Home video games turn 45 this week. That’s right, on August 31, 1966, Ralph Baer originated the idea of playing a video game on a television. An electrical engineer and employee of defense contractor Sanders Associates, Inc., Ralph had toyed with the idea of using a television to play some sort of game before, but, now, the thoughts crystallized into a definite concept.
As Ralph records in his memoir, Videogames in the Beginning:
During a business trip for Sanders to New York City in 1966 I found myself waiting for another Sanders engineer at a bus terminal; he was going to join me for a meeting with a client. I took advantage of my free time and jotted down some notes on the subject of using ordinary home TV sets for the purpose of playing games. I have a distinct image in my mind of sitting on a cement step outside the bus terminal, enjoying a nice warm, sunny summer day, occasionally looking out at the passing traffic, waiting for my associate to show up and scribbling notes on a small pad. It was “Eureka” time.
The following day, Ralph returned to his office in New Hampshire and wrote four pages of notes. These documents, the Ur-text of home video games, not only documented Ralph’s invention and explained many of the technical requirements for the game, but they also forecasted the basic classes of games: action games, board games (based on skill and chance), artistic games, instructional games, card games, and sports games. In clear, concise language, Ralph presciently charted out many of the main lines of video game evolution.
Over the next six years, Ralph labored to turn his idea into a commercial reality—the Magnavox Odyssey—which hit store shelves and entered people’s homes in 1972. You can watch an online video of him playing his Brown Box prototype in 1969. Or better yet, you can visit ICHEG’s eGameRevolution exhibit here at The Strong’s National Museum of Play and play a version of the Brown Box that Ralph made for the museum.
Television video games have grown and matured in the last 45 years, but it’s always fun to celebrate a birthday. I’m not recommending you go so far as to sing “Happy Birthday” to your PS3, Wii, or Xbox360, but it’s good to remember that sunny summer day in New York in 1966 when Ralph first dreamed up the concept of television video games.
By Jon-Paul Dyson, Director, International Center for the History of Electronic Games and Vice President for Exhibits