How the Video Game Was Born

How the Video Game Was Born

This year, the video game turns 40. Let’s call it an occasion to spend a few more hours in front of our TVs, the place where it all started.

In 1951, some 12 million television sets were in existence and Ralph Baer, a television engineer at Loral Electronics, wondered what extracurricular tricks TV sets could do. The company was pushing television tech forward, and Baer mentioned to his bosses that wouldn’t it be fun to incorporate an interactive game element into the experience? Dude was onto something big, but his superiors weren’t ready for the innovation. It would take more than two decades and a different company for the suggestion to get anywhere.

Color television renewed Baer’s interest in the possibility of playing games on the machine. So in 1966, now at Saunders Associates, he sketched out how a game of chase might work. The result is a four-page document Baer calls his video game Eureka moment.

Using a vacuum tube chassis and a Heathkit CG-62 TV Alignment Generator, Baer cobbled together something that could move lines and squares across the screen. It was a working prototype, and finally his bosses were impressed. Baer got the green light plus some money to whip his innovation into commercial shape.

A month and a team of researchers later, the group had developed a “light gun” that could target squares on the television. (Early Duck Hunt, anyone?) Baer called this second attempt at a console the “Pump Unit” for a lever on the right side of the board. It had individual circuits for timing, as well as spot and color generation. As the model evolved, so did the games: they branched out from chase and shooting games to ping pong and handball.

Baer created seven consoles before landing on the switch-programmable version he boringly called the “Brown Box.” (He probably would have called it something like HolyshitamazingsauceGameMachine if he had known it would kick off the multi-billion dollar game industry) After parading it around to a couple of companies, Baer licensed the Brown Box to Magnavox in July 1971. During the year-long game testing, Magnavox referred to the unit as the “Skill-o-Vision,” before landing on “Odyssey” when it went to market in 1972. The system did well, selling 100,000 consoles in its first year, but it wasn’t quite a runaway success. The misconception that the Odyssey would only operate on a Magnavox television may have slowed sales, but another player in the video game, um, game also played a role.

Baer calls himself the father of home video games, but it was the father of arcade games who actually did the most to launch the video game industry. After seeing Baer’s ping pong game during an Odyssey demo in May of 1972, Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari, came out with Pong later that year. The game first debuted as a coin-operated free-standing machine before making the transition to TV sets. Similarities certainly existed between the two, but Bushnell’s version was pared down with simpler controls and a ball that didn’t fly off the screen.

Pong was a hit, giving Odyssey a little sales-bump on its coattails. More games like it came out, and while it revenue wasn’t as big, Magnavox won in the form of multiple patent infringement lawsuits. (In fact, Atari licensed the technology from Magnavox in 1976 after losing one such battle in court.)

After that, Atari carried the torch. The company went on to sell 30 million consoles over the space of three decades. Programmable ROM cartridges for software storage in their 1976 Atari 2600 VCS system separated game from console design for the first time, and a company formed by some ex-Atari designers called Activision (maybe you’ve heard of it) became the first company to focus exclusively on making games in 1979.

Forty years after Baer’s first design and eight generations of consoles later, the gaming industry is looking rather spry. And that’s why we have Kotaku Australia.

Images: Shutterstock/Berci, Smithsonian