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Inventor Ralph Baer Was An American Success Story


Today, a remembrance for a father of video games. He passed away this past Saturday at the age of 92. NPR's Laura Sydell tells us about an inventor named Ralph Baer.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Baer was a great American success story. As a teenager he and his family fled Nazi Germany and came to the U.S., settling in the Bronx. Baer was drafted into the Army and after the war, he worked for a defense contractor, Sanders Associates. While he was there, he quietly began work on a side project creating interactive games for TVs, which were becoming pervasive in American households. Here's Baer in an interview with Vice TV explaining his thinking.


RALPH BAER: So I thought that if I can attach something to a TV set, anything, I would have a real business, you know? That was the motivation.

SYDELL: Baer developed what he called his Brown Box. It attached to a TV and had controllers that could move dots on a screen. Sanders patented the technology and licensed it to TV maker Magnavox.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is Odyssey, the new electronic game simulator. You attach Odyssey to your television set in seconds to create a closed-circuit electronic playground.

SYDELL: Odyssey included several electronic programs and it had a game that resembled electronic Ping-Pong. Carl Goodman, the director of the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens says there were other computer games before Baer's Brown Box.

CARL GOODMAN: But it was Ralph - who was unaware of that work being done in very different circles - who really focused on bringing it into the home.

SYDELL: Several months after Odyssey in 1972, Atari released the arcade video game "Pong." Armed with Baer's patent, Magnavox sued for infringement and won. Baer's invention was central to the growing video game industry. There were more lawsuits and Baer was the perfect witness. Goodman says he used to speak to young people at the museum and when asked for advice about ideas, he'd say, write it down.

GOODMAN: If it weren't for the fact that Ralph wrote absolutely everything down, including of course the papers and filed the patents, then he would not have the recognition that he has today.

SYDELL: Baer himself didn't actually see all the money from his work, since he was an employee when he created his Brown Box. The Museum of the Moving Image has a replica of the box on display. Throughout Baer's life he continued to invent games and toys. Among them, a talking door mat and a memory game called "Simon" which was released in the disco days at Studio 54 in New York City. He donated his home workshop to the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. It will be part of a long-term exhibition at the museum beginning in July.

Laura Sydell, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and NPR.org.
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