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The 1938 subway ride that led to the invention of video games

Ralph Baer, an engineer for Sanders Associates of Nashua, N.H., in front of his TV hockey game on Feb. 3, 1977. (AP Photo)

Ralph Baer, who died at the age of 92 on Dec. 6, was the man who invented the first video-game console. He was often asked how it how it all began. And he always responded that it began with a subway ride.

Here’s part of the story, as he told it in a 2006 oral history with Gardner Hendrie for the Computer History Museum.

He was “riding the subway one day to work [in a factory] and someone across the aisle from me is reading a magazine. On the back of the magazine is an ad by National Radio Institute in Washington, D.C., ‘Make big money in radio and television servicing.’ I guess some bell went off inside of me — that was me. I subscribed immediately, and I paid about a buck and a quarter out of my $12 a week wages to take this course.”

When he finished the course, he quit the factory and got a job as a serviceman in a radio store on Lexington Avenue in New York City. That’s where he learned how to fix TV sets.

It’s a job that doesn’t really exist anymore. “Nowadays when you look into a television set, there is a small board in there with four or five integrated circuits that have 64 leads coming out, with hundreds of thousands of transistors on each of those chips. You don’t service anything. You just throw the damn thing away,” he told Hendrie.

Baer was drafted in 1943 and spent three years abroad training soldiers in small arms for the U.S. Army. In his free time, he learned algebra through military correspondence classes.

When he returned at age 24, he wanted to go to school, but the ones in New York were already full of veterans taking advantage of tuition reimbursement under the GI Bill. Baer also lacked proper credentials as he couldn’t get his school records from Germany.

“I saw an ad for this small school in Chicago, American Television Lab of Technology,” he said. “So I decided to get on a train. Who flew in those days?” He placed out of first-year courses on his entrance exam and graduated in less than two-and-a-half years. He got his bachelor’s degree in 1949.

He worked for several companies on projects ranging from hair-removal gadgets, to surgical equipment, to military radar devices, to machines that allowed the government to eavesdrop on Russians in East Berlin.

In 1951, when most people still didn’t have a TV set at home, he began kicking around an idea for using a TV set to play games. He pitched it to the chief engineer at Loral, the military electronics company he worked for at the time. “And of course,” he told The Washington Post’s David Marino-Nachison, “I got the regular reaction: ‘Who needs this?’ And nothing happened.”

He eventually left the company when they denied him a raise, saying “You’re making about as much as you’re worth,” Baer told Hendrie.

Then, one day in 1966, he was sitting on a curb outside a Manhattan bus station waiting on a colleague. It suddenly came to him how he might make his idea for playing games on TV work, he told Hendrie. He was working for the military electronics company Sanders Associates at the time and used his freedom as division manager to experiment. Within a few days Bear had drawn up plans and had a technician at the company build an early prototype.

“It was basically a demonstration of how to put a spot on a screen, how to move it laterally, horizontally, and vertically, and how to color it, how to color the background.”

He brought in an old colleague from his days of making spy equipment onboard. “Then we started thinking about what games to play,” he told Hendrie. “So, we put two spots on the screen, so they could chase each other and wipe one spot out upon contact. The very first thing I had him do was go out into a store and buy a plastic gun, and made a light gun out of a plastic gun, and shot at spots on the screen.”

Then the team brought William Rusch on board. “The major idea he came up with [is] a third spot controlled by the machine. Not two spots that are controlled by the manual operation of humans, but a machine controlled spot,” he told Hendrie. “The minute that came along, we knew what the answer was: ball games. He describes a ping-pong game, a handball game. … Once we had the ping-pong game going, we knew we had something.”

Baer’s pet project wasn’t exactly typical of his company’s work as a military contractor. “To tell the truth, it was a piece of Jewish chutzpah,” he said in a 2007 interview with the gaming site Gamasutra.

The first prototype, dubbed the “Brown Box,” didn’t elicit any interest from major TV makers General Electric, Motorola and Zenith. Sanders, the company Baer worked for, ultimately licensed the technology to Magnavox, which released it in 1972.

Its name: the Magnavox Odyssey.

The game played on it was Pong.

The rest is history.

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