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‘Father of video games’ Ralph Baer dies at 92

The “Father of Video Games,” Ralph Baer, died Saturday at the age of 92.

While 2014 holiday sales boast the latest generation of home video game consoles — such as the Wii U, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 — Baer, an inventor and engineer, was instrumental in giving life to the original idea of playing an interactive game connected to a television screen nearly 50 years ago.

Baer was born in 1922 in Germany. In 1938, fearing hostility toward their Jewish ancestry, his family fled the country, eventually landing in New York City. Baer graduated as a radio service technician from the National Radio Institute in 1940, then was drafted to serve in World War II in 1943. After the war, money from the GI bill funded his study at Chicago’s American Television Institute of Technology, where in 1949 Baer earned a then-rare Bachelor of Science degree in the field of Television Engineering.

The "Brown Box" prototype. Photo by Flickr user George Hotelling

The “Brown Box” prototype. Photo by Flickr user George Hotelling

While working as an engineer for defense contractor Sanders Associates in 1966, Baer became interested in the possibility of using television as a medium for playing games. After $2,500 and the go-ahead to work on the idea as a side project, Baer, alongside fellow engineers Bill Harrison and Bill Rusch, developed a prototype video game console known as the “Brown Box” — named for the brown tape that was used to wrap the system together. The console, finished in 1968, was able to plug into a television and play games stored on circuit boards.

Several television manufacturers passed on the technology before Magnavox purchased the license in 1971. Now known as the “Magnavox Odyssey,” the first home video game console made its public debut in 1972, where it went on to sell more than 300,000 units. The success of the Odyssey led competitors to create their own game consoles to break into the market, spawning what is now known as the first generation of video game consoles in the lead up to a video game explosion in the 1970s.

“Little did I know that I had started the ball rolling on something much bigger and more significant than anyone could have imagined at the time,” wrote Baer in an article posted on his website. “The start of what was to become a very large Home Video Game industry within 10 years!”

In addition to the Odyssey, Baer also went on to create a light gun accessory that allowed users to shoot objects on the television screen during a game in what would be the first add-on peripheral for a video game console. While dabbling in the industry, Baer would continue to invent. Alongside Howard Morrison, he invented the popular electronic memory game Simon for Milton Bradley in 1978. At the time of his death, Baer had more than 150 patents in his name.

In 2006, President George W. Bush awarded Baer the National Medal of Technology and in 2010, Baer was admitted into the Inventor Hall of Fame.

“All I did was come up with what I thought was a fun idea that was the result of a little box that was attached to a television set,” Baer said. “It just grew and grew and grew.”

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