Interview With Ralph Baer, Inventor Of Home Video Games (R.I.P.)

Note: Dec.  7. 2014:  R.I.P. Ralph Baer, the inventor of video games.  This interview was conducted in 2005 for
For more information on Ralph Baer, see his web site.
Steve Fulton When did you get the idea to create a home video game system?
Ralph Baer:  August 31, 1966Steve Fulton What games could your “Brown Box” play?

Ralph Baer: Ping-pong, tennis, hockey, Handball, volleyball, gun games, chase games (one spot chasing and wiping out another). It also had a joystick attachment with a golf ball mounted atop the shaft with which we played “golf” using an actual putter.

Steve Fulton Your original Brown Box was called an  “analog” computer by Atari to defend against a Magnavox lawsuit. What do you have to say about that?

Ralph Baer: The Brown Box and its 1968 predecessor developmental systems were neither built around an analog computer (come on now…this was a consumer product!) nor was a purely analog design. While its circuitry was made up of discrete components, the circuits contained Flip-Flops, AND and OR gates, One-Shots, diode matrices, etc…what are these circuits if they are not digital circuits? People think that discrete component circuitry was strictly analog. This is complete nonsense. Of course we built digital circuits in the forties and fifties before there were IC’s. In the sixties, plug-in cards with as little as one or two flip-flops were typical of logic modules of the day. So the notion that the Brown Box and its production version, the Magnavox Odyssey game was comprised of “analog circuits” is a myth…but that myth has a real origin: During the lawsuits, the opposition (Bally-Midway, Seeburg, etc) tried to make the judge believe that our circuits were analog and theirs were digital and hence they didn’t fall under the Claims of our patents. The judges ruled otherwise and saw through this ploy in a hurry.

Re. cost considerations: In 1967, when the lab work to design a practical consumer product began at Sanders (in my little skunk works lab), IC’s were not an option although we were comfortable with them in our defense electronics work. They were just too expensive for use in a consumer product. We HAD to use discrete components (resistors, capacitors, transistors, diodes etc.) .When Magnavox finally began to negotiate a license starting in late 1969, they dragged out the negotiations (just like the big company they were) until well into 1969. The engineers were then turned on to get a production design out the door by late 1971 and production had to ramp up in early ’72. There was just no time to redesign the product radically (which it should have been because a lot changed in IC pricing between 1967 and 1971) So they went with what was realistic: They copied our Brown Box circuitry almost part for part and changed only those things that FCC RFI regulations forced them to alter so as to meet the FCC specs for spurious radiation.

Steve Fulton There are many people who believe that analog computers, while severely limited, were elegant devices. Do you have any special views on analog computers?

Ralph Baer: Analog computers were indeed elegant devices. I used them as did many other radio and TV engineers in the fifties and sixties. They were great for modeling dynamic motion problems….but they cost on the order of $10,000 or much more. So forget analog computers as a means of playing home “video” games, except in the context of a demo in a lab environment where one or more analog computers were sitting around and one could temporarily borrow one for a “fun” ballistics demo (like Higinbotham’s so-called tennis game).

Steve Fulton You and Magnavox had to sue Atari (and others) over Pong and patent infringement. Were you satisfied with the outcome?

Ralph Baer: After ten years of litigation in courts from Chicago to San Francisco we collected many tens of millions of dollars. I spent a great deal of time working with our lawyers and testifying in court. The outcomes of all of our lawsuits were completely successful (for our side) and the infringers uniformly had to cough up large sums of money. At the same time, we (Magnavox under the Sanders patents) had well over a hundred patent licensees all over the world in the mid-seventies and collected large amounts of license income from those licenses, also.

Steve Fulton Was the patent on your videogames for play methods or for the hardware or both? Did it matter that the Atari products were digital and yours was analog?

Ralph Baer: We won our lawsuits because our patents covered both what is termed “means plus function”…i.e. we showed in the patents and claimed the concepts of the interaction of machine controlled screen symbols (such as a ball) and player controlled symbols such as the player paddles ( the functions). We also showed how this interaction could be accomplished (the means). Any game made by a manufacturer that exhibited the type of interaction defined by our patents was found to be infringing…and the judges in Federal District Courts and in the Court of Appeals all saw it that way.

Steve Fulton What did you think the first time you saw Atari Pong?

Ralph Baer: I/We did not see it but heard about the demo of the first Pong unit built by Alan Alcort (sic) about September of 1972. The minute we got wind of its existence, it was clear that there had to be some reason why a ping-pong arcade game (of all things) popped up from nowhere. It did not take long to find out that Nolan Bushnell and other Nutting Associates employees had signed the guest book at a Magnavox new-product demonstration at the Airport Marina in LA (on May the 26th, 1972 I believe) and that they (including Nolan Bushnell) had played the Odyssey ping-pong gamed hands-on there. Later denials by Bushnell and others in court or in depositions (or to the press) that playing the Odyssey ping-pong game had nothing to do with creating the Pong game were found less than credible by the courts and, in any event, defy logic and common sense. Bushnell’s 1972 Computer Space game (being produced by Nutting Associates) was a commercial failure because it was too hard to play. When the visitors saw and played the Odyssey game, at least one light went on in Nolan Bushnell’s head: Hey this is neat and easy to play! And secondly, somewhere along the line Bushnell recognized that there was such a thing as a consumer home game market (as introduced by the Odyssey game) and that 40 million homes are a slightly larger base for a new business than a few thousand arcades. And so Atari entered the home video game business in 1975 and made big success of it. But Odyssey had shown the way! With 360,00 games out there by early 1975, it was also a resounding success.

