Magnavox Odyssey

Worldly Wednesdays: The Father of Video Games

This post is part of an ongoing series annotating my book They Create Worlds: The Story of the People and Companies That Shaped the Video Game Industry, Vol. I. It covers material found in the prologue on pages xviii-xx. It is not necessary to have read the book to comprehend and appreciate the post.

Choosing where exactly to start They Create Worlds was a challenge. My goal was to document most of the early experiments using a television and/or a digital computer to play a game, but starting at the chronological beginning of these efforts does not make for a compelling opening. Its great that in the late 1940s Alan Turing and Donald Michie wrote chess programs that were never implemented or that Thomas Goldsmith and Estle Ray Mann liked to pretend in the lab that a cathode ray beam might be the arc of a missile, but there is no throughline from either of these experiments to the $150 billion industry that exists today. These primordial works are examined in the book, of course, but they did not feel appropriate as a hook to draw the reader in. Clearly then, the book should not start at the beginning, but it still needed to focus on a beginning.

So I opened on a bus station in New York City on August 31, 1966, when Ralph Baer thought to himself it might be neat to control objects displayed on a television set rather than passively consuming network programming. Its nice to have a firm date like that to commence the narrative, though its not nearly so firm as one might think. Ralph Baer was a careful record keeper as befit the meticulous, detail-oriented personality that shines through in his various interviews and in his autobiographical examination of his work in the video game business. For this reason, we do know that he transformed his crazy bus station idea into a formal memo on September 1, 1966. In interviews, Baer usually stated he did so back at his office the day after his brainstorm, but the timeframe may not line up. After all, he was down from his native Nashua, New Hampshire, to meet a business client, and Google tells me that’s a good four hour trip in the modern day by car. A 1966 bus was probably taking it even slower than that. Did he really have a meeting with a client in New York City that afternoon and then immediately scurry back up to Nashua? Its not impossible, but maybe a tad improbable. Nevertheless, that’s his story, so we are sticking to it.

Whether this brainstorm happened on August 30 or August 31 though is really a minor matter of little consequence. A more important statement to analyze is the claim I make at the end of this little vignette: “But Baer was the first person to suggest creating an interactive entertainment experience by conveying game data to a display through use of a video signal, so even though he never used the term in any of his subsequent documentation or patents, he is nevertheless the progenitor of what we now call the video game.”

So there it is right? Extra, extra read all about it! Alexander Smith says Ralph Baer invented the video game! Baer himself would have certainly been pleased to see those words in print had he lived long enough to see this book published, as he always claimed the mantle “Father of Video Games” and defended that title against all comers. Repeatedly. And in detail. I don’t begrudge him any of that: the man was absolutely a key cog in the transformation of video games from backroom lab experiments to mass market entertainment, and he lived in the shadow of Nolan Bushnell much longer than he deserved. But did he really, truly invent the video game or have a valid claim to its paternity? Well, despite my glib pronouncement in the prologue of the book, the answer is a little more complicated.

Ralph Baer (L) and Bill Harrison demonstrate their video game prototype. Are they the proud parents of the video game?

Before ruling on Baer’s case, we must decide what the heck constitutes a video game anyway. Ralph Baer would tell us there is a simple technical definition we can go by: if you are playing a game on a screen and that game data was conveyed to said screen by a video signal, then you have a video game; otherwise you don’t.

So then what is a video signal? A video signal is a modulated electromagnetic wave that conveys image data, with the frequency of the wave determining the chrominance, or color, of the image and the amplitude defining the luma, or brightness. This signal provides instructions to the cathode ray tube (CRT) of a television, which focuses a stream of electrons on a single point on a phosphor-coated screen, causing a sustained glow at that point. A magnetic field generated by coils within the CRT allows this beam of electrons to sweep back and forth across the entire screen, one horizontal line at a time, to create a complete picture from this collection of individual dots according to the parameters of the incoming signal. This is the process Baer is describing when he tells us a video game must, by definition, use a video signal.

Right away, Baer’s definition presents a problem by excluding a set of early products that were widely defined by the public and within the industry as video games in their own time: coin-operated vector games like Atari’s Asteroids (1979). The graphics in these games are drawn by a vector generator that takes direct control of the CRT and instructs it to aim at a specific point on the screen and then move on a specific vector until a command is given to deflect the beam in a different direction. The CRT is still receiving and responding to a signal, but it’s not a video signal. There is no doubt, however, that even the most conservative modern definition of a video game would include Asteroids, so Baer’s simple straightforward technical definition must already be set aside.

According to Baer, this is not a video game.

But once we open up the definition, where do we stop? Well, we have to include the vector games clearly, so it logically follows that any time a player interacts with images drawn by a CRT, it counts as a video game. But why stop at a CRT? Modern video games played on a high-definition television or monitor hooked up to a PlayStation 5 or an IBM PC Compatible certainly must count too. While Baer hews to an old-school definition of a video signal that presumes an analog system, digital displays are also driven by a video signal, albeit in a slightly different way. The prime difference between the two is that a digital signal consists of a series of ones and zeroes that provide instructions to draw a complete bitmapped image all at once rather than the analog method in which the image is drawn one scanline at a time. These digital images are pulsed to the television at a specific, constant frequency that determines how many times a second the display will be updated with a new image, the so-called “frame rate” as measured in frames per second (FPS) that is the obsession of high-end graphics connoisseurs. Its still video, so it counts.

So now we know we have a video game whenever someone interacts with objects on a screen, right? Well, not exactly. One problem with merely focusing on the screen is that in the coin-op world, games with “screens” of one form or another existed as early as the 1920s through the use of film projectors. What do we do with driving simulators like Auto Test (1954), shooting games like Nintendo’s Wild Gunman (1974), or even the Nutting Associates Computer Quiz (1967), all of which use a film projector to display images with which the player interacts?

Is Computer Quiz a video game? It has a screen.

Furthermore, what do we do with old computer games that outputted data to a teletype or some other display that does not incorporate a screen? Baer would tell us these are “computer games” rather than “video games” and that these are overlapping, but not identical, categories. Practically speaking, this feels like a meaningless distinction. After all, if one plays Adventure (1977) on a teletype instead of a CRT terminal, is this truly a different experience considering the computer executes the same code and the game proceeds in an identical manner either way?

Fellow video game historian Ethan Johnson and I pondered this topic at length, and he came up with a critical discriminating element. He did a whole blog post about this, but the relevant portion is as follows:

“[R]ather than needing a certain sort of signal, a display for a video game must be arbitrary. This means the display as a whole has to have a direct relation to the program underlying it and is able to achieve a number of different states rather than just “on” or “off”. In the early tic-tac-toe games for instance, while an individual state of a square only has a boolean value, the board as a whole has hundreds of different possible outcomes which are ultimately not pre-determined. The individual state of a screen in Computer Quiz only has two possible variables: Light on or light off, and therefore can not be said to be using a display in the same way as video games.”

Well that does for Computer Quiz at least, but it does not necessarily answer the question for a more complex game like Wild Gunman, and it only gets us a little closer to solving the conundrum of games on early computer systems that lacked a CRT. Furthermore, by opening up our definition to include all computer games with an arbitrary display, we are forced to address how to treat analog computing devices like the Nimatron displayed in 1940 at the World’s Fair, or Claude Shannon’s chess-playing Caissac machine from 1949. These are unquestionably both computers that play games, but does that really make them video games too? Do we now extend the history of video games all the way back to 1912 and the Spanish El Ajedrecista chess-playing automaton? Clearly, we need to establish some other limiting criteria.

El Ajedrecista, the analog computer that could figure out how to mate a lone king with a king and a rook. Is this the beginning of video games?

The easiest way to distinguish these edge cases from video games is to distinguish between the internal components that generate the game elements. A game like Wild Gunman uses electro-mechanical components, that is wipers, switches, and contacts facilitate the completion of electrical circuits to create playfield action by powering relays, steppers, and other mechanical parts. All video games by the Baer definition, including his own Magnavox Odyssey and Atari’s Pong (1972), use electronic components instead, with streams of electrons directed through a series of logic gates determining what happens over the course of the game. This allows us to distinguish not only electro-mechanical coin-operated games with screens from video games, but also allows us to remove early electro-mechanical analog computing devices from the equation.

Now that we have defined two critical technological elements, we need to add a couple of conceptual components to complete our working definition of the term video game. First, we need to define the user’s place in this interplay between logic circuits and a display. The easiest way to do this is focus on the commonly accepted definition of “playing a game,” which requires active participants rather than passive viewers. For video games, this means the game needs to unfold through direct user interaction via a control scheme allowing the players to directly manipulate objects on the display. There is really no need to elaborate on this element any further: so long as this interaction is happening, the how of it is unimportant.

