In a municipality in the Palatinate Forest, a child was born that would shape the way we perceive entertainment forever. The place is Rodalben, with no more than a few thousand people that call it home, the town is deep in the heart of German wine country, the Wine Route, starting in France and winding its way through the region, was established to connect vineyards to boost wine sales. Here, in this German land of sunshine, life is relaxed and pleasant. Many people spend their lives here. With businesses passed down from generation to generation, it’s a thriving burst of colourful life, topped off with a selection of flavours from the local vintages.
Rodalben, isn’t new. It’s been in the area for hundreds of years, able to trace its founding back to a time between the sixth and seventh Crusades of the thirteenth century. Populated by farmers, and over the centuries agriculture gave way to manufacturing, and in particular the footwear industry. The town was home to over sixty shoe factories.
One of the hundreds of local residents who worked in the shoe factories, Leo Baer, could see the way German policy towards the Jewish was going under the Nazi regime, who had swept into power on a tide of anger. It was when his son was excluded from school at the age of fourteen due to his Jewish ancestry, and fearing persecution, he moved his family across the Atlantic to New York City. Leo was a prophet of sorts, getting his family out of the country two months before Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), a night of state-sponsored terror against Jewish businesses and people.
That boy’s name was Rudolf Heinrich Baer, or better known by his American re-christening of Ralph Henry Baer.
With his thick Bronx accent, One could be forgiven for not knowing that this man’s life started in another country, on another continent, at a time when a great evil was on the rise. The young Baer didn’t rest for long in his new homeland. After becoming a U.S. citizen and securing a job in a local factory fixing buttons to cosmetic cases, Baer would use part of the money from his job to fund his education in the electronics field. He enrolled in a correspondence course for radio servicing. Ralph would graduate as a radio service technician in 1940.
But it wouldn’t be radios this man was remembered for. Ralph was going to make a contribution to another field, one that didn’t quite exist yet.
Agent of Intelligence
On the 7th of December 1941, Japan dragged the United States into the Second World War in what would become known as the Attack on Pearl Harbour. Dubbed Operation Z by the Japanese military forces, 353 Japanese aircraft launched a devastating attack on the U.S. Navy, sinking four battleships, three cruisers, three destroyers, and causing the deaths of over two-thousand U.S. military personnel. The effect was devastating, and on the following day, President Roosevelt declared war on the Japanese Empire, and in turn, their allies, Germany and Italy, declared war on the United States. It would result in American personnel being deployed to Europe, and amongst those was Baer, who was assigned to U.S. military intelligence.
Ralph found himself stationed in Bristol, England. Due to his interest in weapons, Ralph had amassed a knowledge on how to recognise different ones. Of his time in England, Ralph taught over 120,000 soldiers all about weapons and German soldiers’ uniforms. Including how to spot and react to the various ranks of the German military.
His drafting into the U.S. Army would serve him well and on his return home when the war had ended, young Ralph needed to resume what he had started. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, AKA the G.I. Bill, would allow Baer to study at the American Television Institute of Technology for a Bachelor of Science degree, and give him the funds and means to pick up his life where he had left it before the war. Baer did just that, graduating in 1949 with his intended qualification. This was in a time when television was still in its infancy, but Baer was a man of great foresight, and he could see where the world was going, and he wanted to be a part of it.
History has a unique way of being recorded. If Leo Baer had decided his family would be safe in their homeland, then there’s a good possibility an industry and an entire form of entertainment would not exist today, or at least in a form that we would recognise, but that didn’t mean everything was smooth sailing for Ralph. Following his graduation, Baer went to work for Wappler, Inc, a company that made cutting equipment, as their chief engineer. Hardly a company you would expect a man who helped give birth to the video games industry to begin. But, like a young patent clerk named Albert Einstein, everyone has to start somewhere, and it was here that Baer made his initial foray into the electronics industry.
Birth doesn’t come easily, and for Baer, a home video game console was a long way from his thoughts. Only, the idea was in there, and very soon it would manifest itself as a device that would change the world.
Lightning in a Brown Bottle
It’s 1956, and 34-year-old Ralph Baer starts work at Sanders Associates in Nashua, New Hampshire. The company are a defence contractor working for the U.S. Government, working on electronics systems, with some of their work featuring in the Saturn V rocket that would power the Apollo space programme to the moon. Some would be surprised to learn that video game consoles started out in a place like Sanders, but it was their new employee, Ralph, whose little pet project would inspire a generation.
Ralph had a vision. In the summer of 1966 he conceived of an idea for playing games using an everyday TV set. Video games were not a new invention. They can be traced back to the 1940s, but we will come to that later, but a home games console was something new, and that’s what Ralph had in mind.