Steve Fulton Were you involved any other Magnavox videogame systems throughout the 70s and 80’s?

Ralph Baer: Yes, throughout the seventies. There was virtually no Magnavox video game activity in the eighties…nor did anybody else do much in the early eighties. The industry had tanked completely and did not get resurrected until Nintendo came along, having spent a lot of money on designing and producing a 1980’s type product. During the seventies I worked with Magnavox with varying degrees of success. I was responsible for resurrecting the Odyssey2 game in 1978 when management at Magnavox made the decision not to go forward with the program. I was successful in turning them around. I did however, play a major role in getting Colleco into a hugely successful string of video game products starting in 1975. All of these games were based on the General Instrument AY-3-8500 series of single-chip game devices. I was instrumental in getting Colleco first dibs on what was then a limited (yield) product availability problem for the AY-3-8500 devices. Colleco sold over a million Telstar games as a result and became a licensee of ours early on. We (a small group at Sander
s I set up) also helped Coleco by designing parts of their next years models (the Coleco Arcade game, etc.)

Steve Fulton When did you leave Magnavox?

Ralph Baer: I never worked for Magnavox. During the 1980’s I got out from under running a division with 500 engineers and support people at Sanders and became an Engineering Fellow at Sanders Associates, later a subsidiary of Lockheed. Magnavox was our licensee under our video game patents and any relationship betwen Magnavox and Sanders (including me) was done at arm’s length through mutual, contractual agreements (or by ignoring management and trying to help engineers at Magnavox because I figured that their success meant increased license income for Sanders, so to hell with management’s distrust of cooperative arrangements, which is typical). I retired from Lockheed/Sanders in 1988 and have been an independent inventor, consultant and licensor of novel electronic games (like Simon, Maniac, ComputerPerfection and dozens more). ever since.

Steve Fulton Why do you think Maganavox and Atari in the 80’s and Atari again in the 90’s failed, while other videogame companies (i.e. Nintendo) were so successful?

Ralph Baer: Mostly because management did not have the courage of their convictions and would not spend the money required to develop new systems based on the latest semiconductor technology. It took Nintendo to step into the breach and resurrect the video game business.

Steve Fulton What invention are you the most proud of?

Ralph Baer: I have over 150 patents worldwide and even all of these reflect only a very small part of all the novel stuff I have come up with, much of which went into production. But how can you beat creating an industry with a novel product category. So obviously, the answer has to be video games.

Steve Fulton Did you ever play videogames with your kids?

Ralph Baer: Sure…I have three kids and they were between 10 and 16 when I brought early breadboard hardware (and later the Brown Box) home to see how they would react to the idea of playing games on a home TV set. My kids are all in the mid and late forties now and have their own children but they vividly remember playing ping-pong downstairs in my lab. So do some of their friends who came and visited…one of whom is my current primary physician now!

You didn’t ask re. parent’s responsibilities when it comes to their kids’ choice of games…but I’ll tell you anyway: It is up to the parents to watch what games their kids are playing. I do not intend to weigh in on what the practical problems with that need are. All I know is that grandkids are one’s reward for not strangling one’s teenagers. We have four of them and I now watch video games over their shoulders …and sure enough, they play games which I really do not care for…but I’m not their parent.

Steve Fulton Since you basically invented home video games, and are a father and a grandfather, would you call your self an original “Gamerdad”?

Ralph Baer: I assume that Andrew Bub came up with that title. I like it. I guess, by definition, I must be a “GamerDad”.

Steve Fulton If you could choose to do one thing in your life over-again, what would it be?

Ralph Baer: I would just like to pick up where I left off because I am still cranking out neat things (go to Toys-R-Us and see if they stock some of Hasbro’s (Playskool) Talkin’ Tools…they are based on my inventions…and I am still in demand among friends and others for occasional engineering design help. My favorite activity is analog circuit design (but I’ll crank out logic designs, too, when I need ’em. Software is my younger partner’s job, although I dabble in it, too). There aren’t too many guys around my age (82) who still sit at the bench and cobble up circuit designs. It’s just an art form and it’s what I would definitely do if I had a chance to do it all over again….fat chance!

Steve Fulton Do you get tired of people asking you questions like these?

Ralph Baer: Are you serious? This is too much like work! The trouble is that once I start getting sucked in to answering the first question, I can’t shut up. That must be obvious.

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