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The Right to Baer Games - An Interview with Ralph Baer, the Father of Video Games
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The Right to Baer Games - An Interview with Ralph Baer, the Father of Video Games

March 23, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 6 Next

GS: While we're on this subject of records: obviously you've benefited from the patent system pretty well -- at least vicariously, anyway, through Sanders, who mostly benefited from your inventions. These days, there's a lot of criticism about the U.S. Patent system. Do you think it still works, or does it need fixing?

RB: I don't think it ever worked.

GS: You don't think it ever worked?

RB: No, because you look at the patents, and three out of four are garbage. Especially since it's so easy to do patent searches on the web; it's very easy. You look at that stuff: one piece of crap after another. How the hell did that ever get in there and clog up the system to where stuff that should have really been handled in an expeditious manner didn't make it through the damn office for three years or even longer? That's problem number one.

Number two...the kind of response you get from the examiners is very much a function of who the examiner is. I was very much aware of that fact [due to] going into the patent department very often -- Crystal City -- with one of our corporate patent lawyers to negotiate claims in the patent that we were responsible for. Some of the examiners were barely out of law school; it was their first job. They had no practical experience. And some of them had been engineers before, others had not.

It was a totally variable cast of characters. Like the guy who handled our first video game patent application. He was very nice, but we worked him by having the patent lawyer sit across the desk from him, discussing the various objections he had to the various claims, while I'm setting up a little white 10" black-and-white GE television set, and early Ping-Pong game.

I hooked it all up, and the examiner doesn't want to look at it, no-how. Because they don't, on principle, want to look at stuff. Within half an hour, he's playing games. He has half the corridor come in. People up and down the corridor come in and play games.

GS: Yeah, nothing works quite like showing people exactly what you're talking about. You can never really tell them, exactly. You have to show them.

RB: Exactly, and you rarely get a chance to do that. You know, it was a lot of fun. [Laughs] " I want to see it too. Hey, come on in, take a look at this!"

GS: "Come check this out!" Yeah, I'm sure they'd never seen anything like it, obviously.

RB: No, we had the Ping-Pong game going...

We didn't know it, you know, but by the time we had the fourth? No, fifth model Ping-Pong in late '67 and we demonstrated it to TelePrompter in January of '68 and on February 1st, the VP came up, and then the big chief cheese, the president, came up from New York. Both [came up] in blinding snowstorms in January-February '68, and we demonstrated Ping-Pong.

Did we know that that was all we really had to do? No, we went on through three more models with all kinds of additional stuff, including, of course, shooting at the screen with a light gun. And we could have stopped a year before and would have had all that we needed to have. But hindsight is 20-20. We didn't know. Who knew that Ping-Pong was all that was needed?

GS: Yeah, the Odyssey system came with a lot of overlays and all these little trinkets...

RB: Yeah, they had no clue that all that they needed was the Ping-Pong game. Or, in my opinion, the Handball game, which is a really a nice game. It plays well. You have a wall on one side and you take turns batting the ball and trying to bat the ball in such a way that the other guy has a hard time returning it. It's a really nice game. That was in there, and Volleyball was in there too; that was too hard to play. But Handball and Ping-Pong would have been enough.

The original Magnavox Odyssey (photo:

GS: Do you think that the fact that you worked for a defense contractor influenced your idea for making a light gun for your games?

RB: No. Once I saw a know, I'm the kinda guy who gets spontaneous ideas every five minutes. So it's just in my genes. Ain't nothing I have to work for. Sure as hell is a valuable asset. It's just me.

GS: I read that you got a Marksman's Medal in the Army...

RB: Yeah, well we all had to fire for record, you know. I started out in Combat Engineers, because I was five-foot six-and-a-half then, and all the other guys are six-footers. They're all Tennesseans, and Georgians, and Alabamans. And here I am...little Jewish boy. But I managed to hit the target just as often as they did with an M1, so I got a Marksman's Medal.

I was once up on the range after having had all four molars pulled -- you know, the cornerstones in your mouth -- with one dentist in the Army. One dentist holding a chisel, the other one hitting it with a hammer. And after I lay down on my bunk, the platoon lieutenant comes in and says, "Hey, we're firing for record, get up! Get off your ass." And he drove me up to the firing range in his Jeep, and I was standing out there with my jaws swollen and firing, alternately hitting bulls-eyes and missing the target. And then he forgot about me and I had to march back to camp. That was the Army.

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