This Day in Tech History

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Electric Ping-Pong?

Ralph Baerfront

January 15, 1968 Ralph Baer Patents First Video Game

Ralph Baer applies for a patent on a TV game system he designed. This, of course, sparks the Video Game age and Ralph becomes the inventor and Pioneer of the field. In 2006, he was honored with a National Medal of Technology for the advancement.

brown_box   Brown_box_insides

The system was simply called ‘Brown Box’ as that was exactly what it looked like. Within five years, the rights will be purchased and the Magnavox Odyssey would be the product.


Ralph Baer is considered by many to be the “father of video games.” In 1966, he transformed people’s relationship to home television by inventing a way for them to interact with their sets, playing games like Ping-Pong, tennis, checkers, and more. His work led directly to the game Odyssey in 1972, the first home video game for the consumer market, and launched a million-dollar industry–though no one predicted that at the time.

That same year, a young Nolan Bushnell played Odyssey at a trade show. Bushnell went on to found Atari and create the arcade version of Baer’s Ping-Pong game, the now infamous Pong. Baer’s groundbreaking work has shaped the leisure-time activities of a large segment of the world’s population and spawned numerous businesses. The historical record of his achievements very nearly disappeared. They are now preserved in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.


In 1966, Ralph Baer resumed work on an initial idea he had in 1951 to make an interactive game on a television set. In May 1967, Baer and an associate created the first game to use a raster-scan video display, or television set, directly displayed via modification of a video signal – i.e. a “video” game. The “Brown Box”, the last prototype of seven, was released in May 1972 by Magnavox under the name Odyssey. It was the first home video game console.


On September 1 of ’66 Baer produced a paper outlining the possibilities of games that could use a TV set as a display. Five days later he took this a stage further, and drew up a schematic outlining the circuitry required to place two controllable spots on a TV screen.

Now things were finally happening, and Baer directed one of the technicians from his division, Bob Tremblay, to build a vacuum tube circuit that could produce this two-spot display. This was sufficient for them to be able to play a ‘chase’ game on the set, with one ‘player’s dot trying to ‘catch’ the other player’s.

With the entrance of Bill Rusch on to the project the creative ideas really began to flow. The old chase game got a machine-controlled third dot, as well as compatibility with the first ever ‘light-gun’ peripheral. Then Rusch came up with the idea of making this third dot a ‘ball’. Before long the two player-controlled dots were made into paddles, and the team were playing ‘ping-pong’.

This game would stay with the project all the way through to its eventual commercial release, as ‘Ping-Pong’ became an important title for the Odyssey

These breakthrough developments occurred before the famous game PONG appeared in arcades, a game so often mistakenly referred to as the first video game. The game that launched ‘ Atari’ and the career of Nolan Bushnell, was essentially, a total copy of the ping-pong game developed by Baer’s team. Bushnell insisted that he did not take his idea for PONG from the Odyssey. But when Magnavox sued for copyright infringement, he didn’t have a leg to stand on. The matter was eventually settled out of court, as Atari became the first of many Magnavox sub licensees.

Ralph Baer with Bill Harrison in a demo video of Ping-Pong on the Brown Box, 1969.  This is the first documented video of the Ping-Pong game.


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