Oral History of Gaming: Ralph Baer, Inventor of Video Games

Back in the late 60s, German-born gadgeteer Ralph Baer began inventing what later became known as video games.



Back in the late 60s, German-born gadgeteer Ralph Baer began inventing what later became known as video games. Over the ensuing decades he would develop Pong, the rifle you could point at the screen that was the precursor to the Duck Hunt shotgun, and the germ of countless other important concepts that the gaming industry is founded on. Simon, too! He invented that.

He was also one of the first people to dip a toe in the murky waters now known as television commerce, but of course nobody with any money in the early 70s had much interest in latching onto the idea that people would one day impulse shop for crappy wares on their televisions. So Baer instead recast the idea, developing a small wooden video game console that attached to a TV and could bring untold hours of lo-fidelity entertainment to rich kids in the suburbs.

On May 15, 2007, Baer and Bill Harrison played the first video game on a television set, using Baer’s “brown box” console. This would later became the basis of Atari’s Pong.

Today, at age 89, Baer holds over 150 patents, and was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President George W Bush in 2006 for his work in the video game industry. That’s not all. After he and his family fled the Nazis in Germany, Baer joined the Allied forces fighting them, as a small arms expert. Writes Kotaku:

During the war, Baer became an expert not on radios or communications, as you’d expect given his training, but on small arms (pistols, rifles, submachine guns, etc). Indeed, he became such an expert that, when the war was done, Baer managed to bring a whopping 18 tonnes of Axis and non-US Allied weaponry home to the United States with him, with which he ran a number of exhibits with the blessing of the US Army.

In 1949 he graduated from the American Television Institute of Technology with one of the world’s first Bachelors of Science in Television Engineering, and from there didn’t look back. In addition to his work on the “Brown Box” games machine, which would evolve to become the Magnavox Odyssey, Baer also worked on a number of other large electronics projects, including the launch equipment for NASA’s Saturn V rockets.

Apparently, not all gamers loaf around on the couch all day.