The gaming world lost a legend and a father this weekend with the death of Ralph H. Baer -- the creator of the first home gaming console.
Baer, 92, was extraordinary. He devoted much of his life and considerable brain power to the highest pursuit: making people happy. He was best known as the inventor of the "Brown Box," sold as the Magnovox Odyssey, which sparked the gaming console business. But he also also invented dozens of toys and games, including his favorite, the memory game Simon. He invented the light gun (think "Duck Hunt), which is considered to to be the first-ever gaming peripheral. He was also the first to lose a video game between two people, he told the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in a 2010 interview.
Baer's death also reminds us how very young the game industry is to still be losing its pioneers. What that does mean, however, is that the work of men such as Baer is well-documented. Here are five tidbits about Baer's life to inspire today's inventors.
Your best ideas come at weird times: Baer made his first invention at the age of 16, shortly after he and his family -- who were Jewish -- came to the United States from Germany in 1938. It was a wooden jig to improve the machines at the factory where he worked, which made leather pouches for manicure sets. But he wasn't to stay there long: Baer saw an ad for a radio technician correspondence course while on a subway ride later that year, switched his profession and changed history.
By 1966, he was the manager of an electronics design division at a defense industry company. On his own Web site, Baer described how, once again, he was struck by a thought while in transit.
"In 1966, thoughts about playing games using an ordinary TV set began to percolate in my mind. When I designed and built a TV set at Loral in 1955, I had proposed doing just that: Build in a game to differentiate our TV set from the competition. Management said No and that was that. During a business trip to New York City on the last day of August in 1966, while waiting at a bus terminal for another Sanders engineer to come into town for a meeting with a client, I jotted down some notes on the subject of using ordinary home TV set to play games. "
Those notes eventually became a four-page "disclosure document" -- now on file along with the Brown Box at the Smithsonian -- that outlined the idea of a "game box" that could play "action games, board games, sports games, chase games" and other genres. Baer allocated a technician from his division at the defense company to develop the idea. Eventually Baer's project became official, and he supervised engineers Bill Harrison and Bill Rusch as they developed the hardware and software.
It's all about the demo: One of the best Baer stories, included in The Post's obituary of him, is the tale of how he brought his Brown Box to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, got sick of explaining himself and just decided to do something about it.
As David Marino-Nachison writes:
During a visit to a patent examiner’s office to discuss his original system, [Baer] found himself largely ignored as his lawyer and the examiner conferred in technical jargon.
“While they were bantering back and forth about the claims, I set up a small television set and my game console in the examiner’s office,” Mr. Baer recalled. “Within 15 minutes, every examiner on the floor of that building was in that office wanting to play the game.”
Save everything: While we're listing firsts, Baer was also involved in the first lawsuit in the video gaming industry, when Magnovox went after Atari for the striking similarity between "Pong" and the tennis game that Baer invented for the Odyssey. (Atari settled out of court, and paid Magnovox licensing fees for years.) When asked by the USPTO for his key advice to young inventors, he said documentation is key.
“Whatever you do, sign it, date it, never ever throw anything away," he said. "Keep every scrap of paper. It can be a real savior in court. Verbal recollections are not good enough. Memory is fungible.”
He also had this lovely piece of wisdom to share, regarding how to fill out your application: “Don’t clutter up the application with nonsense."
You never know where things will lead: Although Baer clearly knew he was hitting on something with the idea of bringing games to the television screen, he said repeatedly he never expected it to take off like it did. Last year, game sales made $21 billion in U.S. sales -- more than box office ticket sales and music sales combined. "Little did I know that I had started the ball rolling on something much bigger and more significant than anyone could have imagined at the time," he wrote on his personal Web site.
He didn't always like where it went. When asked in 2011 by the Salt Lake Tribune about hyper-violence in games, Baer said he thought it was a "disgrace."
"What I created got abominated," he told the paper."You can see the same thing in music, literature, art — any form of art."
But he was also immensely proud of the greater contribution his inventions made to society.
"Nobody realized, even at that time, that we were on this geometric curve ... that would go straight up to heaven," Baer told the Tribune. "It was unforeseeable; it was fantastic. I'm glad it happened. And if I hadn't had started it, someone else would have."
Never stop: Baer told PBS in a 2013 interview that he was not interested in retirement. His friends, he said, were gone and his wife Dena Whinston died just days before Baer was awarded the National Medal for Technology and Innovation. Baer said wouldn't know what to do with himself without the challenge of making new technology.
“I’m no different than a painter who sits there and loves what he does," Baer said. "Would you ask a guy who's been painting all his life 'why do you keep painting? Why don't you retire?' Retire to what? Stop painting? This is insane. Why would you want to do that?"