Ralph Baer is the father of videogames, but many of today’s gamers are unaware of how important his contributions were. He created a number of firsts, including the first console, and his ideas have helped fuel and shape our favourite past time. Ralph sadly passed away on December 06 at the age of 92. To celebrate his contributions to gaming, we’re reprinting this classic article from issue 100. It will hopefully give you an insight into why the work of Ralph Baer was so important.
“It was a nice sunny day,” recalls Ralph Baer, of 2 June 1976. “He was with his lawyer. We shook hands, exchanged a few pleasantries and that was it. A smile, a hello and a goodbye. That was the first time I met Nolan Bushnell.”
It was a brief encounter outside the Chicago Federal District Court Building, yet a quietly momentous one in the history of videogames. Not only was Magnavox, the manufacturers of the first videogame console, about to sue Atari over PONG-related patent infringement, this was the first meeting of the two founding fathers of the games industry. Nolan, who with Atari had made arcade videogames a part of popular culture, and Ralph, whose pioneering work in the sixties led to the creation of the Odyssey games console in 1972, which turned our televisions into playfields. Here, we look back at Ralph’s journey, and salute the father of home videogames.
1946 – First serve?
“My brother in law, Walter, swears I had a bouncing ball on my oscilloscope back in 1946,” Ralph begins. “I have zero recollection of it but I bet you dollars to doughnuts that I wasn’t the only one playing with their ‘scope at that time, making spots bounce back and forth on the X-Y display. If he saw it or if he didn’t, it really doesn’t make any difference in the history of videogames.”
So we’ll sadly never know for certain whether a very primitive PONG ever played out on Ralph’s tiny oscilloscope screen, twelve years before Willy Higginbotham’s Tennis for Two briefly wowed visitors to Brookhaven National Labs in 1958. His brother’s memory does, however, demonstrate Ralph’s keen interest in electronics. Coming from a Jewish background, he and his family fled Germany in 1938, just two months before the Nazi’s savage anti-Semitic Kristallnacht pogrom. They settled in New York, and Ralph spent three years serving in the US Army, both stateside and overseas. He put his electronics expertise to good effect; “When I was with military intelligence, one of the first things I did when we got to Europe was build a radio for the guy who I shared a bunk with. I managed to convert German mine detectors so we could pick up the American Forces Radio Station and listen to Glenn Miller.”
After the war ended, Ralph took advantage of the G.I. Bill of Rights and went to college in Chicago. Graduating in 1949 with a Bachelor of Science in Television Engineering (the first degree available of this kind at the time), he would soon get the chance to make a TV set of his own.
1951 – ‘That’s kind of neat’
In 1951, Ralph was gainfully employed at Loral, an electronics company based in the Bronx, working on a high-class projection television set. “Part of the test equipment we used as we built the set was a pattern generator,” he recalls. “You could put a pattern on-screen, like a checkerboard, so you could test the height, width, contrast, brightness, that kind of thing… I said, ‘That’s kind of neat, you can fiddle with these controls and things happen on the screen. Couldn’t we build something like this into a television set and make it into some kind of game?’ I took the idea to my supervisor and he said, ‘You’re already behind schedule, just get the damn TV set built!’ And that was the end of that!”
The name of Ralph’s supervisor? Sam Lackoff. We can’t help wondering, if it weren’t for his lack of vision could we have been playing games on our televisions in the fifties instead of the seventies? “No question about it,” states Ralph, emphatically. “Technically, no problem whatsoever. If it would’ve resulted in a saleable product that did enough for whatever it would cost, well, that’s a question I can’t answer.”
Just imagine if the industry had started twenty years earlier than it did. Where would we be now?
1966 – Do the Bus Stop
Fifteen years had passed since Ralph first toyed with the notion of playing games on a television. Since then, he’d moved to Sanders Associates and risen up the ranks to chief engineer, working mainly on military defence electronics projects, but his inner ‘TV gamer’ had never died. “I was waiting at a New York bus terminal for a colleague and it just came back to me,” smiles Ralph. “The idea of playing games on a TV set had always been just under the surface. I remember sitting on a cement step outside the terminal, scribbling notes on a small pad. I got that feeling of being on to something…”
When he returned to his office in New Hampshire the following day, he wrote up his New York notes into a four-page document that laid out his ideas for playing games on a conventional television set. It’s a fascinating piece of videogaming history because not only does it contain talk of oscillators, modulators, ‘free-running raster techniques’ and the numerous practicalities of actually getting images on screen, it talks about games. Action games, card games, sports games, even “Auto Racing using the screen as a roadway”. Before a spot was even displayed, Ralph was planning what we might actually be playing in this brave new gaming world.
“What’s wrong with looking ahead?” he laughs. “I was thinking of what I could do with this thing! I knew there were 40 million TV sets in the United States. If I could hook up some kind of box to a TV set that did something that people would want to pay for and I could sell that to just 1% of TV owners, that’s 400,000 right there! I got a business! Then there’s the rest of the world. That’s gotta be another 40 or 50 million, right?”
Ralph was thinking big, which might explain why he clearly stated in the document that development should take place ‘in a guarded and otherwise inaccessible room’, with ‘disclosure confined to a minimum of personnel.’ He also had the presence of mind to get the seminal document signed and dated by a trusted colleague, Bob Solomon, to establish a legal record of his eureka moment, a highly prescient move given the slew of lawsuits that would follow over the following decades. Ralph, you must have instantly realised this was an important break-through. Something big, something worth protecting? “There was no question in my mind,” he confirms. “Of course, I could never have known how big it would really get….”
