Onward and Upward

(part 5)

Onward and Upward

Baer, Harrison, and Rusch worked on TV games for the remainder of the decade, culminating in the license of their technology to Magnavox, a major TV manufacturer at the time. Magnavox used the license to develop the world's first home videogame system, the Odyssey, which was almost an exact copy of a 1968-69 Sanders prototype known as the "Brown Box." Launched in 1972, the overpriced and mismanaged Odyssey package was a modest commercial success, but being based on late-1960s technology, it was effectively outdated by the time it was released. While introducing the concept of the home videogame console and ultimately starting the videogame revolution, the Odyssey failed to excite the popular imagination. That task would be left to a young entrepreneur named Nolan Bushnell and his company, Atari, whose second game, Pong, proved to be the essential catalyst needed to kick-start the videogame industry. It's no coincidence that Pong looks a little familiar to the Ping-Pong game created by Baer's team at Sanders: Bushnell based his game directly on a demonstration of the Odyssey that he witnessed on May 24, 1972 at a dealer and press exposition of the new console in California.

With the help of various engineers and technicians, Baer continued to create innovative new video-related technologies throughout the 1970s and beyond, each worthy of its own chapter in history. By the late '70s, Baer's once-maligned videogame technology at Sanders had become the company's shining star. Licensing agreements from the Baer, Harrison, and Rusch videogame patents were a huge cash cow for the company, then struggling from tough times in the defense industry. "We'd be in the quarterly meeting, along with other division managers, looking at the performance of various divisions," Baer told Game Developer magazine, "and our licensing income was always bigger than that of the biggest division of the company." At that point, Baer was nigh untouchable by upper management. He escaped the stressful task of heading a huge division and settled into a flexible R&D position that offered him ample creative freedom. Meanwhile, he began doing his own independent toy and game design on the side -- intellectually satisfying work at which he has found continued success over the last three decades.


In the 1960s, Ralph Baer was adamant in requiring his engineers to keep copious, detailed notes documenting all their work on the TV games project. His meticulous nature paid off: We now have verifiable journal entries, diagrams, and electronic schematics that not only confirm Baer's story, but allow a rare window into the minds of the three men at the time they were creating the world's first television games. Historians can rest easy knowing that some of the nation's most prestigious professional archivists recently recognized the historical importance of the Sanders work and took charge of preserving the team's legacy for future generations. With the invaluable assistance of Ralph Baer, who rescued all the documents and prototypes he could find, the original TV game-related hardware, journals, and paperwork that remain are now preserved in the Lemelson Center at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. Baer has also built fully functioning replicas of all the original TV games units for placement in museums all around the world.

Despite having racked up enough landmark achievements for several lifetimes, Baer shows no signs of quitting. Now 85 years old, he continues to develop electronic toys and games from his workshop at home. The modern world of videogames, at its light-speed pace, has long since passed him by, but he'll always remain incredibly proud of the contributions he made at the very beginning.

Bill Harrison left Sanders Associates in 1978 for a new life in sunny Florida. There, he worked 19 years as VP of engineering for International Laser Systems. Now 73 and retired, he spends time fixing up old cars and sailing when he gets the chance. He says the thing he'll always remember most about the TV games project was the great people he worked with. "It was a fun job to work on, and especially working with Ralph," Harrison reflected in a recent interview. "Boy, those were good years." He and Baer are close friends to this day.

As the square peg of the trio, we tend to hear about Bill Rusch the least from Baer's accounts of TV game history. Rusch's oldest son, Jim Rusch, says that his father retired from Sanders (then known as Lockheed-Sanders) around 1990. The elder Rusch, a multitalented musician, athlete, artist, and engineer, created many innovative works in his lifetime, but he considered Ping-Pong one of his greatest achievements. A few years after retiring, Bill Rusch went to see his doctor, complaining of acute back pain. The doctor discovered cancer that had already spread throughout his body. He died six weeks later, in July of 1993, at the age of 63.

The First Videogames Ever?

Historians have documented a number of potential candidates for the title of "first videogame," including three that predate 1967. But the games created that year by Ralph Baer and his team had one major distinction from all the rest, a distinction whose importance was upheld by dozens of legal trials through the decades, and one considered paramount by historians: They were designed to be played on an ordinary home TV set by ordinary people.

"That was the seminal idea," Baer told Game Developer magazine. And although it seems obvious to us now, before Ralph Baer came along, no one had developed electronic hardware for the purpose of playing games using an unmodified consumer television set. Ralph Baer did not coin the precise term "videogame"; it came along later in reference to electronic video arcade games of the early 1970s. But one could argue that Baer's innovative electronic TV games were the first videogames ever created.

One way of looking at the issue of the first videogame is that the other possible "firsts" most commonly cited -- William Higinbotham's Tennis for Two (1958), Steve Russell's Spacewar (1962), and even Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr.'s little-known 1948 missile-game patent -- did not use video displays; they used vector displays and oscilloscopes. So what's the difference? Most dictionaries provide a vague and often recursive definition of "video" that nonetheless always mentions television, and numerous historical news accounts from the 1950s to the 1980s treat "television" and "video" as nearly synonymous. The technology of television involves creating the illusion of motion through the rapid succession of individual still images. Vector displays were neither designed nor used (typically) to show a sequence of still images in motion, nor were they ever used in television sets, and by this strict definition, they are not video displays. The three games mentioned above, all unknown to Baer and his team at the time of his invention, utilized an electronic vector display known as an oscilloscope for their graphical output (Spacewar's display, while not precisely an oscilloscope, was technologically equivalent). While the display tubes in oscilloscopes are indeed cathode-ray tubes (CRTs) that are similar in many ways to television picture tubes, the means by which images are actually drawn on the two are entirely different.

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