Finally, we need to define exactly what interactions between a user, some electronic logic, and a display constitute playing a game. If we don’t, then a word processor or a DVD menu is just as much a video game as Pong. The best we can do here is define a video game, which is generally understood to be a leisure activity, as a product intended to provide entertainment. This is the most subjective part of our definition because different people find different things entertaining and even a DVD menu could be turned into a game by a particularly bored individual. The best we can do is point to the intrinsic purpose of the product as determined by authorial intent. If the program was produced or marketed with the primary goal of entertaining a person, then its a game. If the entertainment value is secondary to serving some other function, then it’s not. This is not a perfect test. For example, a product primarily designed to educate might also be deliberately crafted to entertain to hold the user’s interest. More work needs to be done on this element of the definition to clarify gray areas, but I will leave that for others to work out.

Now we have a serviceable, though still imperfect, definition of a video game that eliminates many, though not all, of the edge cases: A video game is an entertainment product played on a device containing electronic logic circuits in which the players interact with objects rendered on an arbitrary display.

Sorry Nimatron, you are not a video game.

So now that we have identified the child, who is the father? There are a few ways to look at this. One is to employ our newly articulated definition and look for the first product that meets all these criteria. That might lead us to 1947 and the prototype cathode-ray tube amusement device (CRTAD) patented by Estle Ray Mann and Thomas Goldsmith. I personally feel CRTAD does not really hold together under our definition of a video game, but that is a discussion for another time and another annotation. Regardless, I feel comfortable ruling that these two engineers are not the fathers because they probably never built a finished product, certainly never displayed the system publicly, and did not influence any of the projects that came afterwards. By the same logic, we can also dismiss the dueling chess AIs created by Michie and Turing in 1948, which were complete computer programs on paper, but were never implemented on an actual computer.

So if the first conceived games do not make the cut, what about the first fully operational and publicly displayed product? That would lead us to Bertie the Brain, a custom tic-tac-toe computer built by Josef Kates and demoed in 1950. There is no doubt that this is the earliest known publicly played device that meets all our criteria for a video game, but is being first really all its cracked up to be? Bertie was displayed at a single Canadian trade show and received virtually no press. It may have been played by a decent number of people — the show draws over one million attendees every year — but it did not stick in the collective memory and was only rediscovered by scholars in the 2010s. Furthermore, it was solely intended to demonstrate the workings of a new type of vacuum tube and was not marketed as a new form of entertainment. Once again, I think our father — an appropriate term only because all our early pioneers in this field were men — needs to do more than bring a simulation into the world; he needs to understand he is creating something that could change the face of entertainment. Clearly, Kates wanted the attendees to be entertained while using his computer, but that is not quite the same thing.

Sorry Messieurs Goldsmith, Turing, Michie, and Kates. You are not the father.

So how about that master of physics and entertainment, “Wonderful Willie” Higinbotham? There is a solid case to be made that his tennis game, retroactively dubbed Tennis for Two (1958) by historians, marked the first time a video game was created solely to entertain the public. Therefore, he is our first real contender for the title “father of video games.” Once again though, I believe we need to exclude him because he did not start a wider movement. Our father is no good to us if his child failed to have children of its own.

So what about the first entertainment program that could be acquired by the general public? Right now, the earliest known game to fit that definition is a baseball simulation created by IBM employee John Burgeson in 1960-61 and briefly requestable as part of the program library for the IBM 1620 computer before being withdrawn from the catalog in 1963. There are a couple of problems here. First, this program only barely meets our definition of a video game because the only player interaction happens at the beginning when creating a team by selecting from a pool of players. More importantly, it appeared and vanished so quickly that it failed to have any sort of impact.

Then maybe its Steve Russell et al. and their Spacewar! (1962), which certainly achieved popularity across a select group of universities and research institutions and itself birthed the first commercial video game, Computer Space (1971)? Now I think we are getting closer. Baer would discount this game because it uses a point-plotting display, which functions in essentially the same manner as a vector monitor except that instead of drawing lines it draws each point individually. As Baer might say, “no video signal, no video game.” But we have already moved past that narrow definition. The main strike against the game is that it did remain confined to a small number of locations and was not commercialized. One could argue that since video games did not capture the imagination of the general public until commercial models were available that anyone could gain access to for a reasonable price, then our father needs to be someone that brought video games into the mass market. I find that argument flimsy, but it can be made.

Sorry Willie, you are not the father. Steve, we’ll get back to you…

So now we come at last to the final two contenders, Ralph Baer and Nolan Bushnell. Among the general public, I think the debate really comes down to just these two. The controversy over which of them birthed the video game has literally existed for as long as people have written about video game history, with Steven Bloom’s monograph Video Invaders debating this very topic as early as 1982. Both have strong claims to the title. Nolan Bushnell came to market first with Computer Space, but Ralph Baer started work on his system earlier and had largely completed it by 1968. Bushnell also debuted the first successful product, Pong, but the game only came about because he saw the table tennis game on the Odyssey.

Which person one prefers really depends on how you define the parameters. Is it first conceived that matters or first released? Is it enough to dream up a system, or does said system also need to capture the public’s imagination? Certainly Baer and Bushnell themselves expended most of their energy trying to prove who came up with the idea of commercializing video games first during a series of patent lawsuits in the 1970s. Baer, with that meticulous streak, was able to provide a plethora of verified documentation from 1966-72 elucidating every step along the way from initial spark to final product. Bushnell could only counter this by claiming he wrote a paper in college in the 1960s about playing games on a computer after he saw Spacewar!. When asked to submit the paper as evidence, he proved unable to do so. The courts rightly sided with Baer, but winning a patent suit is not quite the same thing as winning a paternity suit.

Clash of the Titans. Ralph Baer and Nolan Bushnell duke it out for the title Father of Video Games in this drawing by Howard Cruse found in the book Video Invaders by Steve Bloom.

So now that we have a video game definition and a list of the major contenders for our parental figure, is Ralph Baer the “progenitor of what we now call the video game”? Not really. I feel the video game really has two sets of parents, Russell and friends, who created the first video game to gain a significant following across multiple installations, and Bushnell and his partner Ted Dabney, who were inspired by the work of the Russell group to engineer the first commercial video game product. This leaves Baer the odd man out despite the pride of place I gave him in the book. Baer himself would have certainly not been pleased to see these words in print had he lived long enough to see this blog post published. That said, he really was the first person to follow through on the idea that manipulating objects on a standard television set could be fun; he was the first person to realize it was possible to create a hardware system to do so that was cheap enough it could be commercialized for home use, and he worked out how to interface this hardware system with a television set using an RF modulator and a video signal. These were the building blocks upon which the entire home video game industry was built, and that in itself is a monumental achievement. So while I am not entirely comfortable calling Baer the “father of video games,” I will gladly cede him the title “father of the video game console” and give him pride of place at the beginning of my three-volume history. Baer’s bus stop brainstorm may not have been the beginning, but there is no doubt it was quite a beginning.

They Create Worlds: The Story of the People and Companies That Shaped the Video Game Industry, Vol. I 1971-1982 is available in print or electronically direct from the publisher, CRC Press, as well as through Amazon and other major online retailers.

1TL200: A Magnavox Odyssey

In June 1967, Ralph Baer received permission from the leadership of Sanders Associates to complete his TV game prototype and bring it to market.  While this represented a significant milestone for Baer, however, there was still a great deal of work to be done.  At this point in his life, Baer was not a particularly accomplished game designer, and he felt his prototype did not offer the level of entertainment value necessary to justify its price.  Development on the project almost stalled completely until the addition of a new team member that lobbied for generating a third dot on the television screen, which finally led to the addictive game the system needed.

Even after the team overcame all the design hurdles, however, there was still the matter of introducing the system to the general public.  As a defense contractor, Sanders did not have any of the retail experience or clout necessary to produce a consumer product and would therefore need a partner to place Baer’s system on store shelves.  After multiple deals fell through at the last minute, Baer finally enticed Magnavox to build his TV game, and the long journey that began on a bus terminal step in August 1966 ended in September 1972 with the debut of the first home video game system, the Magnavox Odyssey.

As in the previous entry, there is little controversy regarding the design and development of Ralph Baer’s “Brown Box” prototype and its final incarnation, the Odyssey, due to Ralph Baer keeping meticulous records of the project and preserving them for posterity.  There is, however, considerable confusion over the success — or lack thereof — of Odyssey in the marketplace.  In this post, I will attempt to untangle the contradictory evidence of the Odyssey’s market performance and place it in the context of early video game history.

