Ralph Henry Baer (born Rudolf Heinrich Baer; March 8, 1922 – December 6, 2014) was a German-born American inventor, game developer, and engineer, and was known as "the Father of Video Games" due to his many contributions to games and the video game industry in the latter half of the 20th century.
He was born in Germany, but he and his family fled to the United States before the outbreak of World War II, where he changed his name and later served the American war effort. Afterwards, he pursued work in electronics. He was asked to build "the best television set in the world" in 1951 while working at Loral. He proposed the idea of playing games on television screens, but his boss rejected it. That idea came back to his mind in 1966 while working at Sanders Associates, and he went on to develop eight hardware prototypes. The last two were the Brown Box and its de/dt extension, which became the Magnavox Odyssey, the first home video game console. He also contributed to the development of other consoles and consumer game units. In February, 2006, he was awarded the National Medal of Technology for "his groundbreaking and pioneering creation, development and commercialization of interactive video games, which spawned related uses, applications, and mega-industries in both the entertainment and education realms".
Baer was born in 1922 to Lotte (Kirschbaum) and Leo Baer, a Jewish family living in Germany, and was originally named Rudolf Heinrich Baer. At age 14, he was expelled from school because of his ancestry and had to go to an all-Jewish school. His father worked in a shoe factory in Pirmasens at the time. Baer's family, fearing increasing persecution, moved from Germany to New York City in 1938 two months prior to Kristallnacht while Baer was a teenager. Baer would later become a naturalized United States citizen.
In the United States, he was self-taught and worked in a factory for a weekly wage of twelve dollars; upon seeing an advertisement at a bus station for education in the budding electronics field, he quit his job to study in the field. He graduated from the National Radio Institute as a radio service technician in 1940. In 1943 he was drafted to fight in World War II and assigned to military intelligence at the United States Army headquarters in London. With his secondary education funded by the G.I. Bill, Baer graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Television Engineering (unique at the time) from the American Television Institute of Technology in Chicago in 1949.
In 1949, Baer went to work as chief engineer for a small electro-medical equipment firm, Wappler, Inc., where he designed and built surgical cutting machines, epilators, and low frequency pulse generating muscle-toning equipment. In 1951, Baer went to work as a senior engineer for Loral Electronics in Bronx, New York, where he designed power line carrier signaling equipment for IBM. From 1952 to 1956, he worked at Transitron, Inc., in New York City as a chief engineer and later as vice president.
He started his own company before joining defense contractor Sanders Associates in Nashua, New Hampshire (now part of BAE Systems Inc.) in 1956, where he stayed until retiring in 1987. Baer's primary responsibility at Sanders was overseeing about 500 engineers in the development of electronic systems for military applications. However, out of this work came the concept of a home video game console; he would go on to create the basis for the first commercial units, among several other patented advances in video games and electronic toys. As he approached retirement, Baer partnered with Bob Pelovitz of Acsiom, LLC, and they invented and marketed toy and game ideas from 1983 until Baer's death.
Baer was a Life Senior Member of Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. His son, Mark, helped lead the nomination process to elevate him to become an IEEE Life Fellow, the highest level of membership within the organization.
Family and death
Baer married Dena Whinston in 1952; she died in 2006. They had three children during their marriage, and at the time of Baer's death, he had four grandchildren. Baer died at his home in Manchester, New Hampshire on December 6, 2014, according to family and friends close to him.
Baer is considered to have been the inventor of video games, specifically of the concept of the home video game console. In 1966, while an employee at Sanders Associates, Baer started to explore the possibility of playing games on television screens. He first got the idea while working at Loral in 1951, another electronics company, however, they wanted nothing to do with it at the time. In a 2007 interview, Baer said that he recognized that the price reduction of owning a television set at the time had opened a large potential market for other applications, considering that various military groups had identified ways of using television for their purposes. Upon coming up with the idea of creating a game using the television screen, he wrote a four-page proposal with which he was able to convince one of his supervisors to allow him to proceed. He was given US$2,500 and the time of two other engineers, Bill Harrison and Bill Rusch. They developed the "Brown Box" console video game system, so named because of the brown tape in which they wrapped the units to simulate wood veneer. Baer recounted that in an early meeting with a patent examiner and his attorney to patent one of the prototypes, he had set up the prototype on a television in the examiner's office and "within 15 minutes, every examiner on the floor of that building was in that office wanting to play the game".
Baer began seeking a buyer for the system, turning to various television manufacturers who did not see interest in the unit. In 1971, it was licensed to Magnavox, and after being renamed Magnavox Odyssey, the console was released to the public in May 1972. For a time it was Sanders' most profitable line, selling over 340,000 units, though many in the company looked down on game development. Baer is credited for creating the first light gun and game for home television use, sold grouped with a game expansion pack for the Odyssey, and collectively known as the Shooting Gallery. The light gun itself was the first peripheral for a video game console.
The success of the Odyssey led to competition from other companies, in particular Atari, Inc., led by Nolan Bushnell at the time. Bushnell saw Baer's successful devices and was able to create the first arcade machine in 1972 based on Baer's Table Tennis idea, resulting in Pong. The success was very limited though, due to the heavy price and confusing advertising. Sanders and Magnavox successfully sued Atari for patent infringement over Baer's original ideas, but Bushnell would continue to push Atari forward to become a leader in both home and arcade video games. This led to a lengthy conflict between Baer and Bushnell over who was the true "father of video games"; Baer was willing to concede this to Bushnell, though noted that Bushnell "has been telling the same nonsensical stories for 40 years". Baer would help both Magnavox and later Coleco to develop competitive units to Atari's products, including the Odyssey 100 and the Odyssey2. Ultimately, the industry came to name Baer as the father of the home video game console, while crediting Bushnell with creating the concept of the arcade machine; Upon Baer's death, Bushnell stated that Baer's "contributions to the rise of videogames should not be forgotten".
Baer is also credited with co-developing three popular electronic games. Baer, along with Howard J. Morrison, developed Simon (1978) and its sequel Super Simon (1979) for Milton Bradley, electronic pattern-matching games that were immensely popular through the late 1990s. The US patent for Simon, Pat No. 4,207,087 was obtained in 1980 by patent counsel for Marvin Glass and Associates, Robert J. Schneider, a managing partner with the firm of Mason, Kolehmainen, Rathburn and Wyss. Schneider is currently Co-Chair of the Intellectual Property Department of Taft, Stettinius & Hollister LLP. Baer also developed a similar pattern-matching game "Maniac" for the Ideal Toy Company (1979) on his own, though the game was not as popular as Simon; Baer considered that Maniac was "really hard to play" and thus not as popular as his earlier game.
In 2006, Baer donated hardware prototypes and documents to the Smithsonian Institution. He continued to tinker in electronics after the death of his wife through at least 2013. By the time of his death, Baer had over 150 patents in his name; in addition to those related to video games, he had patents for electronic greeting cards and for tracking systems for submarines.
In addition to being considered "The Father of Video Games", Baer was recognized as a pioneer in the video game field. His accolades include the G-Phoria Legend Award (2005), the IEEE Masaru Ibuka Consumer Electronics Award (2008), the Game Developers Conference Developers Choice "Pioneer" award (2008), and the IEEE Edison Medal (2014). Baer was posthumously given the Pioneer Award by the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences at the 2015 Game Developers Conference.
On February 13, 2006, Baer was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President George W. Bush in honor of his "groundbreaking and pioneering creation, development and commercialization of interactive video games". On April 1, 2010, Baer was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame at a ceremony at the United States Department of Commerce in Washington, D.C.