Archive: Computer Collector Newsletter / Technology Rewind, Jan. 2004 - March 2006

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Baer autobiography worth its quirks

by Evan Koblentz

This week, we stop to consider our favorite recreational event, videogames. A few weeks ago, I received a review copy of Ralph Baer's new autobiography, "Videogames: In the Beginning" ($29.99; see the publisher's web site at

All I knew about Baer was that he's the controversial inventor of videogame console systems. I was skeptical of the stories I'd heard, but decided to give his side a read.

I am now convinced: even if the concept of videogames had never been a part of his life, he is still a man to be revered by us computer nerds, and his life story would still be worth reading, still one the rest of us can learn from - I sure did.

In addition to his varied videogame inventions, Baer earned one of the first-ever college degrees in television engineering. And in addition to his original inventions and patents, Baer didn't rest: he went on to invent systems for delivering game content over cable television networks; the use of data cartridges for games; interactive videotape and videodisk systems; instant-replay features for sports games; and methods for real-time drawing of interactive game components by the players - all during the 1970s and 1980s, years and decades before these technologies came into mainstream acceptance. He also explains fascinating stories such as how color was achieved in the early days and how Apple IIe computers were later used to control game sounds, and how, remarkably, most of this work was done as an afterthought to his main job of designing military electronics.

But that's all tangential to Baer's numerous prototypes and famous "Brown Box" design, leading to the Magnavox Odyssey consoles, and eventually leading to every noteworthy videogame manufacturer of the 1970s and 1980s paying large royalties to his employer, Sanders Associates.

When I began reading, I reacted with disappointment to the first few pages of the 258-page book. It seemed that Baer would use the whole book to complain about never getting the credit he deserved, and that no one but himself had as important a role in the invention of videogames. Thankfully, that fear evaporated after the introduction. I found the vast majority of the book to be surprisingly fair to all sides of the story, albeit with some editorializing here and there. That is only a minor price to pay for hearing the story of videogames told with such completeness -- who else could possibly tell it?

Another enjoyable aspect of "In the Beginning" is Baer's conversational writing style, making it one of those rare books that I read in a single evening, interrupted only by messages and a meal. It has a perfect blend of interwoven technical and business discussions, and the exhaustive inclusion of technical memos and engineering notes exceeds what I've seen attempted in the past. That fact that every page is glossy, with many in full color, makes it an even more satisfying experience. A CD is also available with more technical notes and videos of Baer demonstrating the Brown Box.

In the end, as much as I enjoyed "In the Beginning", I still feel that Baer's claim to the "father of videogames" title is inaccurate. On one hand, the book's cover makes this clear: it says "By Ralph H. Baer, the inventor of home videogames." Baer as the inventor of "home" videogames, and even as the inventor of "practical" videogames, are concepts that I can endorse. The same is true for his observation that, whoever is the father of videogames, it surely was not Atari's Nolan Bushnell, and that is a simple historical fact by Bushnell's own admission.

But I can't endorse Baer's claim of being the inventor, flat-out, of all videogames, as he lays claim to in the actual text. Yes, he holds the patents. However a videogame is simply any game played on a video screen. You don't need a dictionary definition for this; it's common sense. Willy Higginbotham's primitive tennis game in 1958, based on oscilloscopes at Brookhaven National Labs, may not have been the first-ever game on a screen, and it certainly wasn't planned as or capable of being a home game or even a practical game, nor was the PDP-1 approach of the MIT hackers who made "Spacewar" in the early 1960s. Baer notes that "there isn't an engineer born into this world who hasn't fiddled with his oscilloscope and some function generators such as a pulse or sine wave test sets and produced neat motions of spots and lines on the screen" -- that is true and therefore we will never know who really did happen to invent, or at least discover, the first ideas of a videogame. Still Baer insists that Higginbotham's system "wasn't a videogame" and that is a claim I simply don't understand.

Who says all videogames must use raster-scan technology as Baer's inventions did? Horseless buggies used steam power and can't compare to Ford's Model T, but that doesn't devalue their history of the first automobiles. In the end, as Baer states, "I think I'll leave it right there." I'm offended by his statement that whoever disagrees with his desired title is a "Luddite" -- again, I feel it's not a question of who invented videogames, but a question of what videogames are, and that Baer's definition is too narrow and self-serving.

But most important of all is this point worth repeating: Baer unquestionably invented the home, practical videogame, without which the other inventions might have been moot, and without which I and millions of other children of the 1970s and 1980s would have had vastly different (and I think inferior!) childhoods. Had it not been for Baer's inventions, computer networking and the graphical interface still would have been invented, but would a generation of homebrewers and microcomputer users have accepted the Macintosh? I vividly remember seeing my first GUI - I believe it was an Apple IIgs - and recall that no one had to explain to me how the mouse and cursor worked. I "just got it" because it was no different than my joystick back home. I hope that happy memory never fades, and now thanks to Baer's book, I've got a whole new understanding of its roots, with no offense meant to Mr. Engelbart. I wholly recommend this book.