Three Spots

Harrison and Rusch

Bill Harrison (l) and Bill Rusch, the men who built Baer’s video game prototypes

In the aftermath of the successful demonstration of TV Game #2 to Royden Sanders and other company executives in late June 1967, Ralph Baer turned his attention toward refining his system into a viable commercial product.  According to his autobiographical work, Videogames: In the Beginning, Baer hoped to create a relatively cheap game, setting a target price of $25.00 for the complete package.  This meant refocusing the system around what Baer considered the best ideas he and Harrison had developed in order to reduce the part count.  Harrison removed the pumping game mechanic, which despite being the first game implemented had never been particularly fun, as well as the specialized circuits that allowed for color graphics and the placement of additional dots on the screen through a random number generator.  By August 1967, Harrison had completed his scaled-down version of the system, dubbed TV Game #3, which now only played chase and shooting games.  Unfortunately, despite cutting as many corners as they possibly could, Baer and Harrison were unable to come near their target price: the system they built would have to sell for a minimum of $50.00 at retail.  Baer felt his simple chase and light gun games did not provide nearly enough entertainment value to justify that price, so he put the color circuitry back into the system and tried to develop additional game concepts.  When he proved unable to find a way to make the system more interesting, Campman, who sensed Baer had hit a wall in development, decided to loan Baer his former brainstorming partner, the creative engineer Bill Rusch.  On August 18, 1967, Rusch formally became the third member of the Sanders TV game team.

According to both Ralph Baer and Bill Harrison, Bill Rusch was not the easiest person to work with.  In an interview by Benj Edwards, Harrison called Rusch “very different” and “a colorful character,” while Baer lamented to Tristan Donovan that he would show up late, putz around for an hour before turning to the task at hand, take a two hour lunch, and generally spend as little time as possible actually working.  As Baer told Kent in The Ultimate History of Video Games, he was so desperate to motivate the frustrating engineer that he let him work on a pet project involving changing the octave of notes played on a guitar in addition to the TV game project.  Despite these difficulties, however, there was no doubting Rusch’s intelligence or creativity.  Indeed, soon after joining Rusch proved his value by proposing the idea that saved the entire project: adding a third, machine-controlled dot to serve as a ball for use in a game of ping pong. (Note: Kent states that Rusch implemented the chase game on the system as well, although this was already completed by the time he joined the team.  Chase games were one of several concepts in Rusch’s May game memo, however, which may be the source of Kent’s confusion.)

According to Videogames: In the Beginning, Harrison and Rusch spent October 1967 making the new three spot system a reality, which became TV Game #4.  While Harrison built the new system, Rusch spent the majority of his time designing advanced circuits that would allow for the generation of round spots instead of squares and allow the speed and direction of the ball spot to vary based on the velocity of the impact with a player-controlled spot.  Ultimately, however, neither of these features were incorporated, the former because it remained buggy and the latter because Baer felt they did not have time to complete it.  This led to considerable friction between Baer and Rusch, who did not appreciate Baer telling him what could and could not be incorporated into the system.  Nevertheless, by November 1967 the team had a video game unit that could play ping pong, chase, and shooting games with three controllers: a light gun for target shooting, joysticks for the chase game, and a three dial control for ping pong that controlled the horizontal and vertical movement of the player’s paddle and allowed the player to manipulate the ball to put a little “English” on it.  After another demo for Campman, the R&D director concurred with Baer that the system finally contained enough interesting gameplay variants to be worth selling, so Baer turned his attention to finding a retail partner.

Baer turned first to the fledgling cable industry.  At the time, there were no dedicated cable channels, so cable TV was basically just an expensive way to receive the exact same channels that a person could already get for free over the air.  While cable eliminated the need to adjust antenna to improve the quality of a broadcast signal, unless a person lived in the mountains or in a similar environment where reception was exceptionally poor, this convenience did not justify the cost.  As a result, the cable industry was struggling, and Baer felt that a novel product like a TV game could be just the thing for the industry to break out of its slump.  He therefore had Harrison modify the game so that it could accept background graphics transmitted by a cable signal and contacted the largest cable provider, TelePrompter, which supplied roughly 60,000 subscribers at that time.  The idea was that the cable company could point a camera at a highly detailed view of a tennis court or some other venue which would be broadcast to the TV game to provide a background for the action.  The spots generated by the hardware would then be superimposed on top.  TelePrompter expressed interest, and negotiations proceeded on and off between January and April 1968.  While the cable company thought the game a good idea, however, an economic recession ultimately left it in an untenable financial situation, and it could not afford to develop the product.  Baer would need to find another partner.

Brown Box

brown box

The “Brown Box” prototype

In December 1967 and January 1968, Harrison continued to work on improving the TV game, incorporating some of the velocity circuitry designed by Rusch and re-implementing the light pen quiz game with a new light gun peripheral that would allow answers to be chosen from a distance.  In this game, four answers would appear on the screen with dots next to them.  The dots would all blink rapidly, with the dot next to the correct answer blinking in a different pattern than the others.  This was all imperceptible to the naked eye, but the light pen would respond differently to the correct and incorrect dots in order to determine if the player answered correctly.  Two new ball-and-paddle variants were created during this time period as well, handball and volleyball.  In handball, the “net” was moved to one side of the screen and served as the wall of a handball court, while in volleyball, the centerline was modified to serve as a net.  Otherwise, the gameplay remained the same as in the ping-pong game.  Work on TV Game #5 ceased at the end of January when funding ran out.  The same recession affecting TelePromper also hit Sanders hard, and the company scaled down from 11,000 employees to just 4,000 during this period.  This marked the end of Bill Rusch’s short, but productive time on the project.

In September 1968, Baer secured additional funding and brought back Bill Harrison to create another prototype, TV Game #6.  The switches used to select different game modes in previous versions were replaced with a rotary dial, while the game also sported an improved light gun.  Still feeling they could do a little better, Baer and Harrison developed one final prototype in January 1969, TV Game #7, which they also called the “Brown Box” because Harrison wrapped the casing in self-adhesive woodgrain to make it more attractive.  This version also included an expanded set of games.  In addition to Ping-Pong, Handball, Volleyball, Target Shooting, and the Checker chase game, there were now Hockey, Soccer, and Football variants of the ball and paddle game, which featured the same basic game play with different overlays, and a golf putting game with a new peripheral: a golf ball mounted on  a joystick.  The player would place the joystick on the floor and tap the ball with a putter, after which the spot representing the ball would move based on the contact with the joystick.  If the ball hit the dot representing the hole, they both disappeared.  A final attempt was made to add Rusch’s velocity circuit to this version as an add on, which was dubbed TV Game #8, but it was ultimately left out due to cost.

By the end of 1968, Baer and Harrison had essentially finished the Brown Box, but they were no closer to selling it.  Finally, the Sanders patent attorney, Lou Etlinger, provided the solution: approach the television manufacturers.  These firms were already using the exact same components contained within the Brown Box in their TV sets, so ramping up manufacturing would be relatively simple.  Additionally, the TV companies would most likely be interested in anything that could spur television sales.  One by one, Etlinger invited some of the most prominent TV manufacturers — RCA, Zenith, Sylvania, General Electric, Motorola, Warwick, and Magnavox — to view the Brown Box in action.  While many of these companies showed some interest, however, Baer and Etlinger were never able to close a deal.  Warwick, the manufacturer of televisions sold by Sears, was impressed and told Sanders to contact the buyer at the department store, but the executive refused to sell the product in his stores, afraid parents would drop their kids off in the electronics department to play the games and transform Sears into a glorified babysitter.  The General Electric engineers were likewise impressed and helped set up a meeting at the company’s small-color-set assembly facility in Virginia, but nothing ever came of it.

The first company to view the system, RCA, ultimately proved the most enthusiastic.  Coming to Nashua in January 1969, RCA liked the system so much that it started negotiating a licensing agreement with Sanders in the Spring.  An agreement was hammered out after several months of negotiations, but Sanders ultimately backed out of the deal.  Baer has never specified the exact reasons Sanders did not like the final agreement, only calling the terms “onerous,” but RCA probably either wanted to completely own the technology and the patents behind it or offered a paltry royalty deal.  Sanders appeared out of options at this point, but luckily one of the RCA negotiators, Bill Enders, remained highly enthusiastic about the product, so when he left RCA to join Magnavox, he urged his new employer to take another look at the system.

Magnavox

Untitled

Edwin Pridham (l) and Peter Jensen, two of the founders of the company that formed the core of Magnavox

The Magnavox Corporation traces its history to a partnership formally established on March 1, 1911, called the Commercial Wireless and Development Company that brought together three individuals, Danish electrical engineer Peter Jensen, Stanford-trained electrical engineer Edwin Pridham, and San Francisco financier Richard O’Connor.  According to The Early History of Magnavox by Billy Malone, Jensen, born in 1886, was a brilliant student forced to forego university and take a job at a sawmill upon the death of his father.  The superintendent of the mill encouraged him to find a job more suited to his academic abilities, however, and in 1903 he was able to secure a position in the laboratory of Valdemar Poulsen, the Danish inventor of the Telegraphone, the first magnetic wire recording apparatus, the predecessor of magnetic tape recording.  In this capacity, Jensen helped Poulson develop his continuous wave arc transmitter, one of the key technologies that allowed for practical radio broadcasting.  In 1909, Jensen came to Palo Alto, California, which even before forming the heart of Silicon Valley was an important hub for wireless research, to grow the Poulsen Wireless and Telegraph Company, formed in October of that year in partnership with Stanford engineer Cyril Elwell and investor John Coburn.

