Ralph H. Baer – Father of Home Video Games
Video games have recently surpassed both the music and film markets to become the fourth-biggest entertainment industry in the world (only gambling, reading and TV are larger). The best-selling games routinely sell millions of copies in their first day, with the current record-holder generating $1 billion within 72 hours. For all its explosive international growth, though, the world of gaming actually owes its humble origins to a man working in the Merrimack Valley: Ralph H. Baer, now widely known as “The Father of Video Games.”
Baer was just 16 when his family fled the town of Pirmasens, Germany under the looming threat of Hitler and the Nazis. They emigrated to New York City, where Baer came across a bus station advertisement for a correspondence course on radio and television repair. After being drafted to fight in World War II, he had his education funded by the G.I. Bill and received one of the nation’s first bachelor’s degrees in Television Engineering.
From there, Baer’s experience grew as he landed jobs with companies like Loral Electronics, Transitron and even computing giant IBM before settling down with defense contractor Sanders Associates (now owned by BAE Systems) in Nashua, New Hampshire. In 1966, during his free time, Baer — hoping to capitalize on the ubiquity of TVs in American households — wrote out a four-page plan for a “game box” that would connect to a family’s television set and enable them to play a selection of action and sports games.
After receiving a $2,500 investment from one of the executives at Sanders, Baer and his team of engineers built a series of increasingly advanced prototypes — the last of which he filed a patent for in 1971. This “Brown Box,” which played multiple games and even allowed players to enjoy games together, was eventually licensed to Magnavox, renamed the Odyssey and sold as the first video game console in the world a year later. Initially sold for $99, this little device eventually sold 350,000 units — although lawsuits by Sanders and Magnavox, based on Baer’s patents, proved to be just as lucrative. Over two decades, the companies shared $100 million in earnings from the outcomes of these cases.
The rest, as they say, is history. The invention of one man in Nashua was responsible for kicking off an industry that brought us gaming giants like Atari and Nintendo and within a few decades, electronics and software conglomerates like Sony and Microsoft could no longer ignore what was proving to be an extremely profitable business. Baer was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President George W. Bush for “his groundbreaking and pioneering creation, development and commercialization of interactive video games.” In 2014, he passed away at his Manchester home — but with the way things are going, it looks like the world will be benefiting from the fruits of his labor for quite some time.