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INTERVIEW
Ralph Baer


Legendary 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!

MT> 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.

MT> 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?
RB> 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.

MT> What was your involvement in NASA's Saturn V Launch Control Equipment?
RB> 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.

MT> 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?
RB> 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 "How Video 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.

MT> Specifically, what was your role in the Coleco Telstar Arcade unit?
RB> 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.

MT> 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?
RB> 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.

MT> How did you "rescue" Coleco from the FCC in 1976?
RB> 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 story.


MT> 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?
RB> 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.

MT> 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?
RB> 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.

MT> 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?
RB> 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 good run!

MT> Yes you did, and we thank you!

Read Ralph Baer's Biography


Good Deal Games salutes Ralph Baer for his major part in creating our favorite hobby,
and for the hours of joy he has brought to our families and friends.


Visit Ralph Baer's website to learn more about the history of videogames.


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