How a refugee from Hitler's Germany became the father of the video game
Art Molella, Zocalo Public Square
It’s perhaps fitting that the man recognized as the father of the video game, that quintessential American invention, was a refugee from Hitler’s Germany.
“I had the misfortune of being born in a horrendous situation,” Ralph Baer told the Computer History Museum, of his birth to Jewish parents in 1922 in southwestern Germany.
When the Nazis came to power, they threw all Jewish students out of school, forcing him to seek employment at age 14. He worked as an office typist, collected money for bars, and worked in a shoe factory.
Baer’s boss at the shoe factory told him he would never amount to anything. Undaunted, the young Baer invented a machine that automated a one-off hand-punch process, an early sign of his innovative talent — and his defiance.
A quick learner, Baer taught himself English, which proved critical in getting his family on the “miniscule” list of individuals accepted by U.S. immigration. Just weeks before Kristallnacht, which signaled a major escalation of the Nazi state’s war on Judaism, the Baer family made their way to New York, where Baer’s mother had relatives.
Innovation requires being at the right place at the right time, as much as it does individual genius. Baer came to the United States during the heyday of the American industrial research lab, and New York was a center of electronics innovation. He quickly found employment in the growing defense electronics sector in New York City, at such companies as Loral Electronics and Transitron.
One of his first assignments at Loral was to build a television set. While doing this, he became convinced TVs were underutilized as a one-way, passive medium. Thus was born his idea of interactive TV, and what he initially called “participatory television.”
Later, at Sanders Associates, a defense electronics firm in Nashua, New Hampshire, Baer was having trouble creating a device that would actually introduce images on the TV screen. Then he a Eureka moment. Sitting at a bus stop, he realized he could build a small radio frequency signal device, “so you could get into the antenna terminals of a TV set on Channel 3 or Channel 4.” This would make the television set more interactive.
Soon thereafter, while managing a military research lab, Baer commandeered a former library space on the fifth floor of the company’s Canal Street building, where he secretly started his own “skunk works.” When the pace of business allowed, he and tech designers worked sporadically on the idea of a game console that could work on unmodified TV sets. “Little by little we got stuff on the screen,” he remembered. “Then we started thinking about what games to play.” That included the first-ever onscreen pingpong game.
Out of this original idea came his famous prototype “brown box,” a single console containing the first video gaming system, now in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Once he created a prototype, Baer finally presented it to his managers, persuading them they could make money with TV/video games, even though such games had nothing to do with the serious business of radar and defense R&D that were Sanders’ main product lines.
Sanders, which had obtained property rights to Baer’s prototype for the princely sum of one dollar, licensed the brown box technology to a TV company, Magnavox, which produced the hugely popular Odyssey video game console. Sanders ultimately earned roughly $100 million (1970s dollars) from the patents Baer assigned to the company. What distinguished Baer from many other inventors was his attention to commercialization. He knew an invention didn’t count unless it found a market. When he was later asked how he managed to develop commercially successful home video games at a military contractor that had nothing to do with television, he quipped it was “a piece of Jewish Chutzpah.”
“I just did it,” he said.
Baer was a tinkerer at home, too, and his success with the brown box motivated him to do more. He was clearly happiest working in his cozy basement in Manchester. West Coast garages rank high in the hierarchy of temples of innovation—both Hewlett Packard and Apple famously trace their origins to garages. But if you’re into video games, you owe a debt of gratitude to an East Coast basement. We’ve reassembled that very lab at our museum, as a key exhibit in the new wing dedicated to innovation and American enterprise.
Experts often debate whether invention and innovation rely more on solitary endeavors or institutional collaboration. Baer’s work shows that it’s more often than not a combination of both.
Arthur Molella is director emeritus of the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center at the National Museum of American History. Molella was part of the curatorial team that brought Ralph Baer’s workshop to the museum. He wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zócalo Public Square.