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Engineer had a blast building first home video game system [The Telegraph, Nashua, N.H.]
[July 02, 2012]

Engineer had a blast building first home video game system [The Telegraph, Nashua, N.H.]

(Telegraph (Nashua, NH) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) July 01--EDITOR'S NOTE: A host of videos, including a 1973 TV commercial for Odyssey, in-house films Baer made at Sanders Associates in the 1970s, and modern interviews, can be seen at Electronics has been a big part of the Nashua business scene for half a century, but perhaps its most famous accomplishment -- development of the first home video game by an independent team at Sanders Associates -- was so quiet it almost occurred in secret.

"We were working for this big company and we were doing what we chose," recalled Ralph Baer, of Manchester, who recently turned 90. Baer, with engineer colleagues Bill Harrison and Bill Rusch, created what became the Magnavox Odyssey, the first video-game home console that plugged into TV sets. "It was a couple guys on a bench, just working away." The Odyssey project began at Sanders, now BAE Systems, because Baer thought that something more interesting could be done with TV sets than just stare at them. The subsequent years of development involving various engineers often occurred behind closed doors, because it didn't exactly fit the corporate goals of a high-tech defense contractor.

This quiet work, much done in a 10-by-20-foot former library on the fifth floor of the Canal Street building, was possible because Baer was a division manager. He knew how to take advantage of the fact that keeping mum about your work is normal in a place where security clearances are routine, and that the research didn't cost much.

"At the time (mid-1960s), the direct labor cost for my organization was somewhere near 10 million dollars a year. ... I could afford to experiment with a few things without even rippling the division's substantial overhead. So I just did it!" Baer wrote in his 2005 book "Videogames in the Beginning." More importantly, as he recalled in a recent interview, it was fun. "I was a free agent. I'd be driving home, and I'd stop at a red light and be like this," he said, miming a person bouncing in their seat from excitement, "saying, 'I can't believe it!'?" Over the years, once word got out, the team made several black-and-white movies of their work to convince higher-ups to let them continue. (Baer recalled that company co-founder Royden Sanders had one response: "How do we make money off it?") These movies are light-hearted, with Baer posing playfully and making jokes as he depicts scenarios for the equivalent of online learning and purchase of products seen on TV shows, long before the Internet was invented.

Things got less fun once Sanders licensed the technology to Magnavox and it became Odyssey, which let you play pingpong, chase games and educational games on your TV screen. Although it made a huge splash, Maganvox had business problems and Odyssey was eventually pushed aside by Atari and later Nintendo, as plenty of other companies decided to try out the home video game biz.

Baer and other engineers spent years testifying in patent infringement cases. Baer spent so much time in court over patent lawsuits that "Videogames in the Beginning" has a "plaintiffs exhibit" sticker on the cover.

The book also includes a little lamentation -- although not very much, considering the many millions of dollars involved -- about how Sanders, rather than the engineers, made all the money off Odyssey (although bonuses did accrue to some). Baer writes dryly that when Lockheed purchased Sanders in 1985, long after he had departed, new rules went into effect that "entitled the inventor to a substantial portion of the moneys collected. A little too late to do me any good." Then, there is the contentious issue of Nolan Bushnell, the man behind the Pong arcade video game and a founder of the Atari company. Bushnell based the coin-operated Pong on the "TV tennis" game included in Odyssey, but received so much attention and press over the years that many people assume Bushnell invented the game.

"He put a coin slot on 'Spacewar,'?" scoffs Baer, referring to what some call the first-ever video game, developed at MIT in 1962.

When this reporter first interviewed Baer in 2001, he was almost entirely in Bushnell's shadow, but that has changed. Baer was given the National Medal of Technology by President George W. Bush in 2006; he has been enshrined in gaming, computer and electronics halls of fame; and the first working version of Odyssey -- known as the "brown box" -- is part of the permanent collection at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

This attention isn't all good, though. "Half my time is taken up with it, thanks to the Internet. People can find you," he said. "I'm always getting emails from 12-year-olds and 14-year-olds, saying I have to write a report and I picked your name, and sending a long list of questions. I tell them to read my website, but they never do." Through it all, Baer said, the technology has remained fun.

Working in the era before ubiquitous computing power -- early Odyssey prototypes had vacuum tubes -- it took ingenuity and know-how to generate a machine that could interact with dumb TV sets but not cost an arm and a leg or take up half the living room.

Baer, trained as a television engineer, has a half-dozen generations of prototypes that led to the "brown box." The games are primitive, of course, requiring the use of plug-in cards to change games and paper illustrations stuck on the screen as a foreground, but they were eye-popping in their day.

Among other things, Magnavox peddled Odyssey with a fake rifle as part of a "shooting gallery" game, so people could finally fire back at their annoying TV set.

Baer left Sanders after Odyssey but continued his inventing career, concentrating on electronic toys.

"I just got the itch to make electronic games," he said, noting that they're not only fun but they're usually small enough that a single person can do the whole project. These days, he said, he even writes his own software, although he added that it's "real crude" and needs to cleaned up "by some real expert -- a 19-year-old." Baer's most famous, and profitable, post-Sanders work is Simon, a blinking-light memory game in which the player had to re-create an increasingly long pattern of lights and sounds. Based on an arcade game called Touch Me, it was a huge hit in the 1980s and still lives on in many iterations.

Baer gets royalty checks for various inventions -- just before the interview, Hasbro sent him a check for "Talking Tools," a series of chatty plastic drills and hammers for preschoolers -- and still works on them. Most recently, he has been concentrating on small electronic add-ons to kids' bicycles or scooters, including some that tell you how fast you're going and others that make loud motorcycle noises.

As of this writing, he hadn't been able to license them. As always, he said, the selling is harder than the inventing. "I don't care if my marketing guy drives a Cadillac and I drive a Chevy, because without him, I'd be riding a bicycle," he said.

Although he's spry and mobile for a 90-year-old, Baer is quite aware that he's not the same guy he was in youth or middle age. "Everything takes a lot more work," he noted wryly.

His family, who are Jewish, fled Hitler's Germany when he was a teenager. His German language skills served him well in the U.S. Army during World War II, when he served in an intelligence group based in England. This led to a GI Bill college education, an engineering degree and his current life.

The basement of his Manchester home is half messy workshop, half tidy museum to his inventing, with walls full of toys he invented.

"Now, this is an interesting problem," said Baer in an earlier visit, contemplating a doll and its pink plastic bathroom set, with electronic innards. "Not the engineering, so much ... but trying to get the cost down to $2.32.?... That was a whole different ball game. At Sanders, we never thought about cost." Baer's wife of a half-century, Dena, died in 2006, just days before he received the National Medal of Technology. He lives alone, visited often by his three grown children and various grandchildren, whose photos fill the walls.

Through it all, he continues inventing, he says, partly the fill the time, but mostly because he almost can't help it.

"How do you do inventing? If you have it in your genes, it's almost like breathing," he said.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or Follow Brooks' blog on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).

___ (c)2012 The Telegraph (Nashua, N.H.) Visit The Telegraph (Nashua, N.H.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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