While at the company, Jensen met Pridham, a fellow employee originally hailing from Maywood, Illinois, who helped him learn English and assimilate into American culture.  He was also introduced by Coburn to O’Conner, an investor in the new venture frustrated that he had no say in company affairs.  Coburn proposed that O’Connor travel to Denmark to secure patent rights from Poulsen to start his own company and suggested Jensen resign his position and join the negotiating team.  Jensen agreed on the condition that Pridham be allowed to join them as well.  Although the Danish trip was unsuccessful, O’Connor pressed forward with his plan to establish the Commercial Wireless and Development Company with Jensen and Pridham in 1911.

Once their new company was established, Jensen and Pridham turned their attention to developing a more sensitive telephone that could pick up signals transmitted from a greater distance.  According to an article hosted on the website of the Audio Engineering Society entitled “Peter L. Jensen and the Magnavox Loudspeaker,”, the result of this research was an improved version of the Poulsen arc radio transmitter featuring thicker wires connected to a diaphragm and a coil of copper wire placed between magnets.  Driving a current though the coil produces a magnetic field that causes the coil to move back and forth rapidly.  This causes the coil to push against the diaphragm, thus converting the electrical signal into soundwaves.  Per The Early History of Magnavox, this resulted in a telephone with much clearer sound, but AT&T chose not to adopt the “dynamic telephone” because they were already partnering with Lee DeForest to use his audion tube in their equipment, and the Jensen system was too large and bulky to be practical.

In 1915, a blacksmith named Ray Galbreath visited Jensen’s lab.  An avid baseball fan, he lamented that he often had difficulty hearing announcements made at the ballpark and thought the dynamic telephone could be used to amplify the announcer.  This suggestion caused Jensen to shift his focus from improving the clarity of sound over a long distance to increasing the volume of sound over a shorter distance.  After several months of work, Jensen publicly demonstrated the first loudspeaker public address system in San Francisco on December 10, 1915.  He decided to name the system after the Latin term for “great voice,” Magnavox.

In 1916, Jensen, hoping to find a mass market application for the new loudspeaker, developed an all-electric phonograph incorporating loudspeaker amplification.  A demonstration was arranged for the largest phonograph company, Victor Corporation, but they were not interested.  Victor’s main competitor, Columbia, also turned them down.  As Jensen and company continued to refine their player, however, they purchased large quantities of records from the Sonora Phonograph Distributorship Company, which attracted the attention of its president, Frank Steers.  Steers saw the potential of the electric phonograph and arranged a merger between Sonora and Commercial Wireless to manufacture the device.  On July 6, 1917, the combined company incorporated under the name Magnavox.  At the time, PA systems remained an integral part of the company’s business, but according to the AES article AT&T came to dominate this market in the 1920s, so Magnavox shifted its primary focus to phonographs and radio.  According to Malone, the company moved its headquarters to Emeryville, California, in 1927, and then consolidated its various facilities in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1930.  According to an oral history with former Mangavox employee Arthur Stern, the Great Depression nearly killed the company, which barely avoided bankruptcy in the late 1930s, but the onset of World War II and lucrative military contracts for electronic equipment saved it.  After the war, Magnavox entered the television business, and it remained a major player in the field in the early 1970s, when Ralph Baer and Lou Etlinger approached the firm to license the first home video game system.

Building Odyssey

Odyssey Motherboard

The motherboard of the Odyssey

According to Baer’s book, in July 1969, Bill Enders, recently relocated from RCA to Magnavox, returned to Nashua for a personal demonstration of the Brown Box.  Still impressed with the technology, he began heavily lobbying his superiors to license the product.  This campaign culminated in a demonstration of the technology at Magnavox headquarters in Fort Wayne on July 17, 1969, for Gerry Martin, the VP of the Magnavox Console Products Planning Division.  Martin was immediately taken with the technology, though it would take him months of lobbying with Magnavox corporate before he was finally authorized to negotiate a deal in March 1970.  Nearly a year of negotiations followed, culminating in a preliminary licensing agreement between Sanders and Magnavox in January 1971.

With a license agreement in place, further development of the Brown Box — known within Magnavox by the product designation 1TL200 — shifted from Baer’s lab at Sanders to a team of Magnavox engineers in Fort Wayne led by George Kent.  While Baer and Harrison would consult with these engineers from time to time, their active role in the development of the video game was now over.  At Magnavox, management placed a great emphasis on reducing the cost of the system as much as possible, ultimately leading to the removal of the chroma circuitry for generating color backgrounds, the golf putting game, and any chance of including the pumping and quiz game functionality that Baer and Harrison had already stripped out of earlier prototypes of the system.  They also chose to move away from switches or dials to select games by including a group of plug-in circuit cards instead that would unlock individual games.  This last innovation has led some to label the system the first cartridge system, though this comparison is not apt.  There was no memory or game code on these cards, which merely complete different circuit paths within the hardware itself to define the rule set for the current game.  All of the game information was contained in the dedicated hardware, and inserting a new circuit card was really no different an act from flicking a toggle switch.

Initially, the video game project was placed under the control of Bob Wiles, the product manager for color TVs, but it was soon placed in its own product category.  The man ultimately responsible for bringing the Odyssey to market was a product manager named Bob Fritsche, a 1966 graduate of Miami University of Ohio with a degree in marketing who joined the Air Force right out of school, mustered out in October 1970 at the rank of captain, and subsequently joined Magnavox.  According to court testimony delivered by Fritsche in December 1976 during the case of Magnavox v. Chicago Dynamic Industries and Seeburg Corporation, he started in the purchasing department before becoming the first product planner on the video game system in September 1971.  At the time, Magnavox had just begun performing consumer playtest and marketing surveys using prototype hardware of what was now being called “Skill-O-Vision.”  The first, conducted in Los Angeles, proved highly successful, so a second survey was scheduled for Grand Rapids, Michigan, to gauge the response in a more technologically conservative part of the country.  According to Fritsche, this test proved highly successful as well.  Indeed, original market projections had called for an extremely limited production runs of 50,000 units for the first holiday season, but based on the marketing surveys, Fritsche argued that they should build 100,000 units instead.  In order to insure Magnavox dealers across the country had sufficient stock to meet market demand, the company decided to release it in only eighteen major markets, one metropolitan area in each of its 18 sales territories nationwide.

According to Fritsche, Magnavox unveiled the final version of the system, now dubbed the Magnavox Odyssey — a name whose origin has been lost to time — to its authorized dealers for the first time in May 1972 in Las Vegas.  Soon after, the product was formally introduced to the press at an event hosted by Tavern on the Green in New York City (according to Baer, this event occurred on May 22, though he mistakenly calls the restaurant “Bowling Greene”).  Over the next few months, Magnavox took the product on the road, hosting shows in roughly 16 cities to allow their dealers and other interested industry parties to familiarize themselves with the product.  When exactly the system first went on sale is not known.  According to Fritsche, Magnavox started shipping the system in mid September.  Frank Cifaldi claims in an article on Gamasutra that the system was available as early as August 28 based on an ad in the Edwardsville Intelligencier, but this add merely invites people to “See Odyssey” and contains no language implying that the system is actually available for purchase.  Most likely this was a preview event in anticipation of the product arriving in the next month.

The System

Odyssey

The complete Odyssey package, including overlays and accessories

The Magnavox Odyssey hit store shelves at a suggested retail price of $99.99, roughly double what Baer had originally planned.  The system shipped with 12 games unlocked by six circuit cards, most of which were variations on the ball and paddle and chase games that Baer, Harrison, and Rusch had developed at Sanders.  The system remained capable of generating only two player-controlled dots plus one machine controlled dot and a single line of varying height, so all of the game mechanics were based around moving dots around the screen.  Each game required a plastic overlay, which would cling to the TV through static electricity to provide background graphics and other game features.  Additionally, the system shipped with cards, play money, and dice to provide additional play mechanics.  According to an interview with artist Ron Bradford, all of the final game designs — as well as the overlays and packaging materials for the system — were done on a contract basis by his firm, Bradford/Cout Design, which had previously done creative work for Magnavox’s ad agency.  Bradford developed the games in conjunction with Steve Lehner at the agency.

