A Giant’s Passing

Posted: December 12, 2014 in Entertainment
Tags: , ,

Ralph BaerLast weekend, videogames lost their father: On Saturday, December 6, at the age of 92, Ralph Baer—inventor of the videogame and progenitor of a 100-billion-dollar global industry and an obsession, hobby, or pastime for more than a billion people—passed away.

The story begins in 1951. New York-based electronics company Loral tasks one of its engineers—Ralph Baer—with designing the best TV set the world has ever seen. An engineer other than Baer might have stayed within the bounds of the request, designed the set and left it at that. But Baer’s curiosity gets the better of him, and he runs with it. The standard method of testing televisions—using a piece of equipment that allows you to manipulate lines and patterns on the screen—gives Baer an idea. What if, he thought, you built that functionality directly into the set, and allowed users to control it? You’d transform TV-watching from a passive to an active experience.

In short, you could make it a game. But would anyone care?

It would take some time to find out. Loral didn’t bite—in retrospect, a spectacularly shortsighted move—and Baer’s idea lay dormant for 15 years. But on a late summer day in 1966—while he was running the Equipment Design Division of Sanders Associates—it came back with a vengeance. During a New York City business trip, inspiration struck, and Baer laid it all out in a four-page document. There it was: in a single stroke, he’d written videogames’ origin story and the Book of Genesis for an entire industry. A year later, he and fellow Sanders techs Bill Harrison and Bill Rusch demoed the first target-shooting game—complete with light-gun controller—and by the end of 1967, they’d finished the world’s first ping-pong videogame. Baer dubbed the machine the Brown Box, and in 1972, the world met it as the Magnavox Odyssey.

The rest, as they say, is history: The Odyssey begat Pong!, Pong! begat the video arcade and the home console, and the arcade and the console together begat the vast multitude of games around us.

Baer has repeatedly said that if he didn’t invent the videogame, someone else would have. But the fact is, he did, and it’s hard to overstate the impact of his creation: For better or worse, every MMO, casual game, FPS, mobile game, platformer, tower defense, RTS, side-scroller and exer-game, every virtual world, world-builder, open world game, trainer and simulation, all owe their existences, at least in part, to Ralph Baer and the Brown Box.
And we who play them, who work with them, who create them, all of us who take pleasure in their distractions, marvel at their wizardry, or stand captivated by their beauty—we all owe him a debt of gratitude. Mr. Baer, you will be missed but not forgotten, and we who remain to game raise our D-pads and thumbsticks, our tablets and Wiimotes, our quarters and tokens, with respect and reverence. And with a press of a button or the drop of a coin, we play on.


  1. jaystonee1 says:

    He is the reason why people like me can even study such a thing as videogame culture.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s