Thomas Goldsmith

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.

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

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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.