound effect or story narration, for use w/ the Atari 2600.
Was this your concept, or were you implementing anothers' idea
through hardware design?
Again, the details are in my up-coming Coleco story. Briefly,
I had come up with the concept of controlling an audio-tape-player
with the micro-processor in the Atari 2600 console to provide
a means for pre-schoolers to play simple video games. These would
be accompanied by real voices and singing, instrumental music,
etc. I converted a nice little white TIGER kiddie tape-player
for this purpose, interfaced it to an Appple II, programmed some
"Dr.Seuus" One-Fish-Two-Fish graphics, wrote some rhymes which
I tape-recorded (my voice) and took the demo to Coleco. Arnold
Greenberg, the president and some others saw that demo and made
up their minds to take a license within minutes...that became
Kid-Vid. Coleco's troubles with ADAM, their computer, killed promotional
support for everything else in '76 and that included Kid-Vid.
I first saw a Coleco KID-VID production unit at the same CES where
ADAM was intoduced and was appalled by their choice of a black,
ugly shoe-box-type tape player instead of the cute kiddie-player
I had demonstrated. Incidentally, I have a US patent covering
the concept of controlling a source of audio with the micro-processor
of a video game. Coleco took a license under that patent.
You created the Milton Bradley single-chip, micro-processor controlled
handheld game SIMON. How does it feel to have such a successful
product available on the market for over two decades, and counting?
I worked on Simon, Maniac, Computer Perfection
etc. while I was the outside electronics capabilty for Marvin
Glass and Associates for the better part of ten years. MGA were
the foremost US toy&game inventors/developers of that period.
It's very satisfying to see a product that I worked on over twenty
years ago still in the stores today.
You've successfully submitted over 40 videogame related patents
to the US Patent and Trademark Office. Which of these accomplishments
are you particularly proud of?
Actually, I have some 50+ issued US patents plus about a hundred
more foreign patents. Many of these deal with video game or interactive-video
systems. You can access any of these patents by going to the PATENT
section on my website.
Since I continue to invent and develop electronic products, I
also have a number of additional Patent Disclosures currently
at the USPTO. Naturally, the earliest patents covering the original
concepts of playing games on a home TV set or a TV monitor eventually
had the biggest, most positive impact on my personal life....but
then there are the SIMON patents and others covering a
lot of neat toys and games and gadgets, most of which made it
all the way into production and distribution......I had a real
Yes you did, and we thank you!
Ralph Baer's Biography