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The Replay Interviews: Ralph Baer
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The Replay Interviews: Ralph Baer

November 29, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[In the writing of his history of the video game industry, Replay, author Tristan Donovan conducted a series of important interviews which were only briefly excerpted in the text. Gamasutra is happy to here present the full text of his interview with the creator of the first game console, Ralph Baer, the first in a series.]

As founding fathers of the industry go, few cast as a long a shadow as Ralph Baer. He invented the first games console back in 1966 while working at the military technology firm Sanders Associates.

That console, the Brown Box, eventually got released in 1972 as the Magnavox Odyssey. It also boasted the first light gun accessory for a video game. The Ping-Pong game he created for the Odyssey became the inspiration for Atari's Pong. His electronic toy Simon also became a huge seller and popular culture icon.

In the first of a series of previously unpublished interviews conducted by Tristan Donovan in 2009 for his recent book Replay: The History of Video Games that will be published on Gamasutra in the coming weeks, Baer tells the story of how he created the world's first games console, the early days of the industry and how his colleagues thought he was "nuts".

In your book you mentioned that you had an idea for a TV game back when you were working for Loral in 1951. What was the idea?

Ralph Baer: I was building a television set from scratch at Loral in 1951 with another guy sitting in a screen room for an entire year. Building the whole thing from scratch. I think the only thing we bought was the front end -- the tuner. A 30-channel tuner. I think it was 30 channels then.

While building that television set, we used test equipment to check our progress and one of the pieces of equipment we used put straight lines, horizontal lines, vertical lines, crosshatch patterns and color bars on the screen. You could move them around to some extent and of course you used them to adjust the television set. When we applied that test equipment, moving stuff around the screen, moving the rectangles of the crosshatch pattern around -- it was kind of neat.

So the idea came to me: "Hey, maybe we ought to build something into a television set." I don't know that I thought about it as a game, but as something to fool with and to give you something to do with the television set other than watch stupid network programs. That was the germ of the idea. But it didn't come back until '66 when it came to me in a flash and it had absolutely nothing to do with what I was doing. There was me running a big division of 500 engineers, techs, and support people in a military electronics company.

Was it just a sort of a Eureka moment?

RB: I remember sitting on a stoop somewhere. I think on the granite steps going up to the bus station. Central Bus Station, downtown New York, waiting for my bus to come in. Then the idea came and I was scribbling on a notepad, which I tossed away the next morning after I did the five/four-page document that's in my book Videogames: In the Beginning and on the Smithsonian site.

So the idea came full-blown: "Hey, let's play games!" I was a bit conflicted when writing the proposal. The first paragraph of that document starts out a little conflicted. I am a chief engineer and division manager of a military electronics company. So how the hell do I write this stuff?

So the document starts out calling it by some terminology that sounds military. By the time I get half way through the paragraph, I've already basically said screw it. By the end I'm calling it Channel LP for "let's play".

And you did it as a secret project for a while?

RB: Well, yes. My division was on the fifth floor of the Sanders building. On the sixth floor, right opposite the elevator, there was an empty room that they'd not ever really used before. I commandeered that and I gave to the technician Bill Harrison the keys. I had a key and later that year or '67, Bill Rusch joined us.

But the total amount of work we put in that little room was only a matter of months, because Harrison would have to leave the job and go back to his primary job when there was a call for him. And Rusch only lasted for a few weeks and then we parted. He was constructive and creative, but he's a pain in the ass. He'd come in late and broke up for an hour before he'd get started. The lunch hour was always two hours, you know. No discipline. I hated that. But very creative, and very smart, and contributed a lot.

But, yes, it was just the three of us and nobody knew what the hell we were doing in that room. The only thing that gave away that something funny was going on was because Rusch brought a private project with him. He had been working on a gadget to take an electric guitar and divide the tone of each string by a factor of two. By an octave, so it would sound like a bass guitar. And I countenanced that nonsense.

So I let him bring this thing in with him and had my tech help him work on it off and on. And of course when you play the guitar, you know, it's going to be heard. So people were wondering "What the hell is Baer doing in this room?" Guitar music coming out of there.

We did that in, I think, either March or May of '67. By the time a couple of months had passed, we were already demonstrating moving a couple of spots around the screen chasing each other and one spot disappeared when you caught up with it and shooting at the screen. Good stuff.

So I decided "Jeez, I can't do this transitionally forever." I called the director of patents who was a good friend, Louis Etlinger, and Herb Campman, who was the director of independent research and development and had the money -- and demonstrated it. Herb really liked shooting the rifle, he liked shooting from the hip. He was pretty good at it. He gave me 2,000 bucks and 500 for labor and 500 bucks for materials, which wasn't very generous but made the job official. After that he fed me a few hundred bucks here, a few hundred bucks there.

Of course, sooner or later, I had to tell my boss, who was the executive vice-president at the time, about it. And at regular intervals he would ask me "You still screwing around with this stuff?" Of course, a few years later when the money started rolling in from licenses and from the results of successful lawsuits, nobody was asking anymore whether I was still fooling around with this stuff. Everybody was telling me how supportive they'd been.

The only supportive people I had were two directors. My boss came up with this idea that we better show this to Sandy -- Royden Sanders -- the president of Sanders Associates. It turned out that the day he wanted me to show it to them, the board of directors was in town. So instead of just demonstrating it to him and my boss, there were about six or seven other guys there, so I had a big audience.

So I thought "I better not screw this up" and recorded all my introductions to the seven games on an audio tape. So when they came, I introduced each game by playing this tape -- by pushing a play button on a tape recorder and out came instructions. "The first game is a blah, blah, blah. The second game is a chase game, etc." That worked well.

Well everybody was stone-faced during the demonstrations. Especially Royden Sanders. But there were two guys -- two directors -- who got pretty enthusiastic about this and said "that's great" and there were smiles. But they were the only two guys who were supportive. Everybody else thought I was nuts and wasting the company's time and their energy.

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