Before Nintendo 64, before Playstation, before Wii or Dreamcast or Xbox... there was the Magnavox Odyssey.
There’s a TV show from the 1970's called “What’s My Line?” It has kind of a quiz show feel, where some ordinary Joe would come on the show and celebrity panelists would try to guess what that person did for a living.
In one episode, the evening’s guest is Bob Fritsche, a product manager at the electronics company Magnavox. He and host Larry Blyden play a virtual game of tennis on a television, but the screen is hidden from the panelists as they try to guess what’s going on.
“You’re doing something… sassy,” panelist Arlene Francis ventures.
“Sassy?” Blyden says.
"Are you reproducing something on that television screen?” she asks.
“Reproducing, in what sense?”
“Is there a picture of some kind on the screen?”
“Of some kind, yes.”
Although the panelists can’t see the screen, the audience does get glimpses of the game. The graphics are pretty spare, almost as simple as calculator pixels: two paddles, each represented by a square, with another smaller square for the ball.
As the game wears on, panelist Arlene Francis notices that Blyden seems distracted – he's struggling to carry on the conversation – and she calls him on it.
“You’re so busy doing what you’re doing, you don’t even know what’s happening!” she says.
“That’s true,” Blyden concedes. His expression is familiar to a modern eye: it is the expression of a gamer at play, totally focused yet distant.
The panelists don’t get very far, but to be fair, it is kind of unreasonable to ask people to guess a completely new invention.
Finally, when one of the panelists wonders aloud if the activity is an “offense to nature,” the host calls it and reveals, to applause, that they are playing "tennis" on the newly invented Magnavox Odyssey.
“This idea of playing a game on TV was something that was completely foreign to people, who only associated TVs with watching,” said Jon Paul Dyson, or JP. He’s director of the International Center of the History of Electronic Games at the Strong Museum of Play.
“So the Magnavox Odyssey was really crucial into bringing video games into the home and really turning Americans into game players.”
The Magnavox Odyssey was the first home video game system.
It was developed by Ralph Baer, an engineer at Sanders, a defense contractor in New Hampshire.
Ralph Baer spent most of his adult life in Manchester, but he was born in Germany to a Jewish family in 1922. They fled the Nazis in 1938.
“Two months before Kristallnacht, the family got out,” says Mark Baer, Ralph’s son. “Two months later, no getting out. Wouldn’t’ve been here.”
In 1938, they came to New York. During World War II, Ralph was drafted and served in the US army in military intelligence. After that he went to school for television engineering, worked in electronics industry, and eventually got a job at Sanders and moved to New Hampshire in 1956.
Ralph had the idea for what would become the Magnavox Odyssey while he was on a business trip in New York, waiting for the bus. True to his engineering training, he made sure to document the idea in his notes.
“He was, in many ways, the quintessential German engineer. He wrote everything down. He often said if you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen,” said Mark.
So, Ralph Baer developed a prototype at Sanders called “The Brown Box”, now in the collections at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The Odyssey was released in 1972, as a “TV game” (the term “video game” wasn’t being used yet).
The ads for Magnavox Odyssey from 1972, the year it was released, emphasize the fundamental shift in consumers’ relationship with the television: from passive viewing to active participation.
“Families who are content to let television do its thing often find themselves at its mercy for entertainment,” the ad's narrator explains. “…while people who want television to do their thing entertain themselves with Odyssey.”
The ad makes a point to bill the console as something for the whole family, calling it “the electronic game of the future, and the family’s best foul-weather friend.”
The Magnavox Odyssey came with twelve different program cards: you could play sports like tennis and hockey, kid’s games like Simon Says and Haunted House, plus roulette and a game of strategy called Analogic.
Again, the graphics weren’t advanced, so the Odyssey actually came with a big box of accessories, including transparent overlays to place on the screen for each game. For example, the tennis game required a transparent overlay of a court and net to bring the game to life.
But of course, the real innovation wasn’t the gameplay or the graphics: it was the fact that you could connect the console to your home television and play games in the living room.
“Video games have had a transformative effect on the way we play, the way we learn, the way that we interact with the digital world," said Jon-Paul Dyson of the Museum of Play.
"And video games are often the way that, kids especially become digital natives. It’s how they become comfortable with this idea of interacting with this virtual world that’s happening on the screen."
“The Odyssey was key in really launching this home video game revolution. It’s one thing to go play a game in an arcade, maybe. But to play it in your home – that’s a much more intimate way of experiencing it, and it’s a way that really makes you much more comfortable I think with the idea that oh, I can interact in this world."
Magnavox wasn’t a giant commercial success but it did okay: the first generation sold for $99 a game, equivalent about $600 in 2018. It sold about 350,000 units.
After Magnavox Odyssey came the industry.
“In many ways we’re trending to point where everyone will be a gamer of some kind because devices to play games have become ubiquitous in our lives,” said Jon-Paul Dyson.
“You have a cell phone in your pocket, for instance. There’s a good chance there’s a game on there. Now, it may be a pretty involved game like Minecraft or it could be just a quick game like Candy Crush, [which] you might play as a casual game.”
“So as screens have become omnipresent in our lives, and as generation after generation have grown up playing games, we’re getting to the point where we won't differentiate between gamers and non-gamers, just as we don’t differentiate between, say, movie-watchers and non-movie watchers.”
“Some people are hardcore movie watchers and watch a lot, some people only catch a film every once in a while. But pretty much everyone watches movie at some point.”
As for Ralph Baer, The Odyssey wasn’t his only invention. He also came up with the pattern game Simon and created military applications of video games.
He has been called the “father of video games,” and in 2006 he was honored by President George W. Bush with a National Medal of Technology.
His son Mark says he never stopped inventing.
“He’d come home, he’d have dinner with us, he’d go down to the basement and work in his lab,” he said. “His vocation, avocation, habit, hobby, fun, gotta do it… it was all about his work. About inventing.”
Ralph Baer died in 2014, at the age of 92, at his home in Manchester. This year the Manchester Historical Society is actually involved in a project to honor him.
“They’ve decided to put a commemorative bench down in the Millyard District just off the river in honor of dad. In honor of Ralph."
The project was successfully crowdfunded on Kickstarter, and plans are underway to install the bench and a statue of Ralph later this year.
“The idea is to transition the past of New Hampshire’s technical prowess and accomplishment – and it’s kind of embodied in Ralph’s life – transition that into what’s going on now and what’s going to go on in the future,” said Mark Baer.
It’s a nod to the spirit of tech and innovation, past and future.