A life well played: Ralph Baer, 92, inventor of video games, playful spirit to the end

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Ralph Baer
Ralph Baer

MANCHESTER, NH –  Ralph Henry Baer, a longtime resident of Manchester, passed away peacefully, surrounded by family on Dec. 6, 2014.

Born in Pirmasens, Germany, on March 8, 1922 to Lotte (Kirschbaum) and Leo Baer, Ralph lived a life that was extraordinary and remarkable in so many ways.

Ralph had a playful spirit and sense of adventure. You can see him playing on recreations of his original video games system with individuals and notables across the globe. With various friends and family, Ralph traveled all over North America, as well as to New Zealand, and after many years of absence, all around Europe and to his nation of birth, Germany.

He is survived by his loving children, a daughter, Nancy Baer and her husband, Ador Yano; son, James and wife, Andrea; and son Mark and wife, Christina. He absolutely adored his grandchildren, all Baers, who are Alexander, Danielle, Jonathan and Lizzy. He was preceded in death by the love of his life, Dena Whinston Baer, without whom he has acknowledged he could not have done all he did.

After escaping the Holocaust by leaving for the United States just before Kirstallnacht with his parents and sister Jane, Ralph settled in New York where he began his amazing career in the field of electronics. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II. After attending MI training at Camp Ritchie Maryland he then served in Europe where he eventually helped assemble a group that traveled throughout the continent gathering, organizing and training other GIs and command staff concerning foreign armaments.

A gifted engineer by nature, he and his group, which included numerous foreign-born GI’s, eventually collected many tons of equipment. Ralph’s books, technical renditions and documents in this concern eventually found its way into the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., and many other places. That was a pattern that was to be repeated throughout his extraordinary life.

Subsequent to his return, Ralph attended college on the GI bill, which was no mean feat after having been thrown out of school in Germany with other Jewish students, graduating in the United States, after studying under Lee DeForest in 1949 with a Bachelor of Science in television engineering, the first one given in the United States. That too would be a pattern often repeated.

After returning from the war, Ralph met and married the love of his life, Dena Whinston, with whom he had three children, James, Mark and Nancy. Dena passed in 2006.

Ralph’s employment with electronics firms began at Loral, which was a relatively early radar developer and then moved with Transitron from New York to Manchester. Ralph then began working and became chief engineer for Sanders, now BAE, in Nashua, where he eventually was given their highest honor of Fellow. He worked there as his full-time job working mostly on defense-related matters at first, including advanced radar countermeasures, calibrations and a myriad of other advanced systems.

On the side, in his own skunk works, Ralph began working on what he then termed as “television games” in the mid-1960s, from which came the document entitled Disclosure Data TVG(ames) of 1 September 1966, which led to the seminal patents for video games. Eventually, that side work became part of an effort at Sanders resulting in the creation of a unit now known as “The Brown Box,” which was the first video game console, now part of the permanent collection at the American History Museum at the Smithsonian. You can see Ralph playing on the original machine with his longtime friend and tech Bill Harrison in a charming black and white movie on YouTube.

After much effort, Ralph and his colleagues at Sanders Associates found a licensee in the Magnavox Company, which came out with the very first video game system called The Odyssey, in the very early 1970s. The Odyssey was to go on to sell many hundreds of thousands of units and the modern video game industry was born. All of the major manufacturers of video games at the time became their licensees.While consulting for Sanders, and after retiring from there in 1987, Ralph formed his own business, Ralph H. Baer Consultants, through which he created or helped create hundreds of electronic games, toys and novelties, the most notable of which was Simon, a game of memory, which remains in production today.

Showing his creative side, Ralph helped infuse that creation with the four notes of the bugle, an addition that he credits with helping make the device an enduring success.

In addition, Ralph created or helped develop such diverse items as talking greeting cards, talking welcome mats, interactive talking stuffed animals, the electronic light gun, game and military simulation machines, a split keyboard organ and hundreds of other items. He was simply a wizard with electronics and had the unique ability to match that technical mastery with a creativity of extraordinary breadth eventually amassing over 150 U.S. and foreign patents. As a result of his immense contributions, his works are in museums all across the planet. In addition to the Smithsonian, Ralph’s works and reproductions of his works are in the American Computer Museum in Bozeman, Mont., the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y., the Museum of the Moving Image and the Museum of Modern Art, both of New York, the Computerspiele Museum in and the Nixdorf Museum in Germany, and in venues and museums in Japan, the Netherlands and elsewhere.

Ralph was also the author of the book “Videogames, In the Beginning,” and has written extensively for technical and non-technical publications. He also loved to work and mentor young engineers and inventors.He is a recipient in February 2006 of the National Medal of Technology, given to him at a White House ceremony by the President. He has been inducted into the United State’s Patent and Trademark Inventors Hall of Fame and has received many awards including the Ibuka Masura Comsumer Electronics Award and the Edison Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, an organization that recently named him as a Fellow.

Ralph received an honorary Doctorate of Law from the University of New Hampshire School of Law in 2007. He was presented a plaque from Guinness World Records recognizing him as the inventor of the first home-video game system and has been recognized by the Carnegie Corporation among the “Immigrants: The Pride of America” in July 2014. Ralph’s lab will be given a special place at the Smithsonian Institute scheduled for opening in July of 2015.Over the years, Ralph enjoyed sailing and even helped build some of his boats, which he sailed in many lakes but especially at Lake Massabesic. He also enjoyed playing his harmonic and listening to and whistling classical music.

There are no calling hours. A funeral as held at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2014, at Temple Adath Yeshurun, 152 Prospect St., Manchester. The family will be sitting Shiva at Temple Adath Yeshurun on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings from 6 to 8 p.m., with a Minyan service beginning at 6 p.m. both evenings. Memorial donations are respectfully requested to be made in his honor to Temple Adath Yeshurun, or the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society 333 7th Ave. 16th Floor NY, NY 10001 or to the American Cancer Society, all of which have a presence on the web. Go to www.goodwinfh.com to sign the online guestbook.

About this Author

Carol Robidoux

PublisherManchester Ink Link

Longtime NH journalist and publisher of ManchesterInkLink.com. Loves R&B, German beer, and the Queen City!