The Brown Box – Baer Patents First Video Game
January 15, 1968: Ralph Baer Patents First Video Game
On this day in 1968 Ralph Baer applies for a patent on a TV game system he designed sparking the beginning of the Video Game age. The system was simply called ‘Brown Box’ as that was exactly what it looked like. Within five years, the rights will be purchased by Magnavox and the Odyssey would be the product.
Baer started development of the “Brown Box” in 1966 for the defense-electronics company Sanders Electronics. In 1971, it was licensed to Magnavox, and after being renamed Magnavox Odyssey, the console was released to the public in 1972.
People often think of Atari’s Pong as the first videogame console but Baer had his “Brown Box” prototype working by 1968. Thus the Odyssey became the world’s first commercial home video game console demonstrated in April 1972 predating the Atari Pong home consoles by three years.
Ralph first came up with the idea in 1951 when he was working for an early TV manufacturer by the name of Loral. The idea that the TV should include innovative concepts like the ability to play games was canned immediately by his managers, but not removed from Ralph’s mind.
Move forward to 1966 when Baer had an epiphany while waiting at a bus stop. He remembered his proposal to Loral but now Ralph, as Chief Engineer and Manager at Sanders, could do something about it. Especially considering that televisions were much more common in U.S. homes, it made more sense to build a device that could play games on any TV set in any household. An easily affordable “game box.”
Ralph jotted down plans and schematics, and had one of his technicians, Bob Tremblay, begin work on the circuits. Within a month, they had a primitive prototype working that put two spots on the TV screen and allowed play of a “game” of sorts Ralph called, “Fox and Hounds.” One blip could be made to chase the other and the chaser would win when he touched the other blip.
By January of 1967, with Bill Harrison added to the project, and they began work on a “light gun,” that could shoot at dots on the screen to make them disappear.
OMG, a Third Blip
Soon Ralph and Harrison came up with the idea of a third blip on the screen. With that the team had ideas for various ball games, one of which was Ping-Pong and by that November the Ping-Pong game was working.
Bob Enders, who left RCA to become VP at Magnavox contacted Ralph in 1970 and arranged a demonstration of the Brown Box. A contract was hammered out and Magnavox began work on a prototype. By the spring of 1972, Magnavox was demonstrating their product to the industry and press. They called it, The Odyssey, which retailed for $100.00.
The prototype, known as the Brown Box, is now at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. On February 13, 2006, Baer was given a National Medal of Technology by Former President George W. Bush, in honor of his “groundbreaking and pioneering creation, development and commercialization of interactive video games”.
The Odyssey retailed for $100 and the console included 6 cards (for a total of 12 games), two controllers, and screen overlays. The light rifle was sold separately for $25, and six additional cards were for sale separately.
The original 6 cartridges allowed the following 21 games: Table Tennis, Ski, Simon Says, Fun Zoo, Percepts, Tennis, Analogic, Baseball, Hockey, Football (passing and kicking), 2 Soccer variants, Cat and Mouse, another Football (running), Haunted House, 3 Invasion variants, Submarine, Roulette and States. Besides the TV screen overlays, many of these games used accessories reserved for more traditional gaming like poker chips, dice, and fake money.
Two cartridges came with the light rifle, and they allowed you to play the shooting games Dogfight, Shootout, Prehistoric Safari and Shooting Gallery. The remaining 4 cartridges (which often wound up under the counter and rarely sold), included the games Volleyball, Wipeout, and Interplanetary Voyage. Ralph considered these to be the best games available for the Odyssey.
Baer along with others also created three popular electronic games. Simon, an electronic pattern-matching game. “Super Simon” released in the same year as “Maniac” (1979) built by separate manufacturers.
Link to an early video of Baer demonstrating the Brown Box: [https://youtu.be/rai7uAuvGDA]