While Baer had developed several different control schemes for different types of games, the final system only shipped with one: the three dial control that allowed the player to move his dot horizontally or vertically as well as exert a small amount of control over the machine-controlled dot.  The controller also contains a reset button, which is not used to reboot the console, but rather to reset certain game elements during play.  Two additional controls are present on the main unit: a dial to adjust the position of the center line on the screen and a dial to set the speed of the machine-controlled dot.  While many sources, most notably Kent, claim the internals were analog, the system was constructed using digital logic circuits.  As Baer explains in his book, however, these were not the cutting edge transistor-to-transistor logic (TTL) circuits becoming increasingly common in the early 1970s.  Instead, the system used more primitive diode-to-transistor logic (DTL) to keep down the cost of the hardware.  The twelve games that shipped with the system are as follows:

Table Tennis (Game Card #1): Each player controls a paddle and they knock a ball back and forth across the screen.  The only game that does not require an overlay or any other additional elements.  Score is not tracked by the game and must be recorded manually.

Ski (Game Card #2): A timed racing game.  The overlay provides several different paths and includes pictures of obstacles like trees and mountains.  The player navigates his dot along the path and takes a penalty defined by the instructions any time he goes off the path and hits an obstacle.  Players must keep track of their own time using a clock or stopwatch.

Simon Says (Game Card #2): A three-player variation on the classic children’s game.  The overlay depicts a boy and a girl, each of which is claimed by one player.  The third player draws from a deck of 28 “simon says cards” that each depict a part of the body.  Each time a card is drawn, the players must move their spots to the proper body part on their person.  Whoever gets there first wins the card.  If there is a tie, the card is returned to the bottom of the deck.  Players only move if the card drawer uses the phrase “simon says.”  If they move when the phrase is not used, they have to return a card to the deck.  The player with the most cards at the end wins.

Tennis (Game Card #3): Plays essentially the same as the Table Tennis game except there is an overlay on the screen depicting a tennis court and service must follow the rules of tennis (i.e. in order for a serve to be “good” it must land in the other player’s “service box”).

Analogic (Game Card #3): An arithmetic game presented with the conceit that it takes place in a “numeric maze of a computer-charted galaxy.”  The overlay consists of a grid in which each square has a number.  Players start on opposite ends of the screen on “Planet Odd” and “Planet Even.”  The former player can only move to a square containing an odd number, while the latter player can only move to a square containing an even number.  After the first turn, a player may move to any square containing a number that corresponds to the sum of the other player’s last move and any other number so long as the sum results in an odd number for the Planet Odd player or an even number for the Planet Even player.  The first player to reach the opposing player’s planet wins.

Hockey (Game Card #3): Again like Table Tennis except the overlay is a hockey rink.  A player scores if the dot touches the opponent’s goal on the overlay.

Football (Game Card#3 and Game Card #4): Easily the most complicated game.  Uses a combination of on-screen maneuvering, dice, and “play cards” to simulate a game of football.  The kickoff as well as passing and punting plays use the ball spot and are done with Card #3.  Running plays use only the two player spots and are executed with Card #4.  Full rules can be viewed at a page hosted by the University of Waterloo that is dedicated to the Odyssey.

Cat and Mouse (Game Card #4): A chase game played on a grid.  The mouse must return to the square designated as his “house” without being caught by the cat.  The players get a varying number of points depending on where the mouse is caught.

Haunted House (Game Card #4): Another chase game with a haunted house overlay.  One player is a “detective,” while the other is a “ghost.”  The overlay contains “clue” spaces that the detective must traverse in the order determined by a deck of clue cards, but if he passes over a window on his way to a clue, he forfeits the card.  At the beginning of the game, the ghost also picks a clue space to place his ghost.  When the detective approaches that space, the ghost player hits the reset button to reveal his spot.  After that point, the detective must avoid making the ghost spot disappear or he forfeits half his clue cards.

Submarine (Game Card #5): A target shooting game played with an overlay showing various shipping lanes.  One player navigates his spot along the lanes.  The other player uses the reset button to launch the machine-controlled dot, which represents a torpedo.  The players take turns in the roles, and whoever sinks more ships wins.

Rouelette (Game Card #6): A game of chance played with a roulette wheel overlay.  Bets are placed using chips and a number board that come with the system.  After bets are placed, a player randomly turns the control dials and then presses reset to launch the ball on the roulette wheel.

States (Game Card #6): An educational game played with an overlay of the United States and a deck of fifty cards — one per state — with trivia questions about that state.  Players use the controller to select a state and answer questions to gain control of cards.  The player with the most cards at the end wins.

Six more games were sold separately, most of which just provided new overlays and instructions for use with the circuit cards that shipped with the game.  These were available for $5.49 each or in a pack of all six for $24.99.  The games are as follows:

Fun Zoo (Game Card #2): A racing game for three players using an overlay of a zoo.  The zookeeper draws an animal from a deck of cards, and the other two players see who can reach it first.

Baseball (Game Card #3):  Like Football, this is a complicated game that uses a combination of cards, dice, and tokens.  The players on each side have some basic statistics determined by rolling dice.  Full rules can be viewed on the Internet Archive.

Invasion (Game Card #4, Game Card #5, and Game Card #6): Another complicated game in which strategic moves are made on a separate game board and tactical combat is resolved on the screen.  Different kinds of assaults require different circuit cards.  Full instructions at the Internet Archive.

Wipeout (Game Card #5): A racing game using both a track overlay and a game board.  Player laps are completed by maneuvering a dot around the screen.  The second player dot and the machine-controlled dot serve as a primitive timer, with the machine dot moving across the screen and then bouncing back when it hits the second player dot, which remains in a fixed position.  Laps are tracked on the game board.  Players take turns racing, and the first to pass the finish line on the board wins.

Volleyball (Game Card #7): A ball-and-paddle variant with a volleyball court overlay.  The players must use the English control to arc the ball over the net.

Handball (Game Card #8): Another ball-and-paddle variant with a handball court overlay.  Both players are on the same side of the screen and hit the ball to the white line, which acts as a wall.

Additionally, the light gun developed by Harrison was released as a separate accessory that came with four games using two additional game cards and sold for $24.99.  The games are:

Prehitoric Safari (Game Card #9): The overlay features ten different targets.  One player lines up the dot on a target, which the other player tries to hit with a single shot.  Each player takes fifteen shots, and the one with the most hits wins.  A variant gives different point values for different targets.

Dogfight! (Game Card #9): The overlay features a flight path.  One player maneuvers the dot along the path, while the other attempts to shoot it.

Shootout! (Game Card #9): The player-controlled spot is an outlaw that must traverse a set path through a western town overlay, pausing at each window long enough to give the other player a chance to shoot him.

Shooting Gallery (Game Card #10): The overlay contains several rows of standard shooting gallery targets.  The player-controlled spots are placed at either end of the first row of targets, and the machine-controlled spot then moves back and forth between them as the player tries to shoot it.  After ten passes, the sequence is repeated with the next row of targets.  Whoever has the most hits after taking shots at every row of targets wins.

One final game created for the system was held back and given out free to players that mailed in a survey card packaged with the system.  This game, called Percepts, used Game Card #2 and is another racing game in which the overlay contains squares with patterns and symbols on the them.  The players must race to the proper square when a card containing that pattern or symbol is drawn.

Market Performance

Magnavox_Odyssey_Game_Tennis_small

The Odyssey Tennis Game, complete with overlay

The Odyssey initially launched in 25 markets in September 1972, seven more than originally planned.  According to Fritsche’s testimony, Magnavox expended considerable effort to increase production capacity and build additional systems based on the favorable feedback gathered during the marketing surveys.  Rather than making these systems available to retailers generally, distribution was restricted to the Magnavox network of dealers that sold the company’s products exclusively.  According to Fritsche, this decision was made by a senior marketing VP who felt that since the Odyssey would be the world’s first video game system, it would draw customers to Magnavox dealers and therefore present an opportunity to sell them a full range of Magnavox products.  Indeed, while the suggested retail price of the system was $99.99, when purchased in conjunction with a Magnavox television set, the price fell to just $50.00.

According to Baer, the launch of Odyssey was supported by a national advertising campaign featuring glossy sales flyers, in-store displays, and national television and radio ads.  A video available at the Pong Story website also shows that the Odyssey was demonstrated on the popular game show What’s My Line? in 1972.  Baer claims that the television commercials featured Frank Sinatra, but no video has surfaced of a Sinatra-led advertisement.  In fact, the only ad that has been discovered, which was on the air by early 1973 at the latest, only features two adults playing several of the games available for the system.  The September 29, 1973 edition of Billboard, however, reported that Magnavox had just negotiated a deal to sponsor a Sinatra television special to promote its consumer products line.  I believe that in this case, Baer is confusing this television special and the associated ad campaigns with Magnavox’s 1972 advertising campaign and that there were no Sinatra-led commercials for the system at launch.

