Ralph Baer dies at 92; inventor was behind video game console

Ralph Baer, an inventor whose design sparked the idea for the first video game console years before Atari and Nintendo became household staples, died Saturday at his home in Manchester, N.H. He was 92.

His death was confirmed by his son, Mark Baer, who did not disclose the cause.

Over the last four decades, the expensive consoles produced by Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo have turned video gaming into a $75-billion industry. But it was Baer who first started conceptualizing a “TV gaming display.”

He was waiting for a colleague at a New York City bus terminal on Sept. 1, 1966, when he began to develop the idea that had come to him a few years earlier.

With television sets becoming cheaper, Baer saw an opportunity to get America’s growing generation of TV viewers to spend money on products and services that would allow them to do far more than just change channels. He imagined consumers playing action, math, board, card and sports games. They would control the games with joysticks or levers that would transmit data to the TV, activating pixels based on their inputs.


“The concept of playing games on an ordinary TV set had bubbled up once again from my subconscious and I got that exciting feeling of ‘being on to something,’ a feeling that is so familiar to me,” Baer would later write in his 2005 autobiography, “Video Games — In the Beginning.”

Soon, Baer and his colleagues at engineering firm Sanders Associates developed games that resembled ping-pong and handball. Baer, a small-arms expert in a military intelligence unit during World War II, also linked a rifle to one of his early consoles to create a shooting game.

After about four years of tinkering, he and colleagues secured a patent for a device he called “the brown box” because of the brown adhesive tape holding it together. Television maker Magnavox licensed the concept and in 1972 launched the Odyssey “electronic game center” for about $100.

Within a few years, Magnavox had sold more than 300,000 units and had a dozen mostly sports-oriented games built into it.

Similar devices from Atari with slicker graphics and better computing components overshadowed the Odyssey in the late 1970s, but Baer’s company won a patent infringement lawsuit against Atari, which eventually agreed to license the Sanders Associates technology.

Baer moved on to developing toys, including the electronic memory-tester Simon and Hasbro’s Talking Tools.

“His desire and his genius was always ‘What’s the next thing?’” Mark Baer said.

Baer amassed about 150 patents for products including talking books, greeting cards and doormats.

A few years ago, he said that he never dreamed that video gaming’s popularity would one day rival that of sports such as basketball and baseball.

Baer’s foresight earned him a place in technology history. President George W. Bush awarded him the National Medal of Technology in 2006. In 2010, he became a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Born in Germany near the French border on March, 8 1922, Baer fled to the U.S. with his Jewish family at age 16. After serving a three-year Army tour during the war, he earned his bachelor’s degree in television engineering from American Television Institute of Technology in Chicago.

He joined Sanders Associates in 1956 and remained there through the late 1980s.

Baer was working on an electronic doll two weeks before his death, his son said.

His other survivors include his children Nancy and James.

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History is re-creating Baer’s basement workshop for an exhibit set to go on display next July.

Twitter: @peard33