An Open Letter to the History Channel and the Toys That Built America

Hello History Channel, and welcome to the video game documentary space. It’s a genre that has had more misses than hits to be honest, but I always appreciate when someone else wants to give it a try. You got some decent on-screen talent, particularly the ever insightful Raiford Guins. You did not really try to accurately capture any of the people or places you were portraying, but you made fewer factual errors than some, while admittedly still leaving in more than your fair share of howlers.

But we are not here to talk about whether or not Nolan Bushnell saw Spacewar at the University of Utah (he most likely didn’t) or if he masqueraded as a Magnavox dealer to sneak into the Magnavox Profit Caravan (he was there with two other Nutting Associates people, but he definitely didn’t pretend he had a Magnavox connection). No, we are here to talk about something much worse: writing people out of history.

Now I get that this is a ~42 minute documentary covering a lot of really complicated developments in the first decade of commercial video game history. So no, I don’t expect you to salute all the men (and a few women!) that made this wonderful industry possible. However, there is not mentioning a person, and then there is passing that person’s contributions off as the innovations of another. This is a real problem.

Ralph Baer (yes, that is supposed to be him) immediately after sketching out “his” idea for Table Tennis on the Magnavox Odyssey

Roughly seven minutes into Season 2, Episode 2 of the Toys That Built America, engineer Ralph Baer has a problem. He has been desperately trying to come up with a game that will excite players of the video game system he has been developing. “We need something simpler” our fictional Baer proclaims before erasing an image on a blackboard and replacing it with two paddles and a ball. “Table Tennis!” he proudly announces to the unnamed extras in the room. Baer had found his killer app.

Now I know this is dramatization. I know you are not trying to tell us that Baer had a eureka moment just like that as he drew a concept on a blackboard. That’s not the problem. The problem is that Table Tennis on the Magnavox Odyssey was not Baer’s idea in any way, shape, or form.

Bill Harrison (l) and Bill Rusch, the unsung heroes, at least in The Toys That Built America, in the creation of the Magnavox Odyssey

I’ll let Ralph Baer himself pick up the story from here in his book, Videogames: In the Beginning:

Bill Rusch joined the project on August 18, 1967. He was an experienced engineer, an MIT-graduate normally assigned to Herb Campman’s R&D Group. Herb knew we were in trouble and hoped that Rusch could help us out.

Videogames: In the Beginning by Ralph Baer, p. 45

Rusch could be a handful to motivate and keep on task, but he was a brilliant engineer who possessed something Baer himself always admitted he lacked at that point in his life: creativity. He had previously brainstormed a few game ideas with Baer in an unofficial capacity, and it was not long before he proved his value to the project. Baer again:

Truthfully, we were also getting quite concerned about the limited scope of the Chase and Gun games in TV game unit #3. They were already beginning to get “old.” But now, with Rusch on-board for a couple of months, the concept of the third spot, touched on in the May Memo, was born. […] Bill Rusch came up with the idea of using that spot as a “ball” so that we could play some sort of ball game with it. We batted around ideas of how we could implement games such as Ping-Pong and other sports games.

Videogames: In the Beginning by Ralph Baer, p. 45

Now I know what you might be thinking. Yes, Rusch had the idea for the third spot, and yes Rusch had the idea for using it as a ball. But then the team brainstormed together! Baer could have still been the one to envision Table Tennis. Baer puts that idea to rest in his book, however, by including an image of a page from Rusch’s own engineering notebook dated 10/18/67 in which Rusch sketched out the entire Table Tennis game. Furthermore, when Sanders decided to patent the ideas and technology behind the Table Tennis game, that patent was not filed under Baer’s name like the patent for the console itself: it was filed under Rusch’s name. So History Channel and The Toys That Built America, it’s a shame that your writers failed to highlight Rusch’s critical contributions to the project, and indeed to all of video game history, while simultaneously giving credit to Baer for something he did not do. I guarantee that Baer himself, who was always quick to credit the contributions of his co-workers, would not have wanted it that way.

For more information on who all did what on the Magnavox Odyssey, I recommend Ethan Johnson’s recent deep dive into the topic, in which he examined Baer’s personal papers in greater depth, as well as my own two-part essay on the birth of the Odyssey written for this blog several years ago.

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