5.15.2007

Chutzpah
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(Part 3, go back for part 2)

Right from the start, Baer dreamed of creating a consumer product for the mass market: "The idea was to make an alternative, interactive use of tens of millions of home TV sets then in homes worldwide," Baer told classic-gaming website PONG-story.com. He envisioned his creation as an alternative to the general lack of selection available on the few broadcast channels of the day, imagining his games coming in on "Channel LP," for "Let's Play." Later, he favored the more obvious and simpler term "TV games" to describe his novel and groundbreaking work.

Jewish Chutzpah

By early 1967, Ralph Baer had drafted Bill Harrison, a bright and capable Sanders technician, into the new project as his chief hardware guru. Harrison had loyalty and respect for Baer's knowledge and experience, and the two quickly found that they worked well together. With the idea of TV games burning in his imagination, Baer wasted no time in securing initial funding and support from certain visionaries in Sanders' upper management, allowing him to put his vision into practice. Herbert Campman, corporate director of R&D at Sanders, was one of those visionaries. He served as Baer's main advocate in the upper echelon of impeccably suited, stern-faced executives at Sanders when it came to the utterly frivolous topic of videogames. More importantly, Campman became the man immediately behind the purse strings of Baer's pet project -- and thus, the man to please.

The two engineers moved into a 10-by-12-foot lab on the fifth floor of Sanders' Canal Street building in Nashua, NH, on Feb 12, 1967. It was modest accommodations for an ambitious project. A long workbench stretched across a back wall, wired up for both electronic test equipment and their prized 19-inch RCA color TV set. A desk, a couple of file cabinets, and two chairs filled the rest of the floor space. "It was a tight fit," Baer said.

Baer kept the tiny lab, a former company library in Sanders' early days, locked at all times. Only two men had keys: Baer and Harrison. The room would remain the base of operations for their controversial video experiments for years to come -- experiments that, had they been known about widely at the time, might have garnered intense ridicule from other employees of the prominent defense contractor. Pursuing them was an utterly audacious move.

"To tell the truth, it was a piece of Jewish chutzpah," Baer admitted in a March 2007 interview with Game Developer magazine. To be sure, Baer's venture was a gutsy proposition in the midst of a company accustomed to selling war. At the time, Baer ran a 500-person engineering division with a multimillion-dollar budget. He figured that putting a few technicians, like Harrison, on his pet project wouldn't affect his departmental overhead -- it would be a drop in the bucket for a huge company like Sanders. However, that simple drop would soon make a huge splash, then transform into an unstoppable, raging tsunami. For now, though, they were just beginning.



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