Articles

This Jewish refugee and World War II vet made modern video games possible

Ralph H. Baer was a refugee of Nazi Germany and a World War II vet working for a defense contractor when he made the first video game console.


Ralph Baer's "Brown Box" prototype would become the Magnavox Odyssey. Photo: George Hotelling via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 2.0

Baer was born in Germany in 1922 but his family fled in 1938 through Holland to the U.S. as the Third Reich rose to power. He trained through correspondence courses to repair radios before being drafted into the U.S. Army.

He became a military intelligence soldier and was sent to Europe for two years. During his deployment, he collected a number of German weapons and metal detectors. Once he finished studying the metal detectors the Germans were using, he began turning them into radios for his friends. The 18 tons of small arms he collected were sent back to the states to become museum pieces.

Baer returned to America after the war and went to school on the G.I. Bill. While working as a engineer on guided weapons for a defense contractor, Baer conceived of a box that would plug into a normal T.V. and let people play games together. One of his bosses liked the idea and gave Baer some money and two engineers to work with.

Baer would later invent the SIMON electronic game. Photo: Public Domain via Wikipedia/Hempdiddy

They called their device the "Brown Box" until Magnavox bought it and named it the Odyssey. The Odyssey was the first true video game console and allowed two players to play card, board, and other games on their home T.V.

A number of companies would go on to make more marketable and successful consoles. The popular game Pong, along with many others, was ruled to be infringing on Baer's patent after Baer's employer bought it and sued other companies.

Baer continued inventing after the Odyssey. Light guns, like those used in Nintendo's Duck Hunt, are his invention. He created SIMON, the popular '80s electronic game where players match sequences of colored lights. The Navy used a submarine tracking radar that Baer invented, and users of talking doormats and greeting cards have him to thank.

Photo: White House Eric Draper

Baer was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President George W. Bush in 2006 and was admitted to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2010. He died in Dec. 2014.

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