On the 1st of September 1966, Ralph wrote a four-page document that recorded his idea for what he intended to do. In Ralph’s own words his opening line read like this: ‘The purpose of the invention is to provide a large variety of low-cost data entry devices which can be used by an operator to communicate with a monochrome or color TV set of standard, commercial unmodified type.’
What Ralph was talking about was a plug and play games system. Something that could plug into a television set, interrupt the normal TV signal and allow you to interact with the system. Sound familiar? He even had designs for the system to use its own channel, and he designated that channel as LP, or Let’s Play.
The document came with a list of ideas for games the system could be used to play, and a technical breakdown over how the invention would work. It was the keystone document of the home video games console and its inner workings, and it all came from a side project that was done just for fun.
Ralph wasn’t resting there though, he had an idea and he wanted to push that idea a little further. Only six days later he was drawing up plans for a system that could play two-player games.
There was one problem, Ralph couldn’t do this alone. Every game needs a second player, and Ralph found one in Bill Harrison.
Ralph had found Bill when he employed him to work on a project called BRANDY, unfortunately Ralph had to let Bill go, but he never forgot him, and when Ralph came up with an idea for his home television set, he had a problem to overcome and he called on Bill for help. Ralph’s idea was simple: The TV only has one channel, so when there’s nothing to watch, what else is it being used for? Why not use that time to play games.
Swearing Bill to secrecy and working in a small office, the two of them would get to work designing the first iteration of a prototype home games console. Ralph was the brains, and Bill the muscles that would bring the machine to life.
The duo worked tirelessly, until they reached the point where they could show a model to Sanders’ executives, this basic model, called TV Game Unit #1, presented a simple dot on the screen of a television set that could be manipulated with a controller by a user. Impressed with what they saw, Sanders’ management team awarded Baer with funding and urged him to continue his efforts until they had a product that could be marketed and sold.
Genius, is not just an idea that manifests itself, and some ideas take more than one person to bring to life. By the time Ralph and Bill had refined their model into TV Game Unit #3, well, they had hit a wall, as attention was focused on refining the immediate design and trying to bring the retail price of their unit down, Herbert Campman, Sanders’ Corporate Director of Research & Development, added a third member to the team.
Bill Rusch was an ideas man, a board to bounce inspiration off of. Known as somewhat of a colourful character, Bill was brought on board to try and help move the project along.
Rusch and Baer didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye on many things. Bill Harrison would later say to Vintage Computing and Gaming, that although he never had any problems with Rusch, Baer wasn’t quite so lucky and would clash with him. Bill Rusch brought an energy to the project, and would produce many ideas for games that could be used on the system. One of the most important elements he added was the idea of adding a ‘ball’ to a game that at first only had two spots. That idea would later go on to become the basis for Pong, but before we get there we need to go back to October 1967.
The team had finished working up the concept for a basic ping pong game using controllers to move two separate points that acted as paddles. By early November, they were ready to demonstrate that this concept of a version of table tennis that could be played on a television set was now a reality. And that’s exactly what they did, showing a successful model to an excited board of directors.
To understand the importance of their work, we have to look at what we have in our world now. We take video game consoles for granted. They’re available at every online retailer and store, they’re made by a variety of companies, but they all follow the same basic concept. They create illusions for us to lose ourselves in. That’s what the team at Sanders were doing, in a very primitive way, but they were helping to found one of the biggest forms of entertainment in the world today, and it all started on a little workbench in a room that was only accessible by two men with keys.
Sanders did understand the importance of what they were doing. If they were reluctant at the first demonstration, they could see just how far they had come in a short time. On January 15th 1968, the first patent was filed for a video game under application number 697798.
‘The present invention pertains to an apparatus and method, in conjunction with standard monochrome and color television receivers, for the generation, display, manipulation, and use of symbols or geometric figures upon the screen of the television receivers for the purpose of training simulation, for playing games, and for engaging in other activities by one or more participants. The invention comprises in one embodiment a control unit, connecting means and in some applications a television screen overlay mask utilized in conjunction with a standard television receiver. The control unit includes the control means, switches and electronic circuitry for the generation, manipulation and control of video signals which are to be displayed on the television screen. The connecting means couples the video signals to the receiver antenna terminals thereby using existing electronic circuits within the receiver to process and display the signals. An overlay mask which may be removably attached to the television screen may determine the nature of the game to be played or the training simulated. Control units are provided for each of the participants. Alternatively, games, training simulations and other activities may be carried out in conjunction with background and other pictorial information originated in the television receiver by commercial TV, closed-circuit TV or a CATV station.’
