Video games: out of the lab and into the living room

Brookhaven's Tennis for Two is considered by many to be the first real video game, but Ralph Baer is the undisputed father of the industry.

Brookhaven's Tennis for Two is considered by many to be the first real video game, but Ralph Baer is the undisputed father of the industry

The Brown Box was the first ever video game console. It ran on batteries and was hardwired with a number of games, including tennis, hockey and handball. ((Courtesy Ralph Baer))
You'd think the father of video games would be rich and famous, but Ralph Baer doesn't necessarily qualify as either.

Instead, the 86-year-old U.S. inventor considers himself financially comfortable and somewhat well known, but it's also obvious he's a bit ticked off at not getting what he feels is his due.

There is some debate among historians over the first video game. Some say inventors Thomas Goldsmith and Estle Ray Mann came up with the first such game in 1947, a missile simulator that connected a computer to a cathode ray tube. Others believe it was Nim, a mathematical strategy game created for the Nimrod computer in 1951. Still others say PhD student Alexander Douglas's OXO, which simulated a game of Tic Tac Toe, was the first in 1952.

But none of those inventions were proper "video" games. Goldsmith and Mann's game required overlays to be placed on the screen because their computer was incapable of generating graphics, while Nim used only a bank of lights as its display. OXO was close as it did show graphics on a screen, but the images of X's and O's did not move around.

Many tech historians believe Tennis For Two, unveiled by physicist William Higinbotham for a visitors' day at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York in 1958, was the first proper video game in that it featured a moving ball that players could hit back and forth across a screen using handheld controllers.

Higinbotham himself, however, didn't believe he had invented anything special. Tennis For Two — which celebrates its 50th anniversary on Oct. 18 — came about as a simple rewrite of the programming on his analog computer, which had originally been designed to simulate the ballistics of missile trajectories.

Tennis game too expensive

He rolled out his game to wow visitors at Brookhaven in 1958 and again in 1959, then dismantled it to use the parts for other projects. He never sought a patent on the game because the cost of the required high-end equipment was simply too high for it to be commercialized.

Baer, meanwhile, did all the heavy lifting.

He has plenty of respect today for Higinbotham who, until his death in 1994, was also a tireless campaigner against the spread of nuclear weapons, but Baer doesn't believe the physicist should get the credit for inventing video games.

"It was a one-time demonstration that was clever. But did he do anything beyond that? No," he says. "It was very nice, very neat, very creative, but that's all it was."

Born in Germany, Baer as a teenager escaped to the United States with his Jewish family in September 1938, just two months before the Nazis' Kristallnacht pogrom. He graduated from the National Radio Institute and served in the U.S. army during the later part of the Second World War.

Ralph Baer was awarded the National Medal of Technology by U.S. President George W. Bush. ((Courtesy Ralph Baer))
When the war ended, he got a bachelor of science degree in television engineering and went to work for Sanders Associates, a military contractor based in New Hampshire. Baer was in charge of a division of 500 employees, designing military aircraft systems such as electronic countermeasures.

"It was absolutely divorced from television," Baer says, but the job paid the bills.

As a side project, he dabbled in designing electronic games. By 1966, Baer had created his first "television game" — the term that was used before "video game" took over. It was a simple affair that let two players each control a dot of light. The fun came from chasing each other around on the screen.

Baer showed his breakthrough to Sanders management and won the company's official backing. By 1968, he had created his "Brown Box," a console that connected to the TV and played a number of games, including versions of tennis, handball, soccer and hockey. Baer, who had won a Marksmen's Medal during his army stint, also created a light gun that could shoot targets on the screen.

The system, which ran on batteries, was primitive by today's standards. The games were black and white and consisted mostly of blocks of light moving around a screen and the controllers were big blocks with moving knobs. Players switched between games by removing and inserting circuit cards, which did not contain additional software like the cartridges and discs that came later. The cards instead connected different series of jumpers within the console itself, which was hardwired with all the games.

Still, the Brown Box was the first video game console.

