I never knew Ralph Baer, but his influence has left a remarkable impact on my life. He is most remembered as “The Father of Video Games,” an apt title to be sure, for his work on the Magnavox Odyssey – the world’s first home video game console. It may not seem like much today, but back in 1972 the Odyssey was a revolutionary piece of technology that even pre-dated arcades. Without the Odyssey laying the groundwork, we may not have ever seen the Atari 2600 or Nintendo Entertainment System – not as we know and remember them today, at least.
His 1966 prototype, the “Brown Box”, is on display at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History.
In 2006, three days after his wife of 54 years, Dena, had passed, President George W. Bush presented Baer with the National Medal of Technology & Innovation. His citation reads:
For his groundbreaking and pioneering creation, development and commercialization of interactive video games, which spawned related uses, applications, and mega-industries in both the entertainment and education realms.
Ralph Baer was also the recipient of numerous other awards, including the Game Developers Choice Pioneer Award in 2008.
His impact reached beyond video games, of course. He was one of the principle minds behind the ever-addicting electronic version of Simon Says, Simon. If you need a refresher, here’s a commercial for the game from the mid-1980s. I only share it because the narrator is Vincent Price, and we could all use more Vincent Price in our day.
I guess you could then say that he was the forefather of rhythm games, too.
Last year, as part of a project for PBS Digital Studios, filmmaker David Friedman interviewed Baer for a series called “Inventor Portrait.” You can watch the three-minute video below.
I had always wanted to meet Ralph Baer, if only to shake his hand. He did much more than build a video game box; he gave birth to a new form of entertainment. Without the Brown Box to show that games on a television could work, and without the Magnavox Odyssey to show that people wanted to play games on their televisions, the video game industry would simply not be what it is today. Thanks to Ralph Baer, though, a whole generation of artists and storytellers have been raised on games. Thanks to Ralph Baer, friendships have been forged over afternoons spent sitting in front of televisions with controllers in-hand. Thanks to Ralph Baer, social oddities like myself will never have to sift through TPS reports and wear a necktie to work.
So, I guess what I’m trying to say is “thank you”. For creating far more than I doubt you could have ever imagined back in 1966.
“Father of Video Games”