Realising the potential was one thing; making it become reality was to be an arduous, elongated struggle. It began by Ralph assigning a technician, Bob Tremblay, to his secret project. Ensconced in the former company library on the fifth floor, out of sight from any curious eyes, Bob (under Ralph’s direction) created a vacuum-tube circuit, which was christened TV Game Unit 1. So, did tense games of ping-pong between the two of you soon follow, Ralph?
Ralph laughs out loud at the thought. “No, no, it couldn’t do a hell of a lot! It could put a spot on the screen and stretch it vertically, horizontally, move it around and change its colour. It wasn’t meant to be a product but it proved we could get symbols on screen and that was the purpose of the exercise…”
That tiny tangle of wires and tubes was the ‘proof of concept’ that Ralph needed. He approached the company’s corporate director of research and development, Herbert Campman, and gave a demonstration of the unit. This time, Ralph’s superior had vision, and on 22 December 1966, he agreed to fund further development: $2000 for direct labour and $500 for materials. Now that he project had a little cash, and some credence from the company’s management., it was game on.
1967 – A Tale of Two Bills
The new year brought two additions to Ralph’s team. Two very different men that would in very different ways play vital roles in the creation of the first games console. “Bill Harrison was my kind of guy,” says Ralph. “He was a really good technician. He became an engineer later on, and he designed all the circuitry. He was on the bench, while I was out there running a division of five hundred people. I’d stick my head in a couple of times a day for fifteen minutes to see how things were going. He worked under my direction but he did the work and came up with stuff that we could manufacture and was inexpensive. For example, to generate a spot to move around a screen like for a ping-pong game, to do that in discrete logic typically takes four transistors. He did it in two. Once you need three spots, for two bats and a ball, that’s a lot fewer transistors and resistors and that’s saving you money.”
So on 12 February 1967, Ralph took Bill to the same secretive room where Bob Tremblay had put together TV Game Unit 1, and he began working on what would become the second iteration of their console adventure. Meanwhile, Ralph began sharing his game ideas with one of Herb Campman’s engineers, Bill Rusch. “He was an MIT graduate,” explains Ralph. “Very bright, very creative and very eccentric. He’d go out at lunch to play his guitar to people I thought were groupies. He was very independent and wouldn’t take direction, but I tolerated it because he was very useful. A million times I would’ve cheerfully let him go if he wasn’t such an important contributor to the effort.”
That contribution can be clearly seen in a memo dated 10 May 1967. It detailed twenty-one different videogames, a culmination of conversations between Rusch and Ralph over the previous three months about what their TV game unit might be able to deliver. It reads like a manifesto for future game genres; there’s a top down racing game where circuit-crashes or rear-ending the race leader are penalised; a baseball game where the speed of the pitch can be controlled and the batter must time their swing perfectly to make a hit; a maze game in which a white rat must traverse a labyrinth; various target-shooting games (see right); and an idea for an aerial World War One dogfighting duel, pre-empting Atari’s ubiquitous Combat cartridge by a decade. There are even plans for an intriguing golf game that resulted in a bizarre peripheral.
“We built joysticks for Game Unit 2,” explains Ralph, speaking about the practical aspects of implementing some of their game ideas. “What’s more obvious to an engineer like me than to drill a hole in a golf ball and stick it on a joystick? Put it on the floor and hit it with your putter. Get it right and you get a hole in one!”
Mid-1967 – Summer of Games
Full of ideas and with an encouraging number of incremental technical breakthroughs, the group prepared to showcase their progress to the president of the company, Royden Sanders, and the board of directors. “I knew I couldn’t blow this,” says Ralph, “so I recorded the instructions for the games on Game Unit 2 on audio tape and I had Bill Harrison build a little 4.5 MHz oscillator and modulator so the sound came through the television set. I switched it on and, for the first time in human history, we had a videogame running with verbal instructions coming out of the TV set.”
Seven games were demoed to the board that day. Fox and Hounds, a two player chase game, had a single red spot for a ‘fox’, pursued by three white ‘hounds’, while Target Shooting allowed one player to move the bullseye with the joystick, as a second tried to blast it with his rifle. Most intriguing was Pumping Game, in which the player took on the role of a fire-fighter frantically trying to extinguish the flames in a burning house, success being achieved by pumping a handle on the console. This primitive button-basher was accompanied by a charming hand-drawn overlay, featuring a determined fireman gripping his hose. The windows of the building were transparent, allowing the player to see the opposing levels of red (fire) and blue (water) colour on screen, which indicated success or failure.
So, did the board see the germ of a multi-billion dollar industry in those seven videogame vignettes? “They said I was nuts!” exclaims Ralph. “We were a military electronics company building very complex, very expensive equipment, like anti-aircraft to ground missile protection. This was a long, long way from that. The reception was actually pretty cold. Out of the whole group, only two were smiling after the demo was done and they became supporters. The rest looked pretty dumb. But I guess they trusted me. I had been around a while…”
The truth was, Ralph and his team were also starting to have doubts. Their games were fun, but their lasting appeal was questionable. There was only so much entertainment you could squeeze out of two spots chasing each other across the screen, however cleverly you dressed it up. Then in November came a major breakthrough. Bill Rusch designed some novel spot generator circuitry on paper, Bill Harrison implemented it and now a third spot could be displayed on screen. This spot was different; it was machine controlled, and therefore, most excitingly, it could be a ‘ball’.
“It was obvious we finally had something worth going after,” enthuses Ralph, warming to the subject. “I mean, the other games, we were dragging them in by the hair just to have something to do but as soon as we had a ping-pong game, that was of a totally different order.”
And so the first ‘killer app’ was born. All that had to be done was to turn the game into something they could sell to the world. Despite the momentous breakthrough, Ralph was just getting started…