Patent number 3,728,480 was the one that changed it all. Filed as Television Gaming and Training Apparatus, its sole credit under inventor falls to Ralph H. Baer, there would be others attributed to the trio, Baer and Harrison, and Rusch going solo, but it was this one that defined what the first home videogame console truly was. This one patent, this one idea captured as an intellectual property, would go on to inspire and give rise to a form of entertainment enjoyed the world over. A common language that breaks all creeds, races and genders, and it started with a patent from a team who had no real particular interest in videogames as a pastime, to them, it was just a project. No one really knows they are creating history. People don’t wake up aiming to be put in the record books for their achievements, some of the greatest changes to our world haven’t come by because we willed it, they’ve come as a byproduct, a lucky strike in a book of matches, and if you asked that small team that shared a cramped office if they thought their inventions would be responsible for an entire industry of hardware, they would probably laugh.
There were over 45 claims in the patent, with each one describing in precise detail how the function of the device would work. Ralph Baer was notorious for his meticulous note-taking, a habit that would allow his papers to be showing in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The invention Ralph described in the patent would allow a television set, a device Ralph described as ‘passive’ to become active, or to coin a word we associate with modern video games today – interactive. The patent didn’t stop at video games though, Ralph had ideas that this could also be used for training purposes, after all, history has a record of some of the greatest inventions coming to fruition if they have a military application, and perhaps Ralph could see that if he could offer this device up as something that could be used for not just entertainment, then there was a good chance more funding would be allocated to the project.
What Ralph was adamant about in his proposal was that the device was to be useable on a regular television set. He envisioned a system that could be used on any unit that had an antenna terminal and with millions of television sets in the homes of America, the only requirement to turn a regular television into an entertainment centre was the purchase of Ralph’s team’s device, or in Ralph’s own words: ‘The only expense required to provide added family enjoyment is the expense of a control unit of one type or another.’
Also included in the patent were many of the ideas the team had come up with when developing the initial test systems. They envisioned multiple choice question games, shooting games, classic board games, as well as many different sports from hockey to boxing. The technology was primitive by today’s standards, the patent would even go on to describe how using overlays attached to a television screen could change the television screen into a different environment through the use of pre-rendered overlays.
3,728,480 wasn’t all about gaming, in the last paragraph of the patent, Ralph made sure that this technology could be used to service the scientific, educational, clinical industries also, a lot like how modern computing and graphics has transformed the world as we know it, it was all here in this patent, a document filed in 1968. A visionary document that detailed so much of the technology we use every day and take in our stride. How much of it would be with us now if Ralph had picked a different career path?
Ralph H. Baer has many patents to his name. Some to do with the early steps of the video game industry, some for other inventions completely unrelated, the team that would go on to file many more patents for their little wunderkind, needed to finalise what the device actually was. Oh, and it also needed a name, something catchy, something that stuck and was easy to remember.
The Brown Box
Despite the name not being the most attractive, the little box that small team came up with was revolutionary. So why was it called ‘The Brown Box’? well, it’s original moniker of TV Game Unit #7 hardly rolled off the tongue, so a nickname for the device was formed. The name originated with the self-adhesive woodgrain vinyl it was covered in. This was the unit that would be shown to investors, interested in licensing the technology from Sanders.
The Box allowed a series of switches to be set to play a variety of games, the first unit of its kind to achieve this feat. Amongst the games were ping pong, checkers, sports games and target shooting with the use of a lightgun. That’s right, long before Nintendo’s Duck Hunt, Ralph, and his team had a working lightgun. One of the most attractive features of the Brown Box was the ability to play multiplayer due to its two connected controllers. Surely the investors would be throwing money at Sanders to be able to put this technology in their own products?
Most of the demonstrations took place at Sanders’ plant in New Hampshire. Of the manufacturers, that included, Zenith, Sylvania, Magnavox, Warwick, RCA, and GE, it was RCA that took an initial interest in the product. The RCA team began to negotiate a license with Sanders but by mid-1970 those negotiations had fallen apart. Bill Enders, one of the RCA negotiators, had left the company to join Magnavox, and Enders was a champion of the Brown Box.
Enders didn’t waste much time at Magnavox and persuaded the company president Gerry Martin to take another look at the Brown Box. A deal was struck to license the technology from Sanders and start producing units of their own using Baer’s team’s technology.
But it wasn’t smooth sailing from there. Martin had trouble convincing the board at Magnavox to take a chance on the product. It took a further nine months to get full approval to agree to start production.
The Brown Box just wasn’t a very catchy name though. For this product to be appealing to consumers it needed something else. It needed a name that suggested adventure and imagination…