I was getting crushed. There’s no two ways about it—I was being soundly beaten at Ping-Pong by a man forty-five years my senior. I pride myself on being a good Ping-Pong player, but here he was, demolishing me. Serve, miss, point. Serve, miss, point. He was putting unbelievable English on the ball, and I didn’t stand a chance.
Of course, I was playing the master, the man who invented the game—the electronic version, that is. I was playing with Ralph Baer, the father of home video games. And we were using the Brown Box, the prototype he developed to play an electronic game on a television, the first time that had ever been done. That prototype eventually became the first home-video-game system, the Magnavox Odyssey, that came out in 1972. Ralph recently brought the Brown Box for a visit to the National Center for the History of Electronic Games at Strong National Museum of Play where he shared the story of its invention.
Many of you probably know the story, but here’s the thirty-second version. In 1966, Ralph was working for a military contractor, Sanders Associates, Inc., when he formulated the idea of playing a game on a television screen. He wrote the idea down with details on how to do it and then proceeded to develop it with the help of partners at Sanders.
His idea became the Brown Box and then the Magnavox Odyssey, launching an entire industry that in 2008 had sales of more than $21 billion in the United States alone. If you want to know more about Ralph’s career and the origin of video games, check out these two sites: www.pong-story.com and www.ralphbaer.com.
Ralph didn’t stop after launching the video-game industry. He continued inventing, including creating one of the best-selling electronic toys of all time, Simon. Simon, along with other electronic toys like Texas Instruments’s Speak & Spell and Coleco’s handheld football game, popularized electronic play in the 1970s. Ralph has generously donated many of the documents related to the design of Simon and other inventions of his to the National Center for the History of Electronic Games. Meanwhile, Ralph is still creating new toys and we were pleased to get a sneak peak at some of his latest inspirations that combined electronic and physical play. After revolutionizing the video-game and electronic toy markets, who knows what magic Ralph will produce next? Here’s a clip from Ralph’s talk when he was at NCHEG. Meanwhile, I’m going to practice my Ping-Pong so that next time we play I can give Ralph a better match.
By Jon-Paul Dyson, Director, International Center for the History of Electronic Games and Vice President for Exhibits