According to Baer, Magnavox ultimately produced 140,100 Odyssey systems in the first year, far more than the originally projected 50,000.  Don Emry, an assistant product planner that joined the Odyssey team in Janaury 1973 after working on the technical documentation for the system the previous year, stated in an interview with the Digital Press that he believes most of the numbers Baer reported are a little high, and he recalls the original production run being closer to 120,000.  Either way, according to Fritsche’s testimony, Magnavox only sold 69,000 units in the first holiday season (he initially says 89,000, but corrects himself during cross-examination), and Emry remembers the warehouse was still full of systems in early 1973.

Why did the system sell so poorly in the first season?  While impossible to say for certain, a number of factors have been identified.  Baer believes price was a major factor, as $100, equivalent to $569 today, represented a significant investment in a new and unproven technology that offered relatively limited game play.  He also points to the limited distribution to Magnavox dealers as a factor, and Fritsche relates in his court testimony that he would have liked broader distribution but was overruled by marketing.  Baer also claims that Magnavox dealers were not properly trained in pushing the additional cartridges, which often remained under the counter unsold.

Baer further believes that Magnavox’s television ads confused customers into thinking the system only worked on a Magnavox television set, but the 1973 ad clearly states that the game will work with any television regardless of brand.  Its possible that an earlier ad in 1972 resulted in confusion and led to a revised ad being aired early the next year, but since no other Odyssey ads from the period have surfaced, this cannot be verified.  Even if Baer is wrong on this point, however, the system was only purchasable from Magnavox dealers as part of a marketing strategy to sell Magnavox TV sets, so even if the ads were not ambiguous, many consumers may well have been left with the impression that the system only worked on Mangavox TVs when they saw it at retail.  In his interview with Digital Press, Emry states that he does not believe Magnavox had an official policy of implying exclusivity, but he concedes its possible that certain dealers could have marketed the system that way to benefit their own business.  Don Emry also points out that sales were actually in line with the original Magnavox projections, so the relatively poor performance of Odyssey in 1972 may have more to do with an over-excited marketing department ordering the production of more systems than the market could actually bear.

According to Baer, Magnavox management soured on the Odyssey after that first holiday season and considered liquidating the remaining stock and exiting the business altogether.  Ultimately, however, modest continuing demand by retailers for additional systems for the 1973 holiday season convinced the company to manufacture a small run of 27,000 additional systems to complement existing back stock.  The result, according to Fritsche’s testimony, was a modest sales improvement to 89,000 systems.  According to Baer, the system was also released internationally for the first time this year and was eventually available in twelve countries: Australia, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, the Soviet Union, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Venezuela.  The international version removed five games (Cat & MouseFootballHaunted House, Roulette, and States) and replaced them with three games sold separately in the United States (SoccerVolleyball, and Wipeout).  (NOTE: According to Pong Story, the console was also released in Mexico) The company also authorized the release of four new games in 1973, two of which were started by the Bradford/Cout team and completed by Don Emry and two that Emry designed completely on his own.  The games were:

Brain Wave (Game Card #3): A complicated strategy game using cards and dice.  Full rules at the Internet Archive.

W.I.N. (Game Card #4):  Players must highlight letters, numbers, and symbols displayed on the overlay with their spot to fill out their “Win card” to win the game.  The player actually renders his dot invisible by touching the other dot on the screen and then has to guess where to move the dot before hitting the reset button to make it appear again.

Basketball (Game Card #8): Another ball-and-paddle variant played using a basketball court overlay.

Interplanetary Voyage (Game Card #12): Unlike other variants, the spot in this game has momentum, so it will continue to move after the player stops turning his dial.  The goal is to complete missions by guiding the spot to planets on the overlay based on instructions contained on mission cards.  The player has only so many “rocket blasts” to reach the planet.

 As reported in the September 22, 1973, of Billboard Magazine, Magnavox decided to stage a massive promotion of its 1974 consumer products line in late 1973 through an unprecedented $9 million advertising campaign highlighted by a sponsored television special featuring Frank Sinatra.  According to Billboard, all of Magnavox’s products benefited from the campaign, and according to Fritsche, sales of Odyssey reached 129,000 for the year (Note: Baer reports 150,000 for the year, but his numbers always appear to be high based on the recollections of others.  Interestingly, in 1975, Mechanix Illustrated stated Magnavox sold only 90,000 systems in 1974.  Magnavox did release the system in several European countries, so its possible that the 90,000 figure represents domestic sales, and the other 40,000 were sold overseas).  According to Baer, Magnavox discontinued the original Odyssey after 1975 and sold roughly 350,000 total systems.  Mechanix Illustrated states that Magnavox planned to sell 100,000 systems in 1975, yet Fritsche, who left Magnavox in the middle of 1975, states that the company planned to sell 210,000 systems that year and was close to reaching that goal already when he left the company.  If his figures are accurate, Magnavox may have sold as many as 500,000 Odyssey systems (NOTE: The context of the testimony implies that these were projected sales of the original Odyssey only.  However, Magnavox did release the Odyssey 100 and Odyssey 200 in 1975 as well, so its possible this projection includes sales of these two systems, which would explain why it is abnormally high compared to other estimates.  Fritsche left the company before Magnavox began selling its newer systems, so it’s also possible that Magnavox cut its targets after he left, perhaps due to retailers cutting orders of the old system when they realized the new system would be a bigger hit.).  Either way, these represent fairly modest sales for a product on the market for four holiday seasons.

So can the system be considered a success?  Baer certainly thinks so, calling it successful on the strength of its sales alone, though he doubts it did much to help Mangnavox’s bottom line when factoring in production and advertising costs and the processing of roughly 40,000 product returns.  Both Bob Fritsche and Don Emry reported that the system was well received by the public, though Emry notes that the overproduction of the system hampered the ability of the Odyssey team to expand the product line.  Historical works tend to take a more negative view.  Kent considers it a failure, but he reports wildly inaccurate sales figures of only 100,000 units over the life of the console.  Phoenix author Leonard Herman also declares it a failure, while Harold Goldberg cites Baer’s sales and costs estimates in All Your Base Our Belong to Us to conclude that the system did not perform well.

In the end, the Magnavox Odyssey cannot really be considered a success.  Though it remained on the market for three years, sales remained modest, and Magnavox provided little support to the product team.  No new games were created after 1973, and according to Emry plans for both a cheaper version of the console with fewer games and a four-player variant had to be shelved when Magnavox declined to expand the product line.  Baer, too, noticed a lack of interest on the company’s part to improve the system: when he took it upon himself to create an add-on that would add sound to Odyssey games, it was turned down.

The console also failed to spur a larger adoption of video games in the home.  According to Pong Story, two consoles that largely cloned the Odyssey were manufactured in Europe, the Overkal in Spain in 1973 and the Kanal 34 in Sweden in 1975, while a clone called the Telematch appeared in Argentina, but these systems were produced only in extremely limited quantities.  No other company attempted to enter the home market until 1974, and home videos games did not really take off until 1975.  This boom resulted from better technology and the popularity of arcade games rather than any success on the part of Magnavox with the Odyssey.

Still, the Odyssey remains an important milestone for being the first designed and patented device that met the original technical definition of a video game, that is an interactive game played through use of a video signal transmitted to a television, as well as being the first video game system released for the home.  It also played a crucial role in the evolution of the video game industry greatly out of proportion to its commercial success after Nolan Bushnell and his cohorts at Syzygy Engineering built on Ralph Baer’s concepts to create the first video game to take the United States by storm: Pong.

The Baer Essentials

Computer Space was the first video game product released to the general public, but it was not the first one to be conceived or designed.  In 1966, an unassuming, taciturn engineer named Ralph Baer working for a large defense contractor became the somewhat improbable “father of video games” when he decided to do something about his long-standing disdain for broadcast entertainment by designing an interactive game playable on a television.  Like Bushnell and Dabney four years later, Baer decided to create a spot-generating system that could place and move dots on the screen through use of a video signal.  It is from this video signal — a distinct technology from the vector monitor hardware that powered Spacewar! — that the term video game derives, making Baer the first person to ever design one according to the original technical definition of the medium.

Unlike the story of Atari, which has to be cobbled together largely from (wildly divergent) personal recollections and the occasional deposition, the story of Ralph Baer and his brown box derives largely from the actual documents of the period, carefully preserved by Baer and made available to the general public in a variety of locations.  Thus, we have a greater understanding of the birth of the first home video game console than we do on any other topic in early video game history.  Little controversy therefore exists around the development of the Magnavox Odyssey, though the occasional fact has been confused or distorted over time, which will be covered in the following posts.

Background

baer_young

A young Ralph Baer working with electronics

Rudolf Heinrich “Ralph” Baer was born on March 8, 1922, in Pirmasens, Germany.  According to an oral history with Baer conducted by the Computer History Museum, his father, a Jewish World War I veteran named Leo, ran a leather tannery supplying the many shoe factories in town.  Due to the depressed economic conditions in the region after World War I, the family moved to Cologne in 1924.  As a German of Jewish descent, Baer was subjected to increasingly anti-semitic practices after Adolph Hitler came to power and was expelled from school at the age of 14.  Baer then attempted to secure a job as a plumber’s apprentice, but was not “Aryan enough” for his potential employer.  According to an interview conducted by Tirstan Donovan for his book, Replay, Baer ended up working in an office instead, learning shorthand and typing and performing filing and bookkeeping tasks.

