There are three guaranteed spots on the Mount Rushmore of video games: Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari; Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Nintendo’s Mario and Zelda franchises; and Ralph Henry Baer, who is commonly known as “The Father Of Video Games.”
Baer died on Sunday. He was 92.
Baer was born in Germany, but his family fled to the US before the start of World War II. In the 1960s, as the price of TVs was starting to fall, Baer said he dreamt of using a TV set for other applications, like games.
He was working for a military defence contractor called Sanders Associates from 1956 to 1987. Sanders dealt with electronics. He became obsessed with the idea for video games, and according to The New York Times, he ended up writing a four-page outline in 1966 that described how people could play all sorts of games — sports, board, action, and others — on a TV set.
In order to create games for the TV, Baer needed help: specifically, people and money. With $US2,500 and his fellow engineers Bill Harrison and Bill Rusch, Baer created the “Brown Box,” since it was wrapped in brown tape that looked like wood grain.
There was immediate interest in Baer’s Brown Box. Upon bringing one unit to the patent office, “every examiner on the floor of that building was in that office wanting to play the game,” according to The Washington Post.
He licensed the console to Magnavox in 1971, and it was released to the public the following year — its success, selling about 300,000 units, inspired Atari’s Nolan Bushnell to create the first arcade machine, as well as Pong, which was based off Baer’s original idea for virtual table tennis, according to the documentary “Video Games: The Movie.”
Baer received many awards over the years for his role as a pioneer of video games; in 2006, President George W. Bush awarded him the National Medal of Technology for his “groundbreaking and pioneering creating, development and commercialization of interactive video games.”
Video game technology has made substantial progress since Baer’s Brown Box — it was a $US90 billion market in 2013, but it’s probably exceeded that value since then thanks to development on current- and next-gen consoles like the Oculus Rift. Still, today’s video games may have existed were it not for Baer’s creativity and initial curiosity.
Baer is survived by his two sons, James and Mark; a daughter, Nancy; and four grandchildren. Many of Baer’s original works have been donated to museums across the country, including the Smithsonian.