Inside the Magnavox Odyssey (40th Anniversary)

Monday, May 28th, 2012

Inside the Magnavox Odyssey Teardown Slideshow

Believe it or not, it’s been almost two years since I did my last tech teardown slideshow for PC World. After 11 visual disassemblies with my haggard workbench as a backdrop, I figured I’d give the series a rest until an interesting new venue came along.

Fast forward to April 2012 — it was a beautiful spring day outside, and I had decided to take apart a 1972 Magnavox Odyssey (the first commercial video game console) in honor of its 40th anniversary. I walked out to my back yard, sat down on the moss, and the result is now up on PCWorld.com.

I hope you enjoy it.

Here are my previous tech teardowns: Nintendo NES, Atari 1040STf, Atari 800, Commodore Amiga 1000, Commodore 64, Nintendo Game Boy, Nintendo Famicom, Apple IIc, IBM Model M Keyboard, TRS-80 Model 100, and Macintosh Portable.

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] The Odyssey Manual

Monday, May 28th, 2012

Magnavox Odyssey Manual Cover Scan - 1972“We’ve got a lot of space here, Fred, and I’m tired.” [stamps 7 times] “Fixed.”

Forty years ago, Magnavox lifted the veil on the world’s first commercial video game console, the Odyssey. Designed to work with a home TV set, the Odyssey blazed a trail that every game console follows today.

While the Odyssey had first been revealed to the press in April 1972, the Odyssey reached the market at $99.99 (about $548 in today’s dollars) in August of that year.

Magnavox’s console relied on technology originally developed by Ralph Baer, Bill Harrison, and Bill Rusch at Sanders Associates in the mid- to late 1960s. Baer’s invention, together with Atari’s work during the same period, founded an industry.

Even though I’ve been writing about the work of Ralph Baer for over five years now, I still am amazed that the commercial video game console is now 40 years old. But 40 years is a long time in technology, and it’s easy to see how we’ve come so far if you keep that time scale in mind.

By the way — in honor of this anniversary, I recently took apart an Odyssey console for PC World. You can read about that adventure in another post.

[ From Odyssey Installation and Game Rules, circa 1972, cover ]

Discussion Topic of the Week: Have you ever played an original Magnavox Odyssey console? Describe how you felt about the experience.

The Panoramic World of Ralph H. Baer

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

Ralph Baer holds a Simon toy in his basement, May 2012Two days ago, I flew up to New Hampshire to visit Ralph H. Baer, the Father of Video Games, at his home in Manchester.

During my brief stay, Baer was a gracious host and a gentleman to the highest degree. We discussed life, philosophy, WWII, video games, and more. Best of all, he showed me an archive of his inventions that he keeps in his basement.

I made the trip because Baer, along with two associates, invented home video games in 1967. That work culminated in the Magnavox Odyssey, the world’s first commercial video game console, in 1972.

Baer, who turned 90 in March, has also been a freelance toy and game developer since the late 1970s. His biggest hit in that field is no doubt Simon, a toy which you might know by its iconic saucer shape and playful electronic melodies.

After examining some of his creations, I challenged him to a game of Ping Pong on a replica of the Brown Box (the 1968 video game prototype that inspired the Odyssey). We didn’t keep score, but his hands are surprisingly nimble. By the way, he’s a very good driver too. Even at 90, his mind seems twice as sharp as someone one third his age.

Yesterday morning, just before I left to fly home, I took the following panoramic shots around Ralph’s house with my Sony camera. He gave me permission to publish these images, so I thought you might enjoy them.

The geometry in each photo is warped because the camera flattens about 180 degrees of perspective into a rectangular image. Still, I love the effect. Here they are:

Ralph Baer's OfficeRalph’s office, where he writes and checks his email. He likes Macs.
Ralph Baer's Basement Electronics LabRalph’s basement lab, where he has worked on his inventions for over 50 years.
Ralph Baer's Basement Toy DisplayRalph’s main basement. To the right sits his shelved display of toy inventions.

Overall, it was an amazing trip. I am not the first journalist, nor will I be the last, to visit him. But I still feel lucky that I had a chance to explore the world of a renowned inventor up close.

Some time in the future, I will write about the visit in more detail. But for now, I thought you might enjoy checking out these photos.