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Happy 40th birthday, video games Exclusive

Happy 40th birthday, video games
August 28, 2012 | By Frank Cifaldi

Home video games are officially 40 years old.

More specifically, the first sale of a home video game system in the world happened somewhere at or around this day, August 28, 1972, though pinning down an exact date is more than likely impossible.

The first home video game system, the Odyssey, was sold by television manufacturer Magnavox, based on patented technology developed in secrecy at a military defense contractor (yes, really). That technology was the brainchild of German-born American Ralph Baer, an engineer and inventor who holds what is probably the first degree in Television Engineering, issued to him by the American Television Institute of Technology in 1949.

"When technology is ready for something novel, when the components needed to build something new become affordable, it is going to get done by someone- and more than likely, by several people," Baer wrote in his book, Videogames: In the Beginning.

On September 1, 1966, Baer "took a mental inventory of all those hundreds of millions of TV sets across the globe that did nothing but play whatever one-way fare the local stations delivered.

"I had an inspiration -- a Eureka! -- and Home TV Games were born...a bit early, technically, because low-cost microprocessors weren't available yet and digital I.C.s were still too expensive, so the games had to be relatively primitive."

And indeed, the Odyssey -- based on Baer's prototype "brown box" console (now living in The Smithsonian), but with some flourishes added by Magnavox -- is as primitive as can be. Using overlays that stuck onto a user's television set, players would move simple white objects around on a screen and play simulations of roulette, a simple skiing game, and even a quasi-educational game involving U.S. geography.

But the real meat of the Odyssey was in its multiple variations of a simple tennis-style game, one which would be lifted and cloned and tweaked and iterated over and over in the earliest days of the video game industry, most notably by Atari's Pong.

My favorite artifact from the Odyssey is this segment from the game show What's My Line, where 70s quasi-celebrities Soupy Sales, Melba Tolliver, Jim Backus and Arlene Francis are just completely baffled when trying to figure out just what it is that Magnavox product manager Bob Fritsche is doing with that television.

This is, perhaps, the only recorded video in existence of adults being introduced to the concept of playing a game on a television. It was such weird concept that they can barely wrap their heads around it, and once they do, they're instantly in love with the idea.

Why today?

So why are we celebrating this birthday today? Well, we simply don't know when the first Odyssey was sold. Through some digging (and with help from my fellow members at the IGDA Game Preservation SIG), we know that Odysseys shipped out to 19 Magnavox dealers across the United States beginning in August, 1979. As far as we know there was not a hard "release date" as we think of it now.

That said, we do have newspaper clippings advertising the Odyssey's sale, most predominantly starting on August 30. Here's the earliest one I've managed to track down:

This was tucked away between a wedding announcement and plans for an upcoming "cactus show" in the August 28, 1972 edition of the Edwardsville Intelligencer, a small paper serving the local community of Edwardsville, IL. Until we find an earlier mention of the Odyssey being for sale -- or, miraculously, someone comes up with a receipt -- this is probably the closest we're going to get to a "release date" for the world's first home video game system.

Happy birthday, video games.

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