When we think about how gaming all started, we think of the Atari, but what if I told you that the invention of a video game console came along even before the Atari?
The Brown Box started it all.
The man that they call “The father of video games” is named Ralph Baer. He was born in Germany on March 8th, 1922. He is a man who is brave, tough, and genius as well, three of the most potent qualities and traits out there. He built the basis of what a video game is, and the first video game console, The Brown Box. For those who don’t know his life story, allow me to explain to you the events that made all of this come to be.
Baer was from a Jewish family, and because of this, he was expelled from school when he was 14 years old. The increasing control by the government of Nazi Germany caused many to live in fear, including the Baer family, which lead to them moving to New York U.S.A in 1938. After immigrating to America, Ralph Baer would eventually go to study electronics at the National Radio Institute.
Ralph Baer would go on to graduate in 1940 as a Radio Service Technician. Then, in 1943 Ralph Baer was drafted to join the allies in WWII. After the war, he took advantage of the G.I. Bill and went on to graduate from the University of Chicago in Television Engineering.
Ralph works at a small firm after graduating from college. This company is called Wappler Incorporated. He has a massive mindset of believing that there is a way to make TV’s more interactive at this time, looking to invent and improve the methods that Televisions can be used. At this time, however, the idea was considered insanity, and could not be done. Nobody would listen and disregarded it altogether.
After various jobs, Ralph starts working for Sanders Associates in 1956, staying with the company until 1987, which was the year he retired.
In 1966 Ralph Baer continued to contemplate the idea of an interactive television, and he had some epiphanies and wrote them down in a notebook. He realized that if a radio frequency could display moving photos to create a movie, then it could generate symbols that would eventually be transformed into video games.
The invention period of the Brown Box:
Knowing about how most would see Ralph Baer’s ideas as unrealistic possibilities, he did not go to any of his superiors at Wappler about his video game vision, and instead put his plans to use and developed a game console in secret. With the use of an alignment generator, a radio frequency oscillator(a type of audio synthesizer) and a sync generator, he gives a signal to the TV, that the TV can understand.
Once the signal enters the TV, a spot appears on the screen. It can be manipulated to move and change shape.
Once Ralph accomplished this, it was proof to him that the concept of playing video games could come to fruition. Building upon this research, Ralph Baer would build the first ever Brown Box. It came with loads of problems, however.
The first Brown Box was not user-friendly. This was because Ralph used glass vacuum tubes to conduct and regulate the flow of electricity. These vacuum tubes hoarded all the space, and they would quickly diffuse, so repair costs to the as-is product would be enormous. The Brown Box also was too heavy, and too big.
Struggling to overcome this issue, Ralph got help from Bill Harrison. Bill was an expert at transmitting signals, and he helped with making the Brown Box more durable with the way to handle spreading the electrical current. They used tiny silicone conductors to perform the original intentions of the glass vacuum tubes. This allowed the Brown Box to be more user-friendly, and smaller.
Each game had a plastic overlay to make games more realistic. In June 1967, Ralph and Bill unveiled the secret first ever gaming console to their bosses. They had fun, but the CEO of Sanders Associates wanted to know how this system would make money.
Evolution into the Magnavox Odyssey:
The Brown Box would eventually evolve into the Magnavox Odyssey, the very first ever home video game console. It was released in September 1972. The all-time sales of this console are 350,000, so owning one of these today would be incredibly rare. It is probably one of the most profound video game artifacts around.
In 1978, the Magnavox Odyssey 2 came out and was one of the first consoles to feature a ping pong type of game. This inspired the pong game that came out for Atari.
The Legacy of Ralph Baer:
Looking at the life of Ralph Baer makes me think about how incredible thinking outside of the box can be. I can only respect and admire Ralph’s ability to stick to his guts and believe in himself, despite all of these people who couldn’t fathom his way of thinking. To think that one idea of inventing a way to have fun has shaped so much of how we all live our lives today.
He didn’t just invent a simple video game console or the first ever gaming console; he invented the idea of interacting with screens. Interaction with displays is what every phone out there is about these days; it is the entire purpose of devices like Ipad’s. Keyboards are interactive with computer screens, the thought of an interactive display coming to fruition in the late 1980s has a very profound effect on how all of us live our lives today, and it is an incredible thought that I still feel amazed to try to wrap my head around.