Last year, the US video game industry raked in $21 billion – more than the movie and music industries combined. But before Angry Birds catapulted to glory, before Pac-Man gobbled countless quarters, and before professional gamers competed for million-dollar prize pools, there was Ralph Baer, sitting at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan with an idea.
In 1966, with a No. 2 pencil, Mr. Baer drew the concept of a box that would allow people to play games on a television set. As an engineer for defense contractor Sanders Associates, Baer received a budget of $2,000 to develop his idea. And in the summer of 1972, Magnavox bought the license to the system and began selling Odyssey, the first home video game system.
The Odyssey had only 40 transistor and no software. (Compare that to the Xbox One's 5 billion transistors and heap of baked-in apps.) Players had to put a plastic overlay on the television screen to give Odyssey games color. But Baer's box kickstarted a video game revolution.
Baer passed away Saturday.
Baer was born to a Jewish family in Rodalben, Germany. In 1938, his family fled to the US. Baer eventually settled in New York City, where he worked in a factory making leather manicure kits. During his time there, he invented a machine to make five stitches at a time, the first of many inventions. While at the factory, Baer began taking courses on radio and television servicing. He soon quit his job and spent two years fixing radios.
He was drafted into the Army in 1943 and served as an intelligence officer in Europe. After leaving the war, Baer attended the American Television Institute of Technology in Chicago and earned one of the first bachelor's degrees in television engineering. In 1951, he joined Sanders Associates, which developed early electronic systems.
After Baer invented the first console, the video game industry exploded. Call of Duty, one of the biggest game franchises, has earned more than $10 billion since 2003 – more than the Hunger Games, Transformers, Iron Man, and Avengers movies combined. In August, Amazon bought Twitch, a streaming video service for gamers, for close to a billion dollars. At peak hours, Twitch has as many viewers as MSNBC and Comedy Central.
Being the father of a booming industry, Baer won a number of tech accolades in his life. In 2006, Baer was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President George W. Bush, and in 2010, Baer was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Baer worked his whole life, building hardware and inventing children's toys. "I’m no different than a painter who sits there and loves what he does," Baer told PBS in 2013. "Would you ask a guy who's been painting all his life 'why do you keep painting? Why don't you retire?' Retire to what? Stop painting? This is insane. Why would you want to do that?"
Baer's collection of game hardware is being sent to the Smithsonian and several other museums.