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Popzara Interviews: The Father of Videogames Ralph H. Baer
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Popzara Interviews: The Father of Videogames Ralph H. Baer

John chats with a true pioneer in the engineering field and inventor of the home videogame console, Ralph H. Baer.

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It’s not often you get a chance to chat with a living-legend. An engineering polymath of the highest order, inventor Ralph H. Baer is often called “The Father of Videogames” for his pioneering work in helping invent the original videogame console, the Magnavox Odyssey, the first videogame accessory (a light gun), and even the popular electronic memory game, Simon.  He’s received the highest honors in his field of expertise by just about everyone, and has even been honored with the National Medal of Technology by President George W. Bush in 2006.  But that’s not all, as 2010 saw Baer add the latest accolade to his veritable laundry list of achievements when he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in April.

In recent years, Baer has also been a surprising guest in acclaimed videogame composer Tommy Tallarico’s orchestrated musical performance tour, Video Games Live, which has helped introduce him to a whole new generation of fans who were born long after the glory days of the original Odyssey, Atari, and other platforms that measured their processing powers in the single-digits.  From the early days of the original “Brown Box” to clarifying his position on family-friendly entertainments, Baer was kind enough to take us on a firsthand retelling of the industry’s earliest days to keeping busy as he enters his ninth decade.

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present one of the greats for your entertainment and education, Ralph H. Baer!

You’ve been a featured guest on Tommy Tallarico’s Video Games Live tour recently earning more respect with each appearance. From being honored by the President to being inducted in the National Inventors Hall of Fame, how does it feel to be recognized and loved by the public at large – and not just the gaming community – for your accomplishments by the younger generation?

It is gratifying to be recognized, of course, but I am always mindful of the fact that we all stand on the shoulders of others who are often crucial to one’s success so I don’t let all that acclamation go to my head. I have many techie friends who did at least at much original product design as I have done but who will never make it into Wikipedia. If it weren’t for videogames and Simon, that would have happened to me, too.

By the way, I noticed a proud New Hampshire license plate on your website. I’m digging the 1972 RBAER personalization. Were you able to witness to ‘The King of Kong’ documentary, which featured industry score-keeper Twin Galaxies, when it was filming in your area?

The license plate was given to me by a photographer by the name of Bob Baer whose wife drove the car around Nashua and who was consistently taken for my wife. So Bob gave me his plate when he needed a new one. Re. King Kong… never saw it except in excerpts on TV. You see: Things aren’t always what they seem….

We often take for granted much of the technology that fuels our existence, from the smart phones in our pockets, the music gadgets attached to our ears, to the techie navigators in our cars; the electronic hearths in all our lives. But it wasn’t always this way – especially when you were just starting out in the dawn of the electronic age of the 1940s and 50s.

Then and now, how did you view the role of technology to entertainment? How did you view the role of technology to peoples’ everyday lifestyles?

I have been around long enough to have been offered a job by Dr. Lee DeForest – the guy who put the control electrode into the vacuum tube in 1906 and started the radio industry. So I have seen and been part of the whole development history, from vacuum tubes to discrete transistor circuits to IC’s (both digital and analog) and on to micro-processors.

That fantastic ride was and is squarely built on the success of stuffing more and more transistors into a give slice of silicon. It has been an incredible ride and a totally unforeseeable one.

At the beginning of the 1970s when your Brown Box began this entertainment Odyssey, the videogame field was still a land to be conquered. Formless. It could go anywhere imagination wanted it to. Visionary people let their ingenuity lead them to new unforeseen adventures. As you saw Twin Galaxies emerge as this landmark of videogaming culture, did you ever think the industry you helped pioneer would ever reach the heights it has in modern times?

Of course not…no one can read the crystal ball and get real answers. If you had painted a picture in the sixties (when I first did the videogame development work) of being able to stuff several million transistors on a speck of silicon about a quarter inch square, I would have told you to buzz off and go dream somewhere else.