Baer and his technicians kept working on revising and improving the console while simultaneously trying to land a licensee that would commercialize the invention. Sanders first shopped the box to cable TV companies but failed to find any takers. After showing the console to a host of television manufacturers, including RCA, Sylvania, GE and Motorola, the company finally agreed to a deal with Magnavox.

Baer's Brown Box finally hit stores, albeit in a new white casing, in August 1972 as the Magnavox Odyssey.

The system, which retailed for $100 — a tidy sum at the time — didn't sell well because of poor marketing by Magnavox. Many consumers mistakenly believed the console only worked with Magnavox televisions.

Still, the Odyssey sold about 100,000 units its first year, so the home video game market was off and running. Baer applied for a patent on "Television Gaming and Training Apparatus" in 1971 and received it in 1973, giving Sanders the rights to all games that allowed players to control characters, items or other symbols on a television screen. Then came the litigation.

The first of many lawsuits

Several months before its retail debut, the Odyssey was shown at a trade fair in California. One of the attendees was Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari. In November 1972, Bushnell launched his own arcade video game, Pong, with a simple tennis game that let players bounce a ball back and forth across the screen. The arcade game was followed by a home console in 1975.

Atari was better at marketing its console than Magnavox — a label on the Pong console box clearly indicated it would work on any television, for example — and sales took off. A number of other manufacturers, including pinball machine maker Bally/Midway, jumped on the bandwagon and sold their own Pong clone consoles.

Baer, Sanders and Magnavox pounced on Atari, claiming that Bushnell had blatantly ripped off the Odyssey's tennis game, and the others in 1976 for patent violation. Bushnell quickly settled with the plaintiffs, then became a licensee. Bally/Midway and the others, however, fought the case and lost decisively.

Judge John Grady of the Federal District Court of Chicago ruled that Baer's filing was indeed the "pioneer patent" of the home video game industry, which gave Sanders license to sue a host of subsequent infringers — including Mattel, Coleco, Sega and Nintendo — over the next decade.

Baer and Higinbotham ended up going toe-to-toe in one of those cases. In the early 1980s, Nintendo tried to invalidate the patent and brought Higinbotham into court to describe Tennis For Two, which predated Baer's work by a decade.

The Brown Box was eventually sold as the Magnavox Odyssey, beginning in 1972. ((Courtesy Ralph Baer))
Baer countered by arguing that Higinbotham's invention was a simple ballistics demonstration rather than a game. He also pointed out that Tennis For Two used an oscilloscope, which was a display used to show electrical voltages, so it did not use proper rasterized graphics as a television did. Rasterization turns images into a combination of pixels or dots for video display or printing.

The court again sided with Sanders and threw out Nintendo's appeal, effectively establishing once and for all that Baer was indeed the father of video games.

The Odyssey, Baer says, was far more than Higinbotham's simple computer display, which he had never heard of until the Nintendo case. Baer's console required years of development work, the cajoling of Sanders management for financial support and the pounding of pavements to drum up a manufacturer, along with more than a decade of patent enforcement.

That's why he bristles when he sees others referred to as the inventors of video games.

"The eureka of playing a game on a home television set is one thing, but to put that thought together with the recognition of the business element is another," he says.

Baer's ultimate recognition came in 2006 when U.S. President George W. Bush presented him with the National Medal of Technology for his work on video games, although his moment of glory was tinged with sorrow.

Baer's wife Dena died just three days before he was due to receive his medal. He returned home from the ceremony just in time to bury her.

"Was that bittersweet? You bet it was," he says.

On the financial front, Baer was somewhat of a bystander as video games boomed in the 1980s. As an employee of Sanders, his 17-year patent belonged to the company, which raked in all the hefty licence fees and legal settlements.

Baer got bonuses for his seminal contribution, but they were a comparative drop in the bucket, compared with the hundreds of millions being reaped by Sanders and Magnavox. He also got stock options in Sanders, which came in handy when the company was bought out by military contractor giant Lockheed in 1986.

"When Lockheed took over, there were a bunch of us that cried all the way to the bank," he says. Still, the father of video games says he's "comfortable, but certainly not rich."