In 1938, when Baer was 16, his family emigrated to the United States just ahead of Krystallnacht.  According to the Donovan interview, the quota for Jews immigrating to the United States was very small, but his mother, Lotte, had a large number of relatives in New York, and Baer spoke decent English, enabling him to have a direct conversation with the American Consul in Stuttgart.  Baer believes these factors played a decisive role in allowing his family to escape Nazi persecution.  According to Harold Goldberg in his book All Your Base Are Belong to Us, the Baer family settled into an apartment building near the Bronx Zoo, and Baer went to work in a factory owned by a cousin where he earned $12 a week putting buttons on cosmetic cases until he saw an ad on the back of a magazine for the National Radio Institute and enrolled in a correspondence course in radio servicing.  Per his oral history, upon completing the course Baer took a job with a radio store on Lexington Avenue handling all pickup, delivery, and servicing for the company.

In 1943, Baer was drafted into the United States Army.  Despite his radio background, Baer was assigned not to the Signal Corps, but to the combat engineers.  After training at Fort Dix in everything from bridge building to landmine disarmament, Baer transferred to Camp Ritchie, Maryland, to train in interrogation techniques because of his German language fluency.  Shipped overseas as part of the buildup for the Normandy landings, Baer contracted pneumonia in England and was spared going ashore on D-Day.  Afterwards, Baer became part of a special military intelligence unit attached to Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower’s headquarters that gave courses in identifying enemy uniforms, interrogating enemy soldiers, and identifying and handling enemy weapons.

In March 1946, Ralph Baer received his discharge from the Army and returned to New York, where he secured a job fixing faulty radios for a manufacturer called Emerson.  Bored after three months, Baer quit and explored avenues for continuing his education.  Turned down by all the New York colleges because he had no records of his education in Germany, Baer saw an ad for a small unaccredited school in Chicago called the American Television Institute of Technology (ATIT), where he enrolled in late 1946 through the GI Bill.  By the time he graduated in 1949, the school had received accreditation, so Baer walked away with one of the very first BS degrees in television engineering.

Early Efforts

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The schematics of the “Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device” patented by Thomas Goldsmith and Estle Ray Mann

Upon graduating from ATIT, Baer secured employment at a small medical equipment firm called Wappler Inc., where he built surgical cutting machines, muscle-toning pulse generators, and similar equipment.  Feeling the work lacked sufficient challenge, however, Baer departed two years later to take a job at Loral Corporation, a defense contractor formed in 1948 by the combination of two businesses that shared the same building, a machine shop run by William Lorenz and an amplifier maker run by Leon Alpert.  In 1951, Loral chief engineer Sam Lackoff decided the company should build a high class television set, so he hired Baer and another man named Leo Beiser to build it.  This job would provide Baer his first brush with video games.

While several CRT computer games were developed in the 1950s simulating everything from tic-tac-toe to pool to tennis, no one had ever thought to try and replicate this feat on a standard television set for the very simple reason that doing so would require bulky and expensive electronic components that could not be scaled down for a consumer product.  The closest anyone came to trying in the period occurred in 1947 when Thomas Goldsmith and Estle Ray Mann submitted a patent for a “Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device.”  According to his New York Times obituary, Thomas Toliver Goldsmith was born in 1910 in Greenville, South Carolina, and began building crystal radio sets as a teenager.  After graduating from Furman University in 1931, Goldsmith matriculated to Cornell University, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1936.  As part of his dissertation research, Goldsmith required an oscilloscope, so he contacted one of the leaders in the field, Dr. Allen DuMont, a brilliant inventor who had developed a long-lasting CRT crucial to the development of the first practical television sets and established DuMont Laboratories around this invention in 1931.  After earning his degree, Goldsmith joined DuMont as research director, a post he held until 1965.

At DuMont, Goldsmith became an expert on CRT displays through radar work during World War II.  Meanwhile, DuMont Laboratories became heavily involved in the television business and even started one of the first television networks, the DuMont Television Network, in 1946.  It was in this climate that Goldsmith and Mann developed and patented their simple game, which consisted of a few resistors, a sawtooth wave generator, and a CRT.  According to the patent, the game simulated firing a missile at a target, perhaps taking inspiration from Goldsmith’s radar research during the war.  Using a knob, the player would be able to guide the electron beam generated by the CRT across a screen to a target.  After a certain period of time passed, which was adjustable by the player, the beam would defocus to simulate an explosion.  If the beam defocused while on the target, it counted as a hit.  Despite filing the patent, however, DuMont never actually built the game.  The reason for this is not clear, though Goldsmith’s obituary points out that DuMont was always strapped for cash during this period, so the company may have simply not had the resources to invest in a new commercial product.

Some have been tempted to label this Cathode-ray Tube Amusement Device as the first video game, but the device fits no definition of the term.  There is no video signal, no computer, no software program, and only the simplest of electronics.  There are also no graphics, as the targets for the system consist of physical objects affixed to a screen.  Basically, the exact same effect could have been created by mechanically controlling a flashlight shining its beam on a piece of paper.  The device does deserve recognition, however, as the first attempt to create a game incorporating a CRT.  From available evidence, no one else thought to adapt television technology into a game until Ralph Baer in 1951.

As Baer told Donovan for Replay, the team building the television set for Loral had access to various pieces of test equipment that placed and moved lines on the screen.  While fiddling around with this equipment, Baer thought it might be fun to build some interactivity into the set, though he was quick to point out to Donovan that he was not necessarily thinking specifically of a game at this point.  As Baer explained in his autobiogrphical work Videogames: In the Beginning, however, the project was already behind schedule, so Lackoff forbade Baer to add any new features.  According to the oral history, the television project never went anywhere, so Baer decided to leave the company.  He almost took a job with CBS, but Lackoff, who was also leaving Loral, offered him five dollars an hour more to work for his startup, Transitron (no relation to the Wakefield, Massachusettes, semiconductor company), which focused on defense work.  In 1955, the company moved to New Hampshire to become a subsidiary of Van Norman Industries.  When the company hit hard times, Baer jumped ship in 1958 to work for another New Hampshire defense contractor called Sanders Associates. (Note: In the Ultimate History of Video Games, Kent incorrectly places Baer’s move to Sanders in 1955, most likely confusing Baer’s move to New Hampshire with his move to a different company.  Baer’s oral history confirms the actual dates.)

Channel LP

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TV Game #1, Ralph Baer’s first video game feasibility prototype

Royden Coe Sanders, Jr. was born in Camden, New Jersey, in 1917. According to a 1958 profile in the Microwave Journal, while a junior at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute the engineering genius formulated a theory for a radio altimeter that could bounce FM waves off objects to determine the altitude of an aircraft.  Told by his instructors that this was too complicated a project for a student, Sanders retreated to his backyard in Audobon, New Jersey, to build it himself.  After the Navy showed some interest but refused to entrust such an undertaking to someone so young, one of his instructors, Dr. Irving Wolfe, suggested he approach RCA.  Reluctant to turn over his work to a large corporation at first, Sanders finally joined the company when he became concerned that Bell Telephone might develop an FM altimeter before he could do so on his own.  The result was the AN/APN-1 altimeter patented in 1940, a staple of U.S. and British military aircraft during World War II.

After the war, Sanders left RCA for Raytheon, where he oversaw the Radar and Missile Division, informally known as “Lab 16.”  In this role, Sanders took over development of the Lark guided missile program, which had been started at Fairchild Aircraft in 1945, but had so far been unsuccessful.  Lab 16 developed a new guidance system for the Lark and performed the first successful aircraft interception by a surface-to-air missile in January 1950.  Sanders subsequently oversaw the beginning of the Sparrow-III and Hawk guided missile programs before a desire for independence led him to recruit ten of his fellow engineers in 1951 to join him at a new firm called Sanders Associates.

Briefly located in Waltham, Massachusettes, Sanders Associates settled into an old textile mill in Nashua, New Hampshire, in 1952, where it proceeded to grow into a Fortune 500 company and the largest employer in the state.  According to Sanders’ obituary in the Nashua Telegraph, one of the company’s first projects was a miniature gyroscope marketed by Timex, and it also joined the “Tinkertoy” project that represented one of several attempts to create interchangeable electronic components before the advent of the integrated circuit.  The company’s most important contributions were in electronic warfare, however, where it deployed the first viable electronic countermeasure system.  According to the Microwave Journal, by the time Baer joined Sanders in 1958, the company employed 8,000 people and brought in sales of approximately $9 million a year.