I’m curious – is there anyone in the field of electronics or gaming that you admire or even look towards as a trailblazer?

Yes, quite a few. I have tracked Armstrong’s work on regenerative receivers, superheterodyne receivers and finally FM systems since their inception and read whatever there is on the record on Armstrong; same with Philo T. Farnsworth  of early TV systems fame and all of the early radio pioneers like  Steinmetz Tesla.  If I don’t mention videogame personalities (except perhaps for Alan Alcorn who did a great job designing the Pong arcade game to help get that industry get started) it’s because I haven’t really been part of the industry’s activities since the nineties.

Listening to some of today’s loudest observers on the videogame medium, you see them push for more “adult”, more “mature” themes – usually meaning gritty, naturalistic war simulators. But the first videogame console was centered on the household; a gaming computer that attached to the TV set in the living room naturally focused on the whole family.  Am I wrong in assuming this was a central focus to your design of the original videogame console?  Did this ideal play out in any of your other inventions?

I have never, ever, pushed for adult, aggressive, mature games…what we did in 1967 and 1968 and in the Odyssey was to give families something new to do together. Every game we offered (ping-pong, handball, volleyball, target shooting with a light-gun etc. was aimed at family fun and invariable two player games. The fact that I ran a division of some 500 engineers, techs and support people at Sander Associates and was involved there in defense electronic and space electronics has caused some of the careless chroniclers out there to assert that my videogame work was supported by the Military and that I had a crew of hundreds working on the concept and development.

That is all total nonsense. I am a TV engineer by degree, have designed and built TV sets and TV studio equipment long before I ever got into military electronics. My technician, Bill Harrison built all of the seven progressively more capable game system ( the Brown Box being No.7) while working on the project part-time in 1967 and 1968..and we had the help of Bill Rusch, an ex-MIT engineer, for a few weeks in 1967…that was it…the work had nothing t do with Sanders business and I only got away with doing it because I was pretty far up the food chain in the company and my boss, the executive VP of the company, tolerated a lot of stuff I did because it usually had good outcomes.

It’s a truism that vision often runs into the brick walls of skepticism, and that’s certainly true when it comes to breaking boundaries and going where few have gone before. What do you feel are the best conditions for an inventive child to grow up in today’s environment?

Work hard and smart and get to a point where you either have the recognition in the company you work for that allows you to push things you want to do or find the money, make the leap and do it yourself. …and if marketing and running a business isn’t your cup of tea, then get a partner who is good at it.

On that same note, how you would advise such children (and their parents) to deal with the potential discouragement from peers and family members who may not share their vision to create the Odysseys of tomorrow?  Any words of encouragement for future Ralph Baers out there?

I can only speak for – or give advice -to – kids that have a technical bent and have technology in their DNA.. hopefully they are helped along their developmental path by being part of a robot-building  FIRST team or some other technical activity early in their life, like writing code and dreaming of becoming a videogame designer. We do an inadequate job getting kids interested in technology in our school systems but fortunately there are other organizational opportunities out there for kids….and knowing how kids can navigate the web these days, we can be sure that the really serious future techies will find their way to them.

On a closing note, I’d like to ask less about Ralph Baer the pioneer and more about Ralph Baer the person. What’s an average day for you like?  Are there other interests or hobbies that your fans and admirers might find surprising?

I have always been a workaholic and electronic product inventing, design and licensing has been as much of an avocation as anything else. I’m pushing 89 and I still go down to my lab almost daily and crank out circuit designs, write control code for micros and physically build demo models….just as I have been for the past 30 years…I’m just a tad slower now than when I was younger and able to keeps a dozen balls up in the air at the same time. My wife passed away in 2006, so I’m rattling around my home of 50+ years all alone…so what else do you expect me to do…play golf? I’m attaching a photo of me in the lab….that pretty much tells the tale.

About the Author: John Lucas