Our dear Ralph. What a man. 92 years old. A life full of technology, audacity, and gumption (with equal measures wise prudence). He died on December 6, 2014 at his home in Manchester, New Hampshire. May he rest in peace.
Just summarizing Baer's biography with keywords sounds impressive: Germany, Kristallnacht, WWII Service, small arms expert, Lee De Forest, TV technician, Sanders, engineering, Apollo, inventor of TV video games, game console, Odyssey, cable TV, patents, Simon, toy inventor. The list could go on and on. He achieved quite a bit and lived a very full, very fulfilling long life.
Of course, he is most well known for inventing the concept of television video games and co-inventing, with William Rusch and William Harrison, the world's first video game console during his time at Sanders in the mid-late 1960s. The prototype console that the trio finished in 1968 later became the Magnavox Odyssey (1972), the world's first commercial video game console.
But there was much more to the man, and I count myself lucky to have known him.
My Odyssey with Ralph
In the course of writing about video game history for almost a decade now, I had many opportunities to draw upon Baer's inside knowledge of the early industry (and most importantly, his records) while crafting my stories. Over the years, I grew to know him personally as well. If you'll humor me, I'd like to get down some of my personal Baer stories while I still remember them.
I first interacted with Ralph in 2006 when he posted a comment this blog about the Odyssey 2. Shortly thereafter, I began exchanging emails with him. In January 2007, I conducted a two hour phone interview with him that ended up (once heavily abridged) in Game Developer Magazine that March.
We became casual friends, periodically checking in with each other, especially when I needed some information for whatever article on video game history I was writing at the time. He took the time to personally care about a lot of people, and it did him well through the years. He always asked about my father, who was an electronics engineer as well. Ralph expressed interest in talking with him, but my dad was too shy, I think, to take him up on it. They have both since passed away. Maybe now they'll have a chance to talk — somewhere in the great cosmic ether.
In 2008, I set off to attend the Game Developer's Conference. While changing planes in Chicago, I saw none other than Ralph H. Baer in line to get on the plane to California. Having never met before in person, I introduced myself, and we sat together on the five hour flight, talking inventions and playing the Nintendo DS I brought along with me.
He received great honors at GDC that year (a Guinness Book of World Records award and a Pioneer Award), and co-hosted a panel with Alan Alcorn in which they played video Ping-Pong against each other for the first time. There I met Ralph's son, Mark, who seemed every bit as personable as his father. He served as both caring son and assistant to the elderly Baer during his travels to events around the world.
In 2012, I visited Ralph Baer at his home in New Hampshire. He generously allowed me to spend the night in his guest room for a night. Since his wife died in 2006, Ralph staved off loneliness and isolation by increasingly making contacts with journalists and video game enthusiasts interested in his story, adopting a grandfatherly role to most of us. Many of them visited his house, and I could tell it worried his kids, who checked up on him frequently throughout the day by telephone — especially as he got older.
Ostensibly, I was there to look at some of his game and invention history documents, but by that point, most video game history he could provide had been well-covered between us. He knew that very well. This trip was more of a personal one, to see the man in his element. He took me out to dinner, showed me his office, his lab, and his wall of inventions (photos here), and he dispensed plenty of good personal advice that I think of often.
Facebook, Raisin Bran, and The Holocaust
While visiting Ralph, I saw a good chance to discuss other aspects of his history that often get overlooked. In particular, I asked him about his boyhood in Germany, his distinguished service during World War II, and about one of the most horrific tragedies of modern times, The Holocaust.
Some of Ralph's close relatives on his father's side suffered imprisonment and death in Nazi concentration camps, so he had a personal viewpoint on the situation that was rare in my sphere of friends and family. I asked him specifically how it felt to learn about the Nazi's systematic extermination of the Jews. I'll quote exactly what he said below, because it's quite powerful.
We left Germany in August of 1938. Kristallnacht was in November. My father couldn't earn money any more; we had to do something. After that, we had no idea of how bad it got over there. Could we foresee that they would take millions of people and kill them? Of course not. Not in the most civilized society — that's what we thought — in Europe.
Over here, the newspapers and President Roosevelt did their best to keep it out of the paper to prevent a clamor among Jews. I had absolutely no idea at the time.
After the war, I learned that all my father's sisters and one brother, and all their husbands and wives and all their kids, except for a few — they all died. And guess what? Since the Germans were so good at record keeping, I have a record of when they died, where they died, and how they died.
But for a couple of months — somebody else would have had to invent video games. It's just horrible.
The next morning, I sat down at Ralph's breakfast table. He pulled out two bowls, two spoons, and a box of Raisin Bran. His regular milk had soured, so we enjoyed our cereal with chocolate soy milk that was also past its expiration date.
As we were eating, he unfolded a fresh copy of that day's Wall Street Journal. Facebook was about to go public, and it was all over the news.
Ralph was frustrated. He had seen the power of systematic spying and record keeping and what it can do in a fascist society. It had killed some of his family, after all. And now, all of a sudden, millions of people were volunteering in free societies to have their every move tracked, lining up to become part of a massive database of personal information that a totalitarian regime could have only dreamed about. "They're doing the CIA's job for them," he said.
All I could do was shrug and agree with him. It frustrated me too, I said. If only we didn't have such a short cultural memory.
Future generations could learn a great deal from folks like Ralph, hopefully preventing ourselves from making the same mistakes we made in the past. Sadly, the men and women of Ralph's generation are now mostly gone.
* * *
At the end of my visit, this 90 year-old — this inventor of home video games — drove me to the airport himself and dropped me off.
"See you around," he said, as I stepped out of the car. I knew I probably wouldn't see him again. He was getting old, and in somewhat frail health. But I wished him the best and was on my way.
We only spoke a couple times since then. Both times I called him he was waiting in a doctor's office. Such is life when you're 92.
In the end, I am very glad that I had the chance to know him as a person as well as an inventor. And I am supremely proud to have known the fruits of the technology he built. What Ralph and his team created in the 1960s directly formed the roots of a massively large industry that today rivals the motion picture industry in revenue. If you drew video game family tree, Ralph's picture would be right there at the bottom, smiling with that indelible, generous grin.
We will miss you, Ralph. Thanks for everything.
For More Information on Ralph Baer and His Work, See These:
Video Games Turn Forty (1UP, 2007)
Simon Turns 30 (1UP, 2008)
The Panoramic World of Ralph H. Baer (VC&G, 2012)
An Interview with Ralph Baer (Gamasutra, 2007)
My Odyssey: Flying With Baer (VC&G, 2008)
Benj's Epic GDC 2008 Adventure Slideshow (VC&G, 2008)
Bill Harrison, The First Video Game Hardware Guru (VC&G, 2007)
VC&G Interview: Nolan Bushnell, Founder of Atari
Inside the Magnavox Odyssey (PCWorld, 2012)
The Odyssey Manual (RSOTW, 2012)