According to Baer’s oral history, Sanders assigned him to its Equipment Design Division, where he worked primarily on a spying apparatus codenamed BRANDY designed to pickup Soviet radio transmissions in Berlin.  Soon after Baer completed the project ahead of schedule, the Equipment Design Division manager retired, so in 1966 Baer was promoted to lead the unit.  It was in this context that Baer found himself sitting outside a New York City bus terminal on August 31, 1966, waiting for a colleague to arrive so they could go to a meeting together.  For reasons that have never been fully clear to Baer himself, in that moment he found himself once again thinking about how a person might interact with a television set.  The next day, he wrote a four page proposal, which has been preserved by the Smithsonian and is viewable in full in Baer’s autobiographical work, Videogames: In the Beginning, for a “TV Gaming Display” that would transmit a video signal to a television through its antenna ports and incorporate an RF modulator oscillating at one of the standard TV channel frequencies so that the television could tune to the signal and display the game.  Baer labelled this signal Channel LP (for “Let’s Play”) and proceeded to outline several types of games he felt would be well suited for his system such as driving games with a steering wheel controller, card games, board games like checkers and chess, basic educational software like arithmetic and geometry programs, games of chance like dice and roulette, target shooting games, and a “pumping” game in which each player presses a button rapidly to fill a vessel.  On September 6, Baer drew up a rough schematic of what such a device might look like and specified channels 3 and 4 for the device’s video signal, which remained the standard right up until plugging a video game console into a television no longer required an RF modulator in the 1990s.

Soon after drafting these documents, Baer initiated a skunk works project to build a prototype of his new game system.  As Baer explained to Kent in The Ultimate History of Video Games, the Equipment Design Division had a staff of 500 people, so no one would notice or even care if Baer took an engineer or two aside and put them to work on a special project in between more important work.  Therefore, as Baer recounted in his book and his oral history he asked one of his department managers to lend him a technician to create a feasibility prototype of his TV game using vacuum tubes.  The manager loaned him a man named Bob Tremblay, who created the circuitry necessary to interface a Heathkit TV alignment generator with a television via an RF modulator and move a simple vertical line around the screen.  Completed in December 1966 and retroactively identified as TV Game #1 by Baer, this simple setup was, in a way, the first video game system.  Like Baer’s initial proposal, this system is preserved at the Smithsonian.

Now confident that his game idea had merit, Baer approached the Sanders Corporate Director of Research & Development, Herbert Campman, to officially sanction the project.  After viewing Baer’s simple line-moving system in action, Campman approved further development with a modest initial budget of $2,000 for labor and $500 for materials.  Sanders was now officially in the video game business.

TV Game #2

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TV Game #2, designed by Ralph Baer and built by Bill Harrison

Baer continued to brainstorm game ideas with a fellow engineer named Bob Solomon in December 1966 and January 1967, but his game project did not really start in earnest until February 12, 1967, when he brought a new technician on board named Bill Harrison.  Born in Sagamore, Massachusettes, in 1935, William L. Harrison left home in 1953 at the age of eighteen to join the United States Air Force.  According to an interview conducted by Benj Edwards, after completing basic training, Harrison was assigned to an electronics course at Kessler Field in Mississippi so he could be trained as a ground radar repairman.  After completing his tour of duty in 1957, Harrison joined Sanders Associates, where his cousin was married to one of the founders, and by 1967 he was part of the Ocean Systems Division working on a sonar buoy project.  According to Harrison, Baer called one day to ask him to come over and see his TV game prototype before asking him to join the project.  According to Baer’s book, he was interested in recruiting Harrison, whom Baer knew because the engineer had been assigned to the BRANDY project for about a week, because he was known to be reliable and also had some television experience from tinkering with sets in his spare time.  Harrison said yes, and work soon commenced on the first real system prototype.

According to Baer’s book, he stashed Harrison in a small room on the fifth floor of the main Sanders building on Canal Street and told him to keep their project a secret.  The door remained locked at all times, and only Baer and Harrison had a key.  Baer gave him a few initial schematics, including a design for a light pen for use with a quiz game in which the player had to point the gun at the correct answer on the TV screen, as well as a 19-inch RCA television he had acquired specifically for the project.  Unfortunately, work on the TV game progressed only intermittently because whenever Harrison was needed elsewhere for more important work, Baer would have to let him go, often for weeks at a time.  Indeed, Harrison had barely started development when he had to leave the project for three months.  During this lull, Baer brainstormed more game ideas with another engineer named Bill Rusch, an MIT graduate known for being highly creative, but very difficult to motivate.  On May 10, 1967, Rusch drafted a formal memo articulating multiple game types that emerged from these brainstorming sessions, including a drawing game, two driving games (driving along an endless road or a circular track), a chase game, a maze game, a roulette game, several variations on a baseball guessing game (divide the screen into horizontal bands and have the “batter” guess in which band the “pitcher” will throw the ball), a U.S. geography map game, two target shooting games, a number guessing game, a “fox and hounds” game (a chase game where multiple pursuers chase one target), a soccer game, a golf putting game, and a horse racing game.

Meanwhile, Harrison returned to the project on May 2 and began to modify TV Game #1.  He added color to the system and implemented the very first completed game, the pumping game outlined in Baer’s first memo.  In what was most likely the first video game ever made (by the technical definition), one player would furiously press a button to raise a blue square on the screen that represented water, while the other player would pound his button to lower the square.  An overlay placed on top of the screen contained a drawing of the “bucket” that held the “water.”  If the first player could fill the bucket high enough within a time limit, he won, otherwise, the water turned red and the other player won the contest.  Subsequently, Baer directed Harrison to implement four additional games, all of which required only one spot, which was all the hardware could produce.  These were a second pumping game called “Firefighters,” a one-player variant of the original pumping game in which the player pressed a button to reduce the size of the dot to simulate fighting a fire, “Color Catching,” which was a guessing game, “Roulette,” which simulated the popular casino attraction, and “Car Ride,” in which the dot represented a car that the player had to drive down a road.  Once these were completed, Harrison built a few more components that allowed the team to ditch the Heathkit equipment altogether; this became TV Game #2.

Once the duo had the full system up and running, Baer designed the necessary hardware to add a second dot on the screen, which Harrison implemented starting on May 22.  This allowed each player to control his own dot and quickly led to the design of the “chase” game outlined in the Rusch memo in which one dot attempted to catch the other.  This required two new features in the hardware: collision detection and the ability to make a dot disappear.  Both of these functions were sketched out by Baer and then implemented by Harrison on May 25.  Next, another engineer named John Mason figured out a way to use random number generation to rapidly switch between elements on the screen and therefore give the illusion of more than two dots.  This allowed Harrison to implement the previously brainstormed “fox and hounds” game in June.  According to his interview with Edwards, Harrison also built a light gun around this time by buying a toy gun from Sears and retrofitting it so that it could sense dots on the screen and cause them to disappear with a pull of the trigger.  In the interview, Harrison takes credit for the idea of doing a “target practice” game, but both Baer’s initial memo and the Rusch memo include the concept, though neither one references a light gun.  According to Baer’s book, Harrison had also completed the light pen for the quiz game by this time as well.  (Note: Donovan in Replay largely confuses the timeline, stating that all the games were done by March — even the ping pong game that had not even been started yet by June.  Baer himself gives the best accounting of the timeline in Videogames: In the Beginning.)

One June 14, 1967, Baer invited Campman back to the lab for a demonstration of TV Game #2. (Note: In Replay, Donovan conflates this meeting with the initial funding meeting at the end of 1966.  Once again, Baer’s book is the best source for the sequence of events.)  Though impressed by all the games, Campman particularly liked the light gun game and believed that Baer now had a winning product.  Campman approved additional R&D funding and indicated it was now time to bring senior management into the loop.  The very next day, Baer demoed the system for Royden Sanders, executive VP Harold Pope, and the entire board of directors of the company, who happened to be in town for a meeting.  Seven games were demoed: “Chess,” which was actually a chase game in which each player moved a dot one space at a time around a chess board overlay trying to trap his opponent, “Steeple Chase,” a free-form chase game, “Fox and Hounds,” a chase game making use of the random dot hardware to place multiple pursuers on the screen, “Target Shooting” with the light gun, “Color Wheel Game,” a guessing game in which the dot cycles through a series of colors and the players must guess which color will appear, and the two previously described pumping games, which were named “Bucket Filling Game” and “Pumping Game” for this demonstration.  According to Baer’s interview with Donovan, neither Sanders nor Pope were particularly impressed, nor were all but two of the company directors.  Nevertheless, as Baer describes in his book, when the demonstration ended, Sanders and Pope conferred briefly before formally authorizing the project with the goal of creating a commercial product that Sanders could sell itself or license to another company.  It looked like the commercial video game would soon become a reality.