Remembering Ralph Baer: The man, the myth

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Reporter Ryan Lessard at the new Ralph Baer statue on Saturday. Photo/Melissa Proulx

One of my favorite memories is playing Pong with the inventor of Pong.

I don’t remember how I first learned that Ralph Baer, the father of home video games, was living in my home city of Manchester. I probably just stumbled upon some mention of it on the internet.

But knowing that what today is a major global industry started in our unassuming little state stirred an idea for a story I did for New Hampshire Public Radio back in 2013.  

The idea was simple: If the seed for this giant tree (which has sprouted about $135 billion in 2018) was planted here, why doesn’t the state enjoy the fruits of that invention?

Meanwhile, young people who grew up with a love of video games are expressing that passion by choosing it as a career, and community colleges and universities in the state are meeting that demand by offering courses in video game developing.

But, here’s the rub: Those same students were getting their degrees and working somewhere else. It was a brain-drain story, and a story about the flight of young people — which has become an all too familiar story to Granite Staters.

I found two young video game developers to interview for the story, who at the time didn’t know each other; Neal Laurenza, the founder of Skymap Games, and David Carrigg, the founder of Retro Affect (Laurenza and Carrigg went on to start Game Assembly in Manchester, a small game studio incubator space and a local chapter of the International Game Developers Association).

And, of course, I had to meet Ralph Baer, you know, for the story. Tracking him down ended up being surprisingly easy. I called him on his landline and he generously agreed to meet with me for an interview at his home, and to show me around his workshop.

Baer was 90 then. I was 27 and still fairly new to journalism. By then, he had likely done hundreds of interviews like this, and given hundreds of similar tours, but he never acted like he was fatigued by the repetition or annoyed by the attention.

On the contrary; he was kind and generous with his time, and, it seemed to me, humble despite his world-changing contributions.

First we sat in his office at his well-kept North-Side 1970s-style ranch house, where he shared his whole backstory; a Jewish German immigrant who came to the U.S. with his family to flee the coming Holocaust, serving in the Army in World War II and later working for Sanders Associates in Nashua (now BAE Systems) where he first came up with a method to make dots move on a screen.

What stood out to me about those early days tinkering at Sanders in 1966 was how everyone was so skeptical of his work. The concept of the “video game” had not yet taken root in the cultural consciousness, and business-minded men on the company’s board of directors would tell him they don’t understand the practical applications for his invention, or bet against any financial gain from such a patent.

He then told me about how a crowd of people at the patent office watched and took turns playing his “Brown Box” prototype game system.

After Sanders licensed the technology to Magnavox to produce the Magnavox Odyssey game system, Baer said Atari later copied his table tennis concept with the popular “Pong” game, and he told me how Magnavox successfully sued Atari in 1974 for a $1.5 million settlement.

But he skipped over that part of his life nimbly and I sensed I shouldn’t pry further.

My mind turned to my earliest memories of the Atari 2600, the first home game system my family ever owned aside from an Apple III computer. When my dad was first setting it up in our living room in the early 1990s, I recall springing from the couch in excitement, misjudging my momentum and landing with my knees directly onto the game system that lay on the floor. It didn’t work after that.

Atari 7800, my inspiration.

Undeterred, my dad later found an Atari 7800 during a Lechmere closing sale. Many a digital asteroid were turned to space dust in my formative years, and I’ve been playing video games ever since.

Baer could have told me many more stories, but feeling overwhelmed with information, I asked if we could see his workshop and we walked down to his basement.

He was proud to show off the many toys he had on display, toys he had a hand in making after the Odyssey. And he seemed equally as proud of his unfinished projects, which he was still working on with analog tools and rudimentary circuits. But I sensed Baer was probably proudest about his educational outreach, telling kids in classrooms about basic programming and the joys of invention.

And then, as if it were a right of passage for all who enters into the area of the basement he ironically dubbed “the Holy of Holies,” with displays of early prototypes of the Brown Box one side, and a working model on the other, we played a game of digital table tennis.

His famous workshop has since been recreated by the Smithsonian at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

The story aired in February, and when his birthday came around the following month, I emailed him a happy birthday message and he replied with a thank you. That was our last interaction. He died the following year in December.

A digital illustration by Max Gagnon that was on display at Jupiter Hall for a special Ralph Baer Day exhibit. Photo/Ryan Lessard

On this year’s anniversary of Baer’s birthday, March 8, I went to check out the Ralph Baer Day installations and artwork at Jupiter Hall in Manchester. Artists and engineers worked together to create a large, interactive table tennis game that attendees could play using pulleys.

But what stood out to me most was a digital illustration by Max Gagnon, called “First Person.” It’s an image that focuses in on a pair of hands holding an original Brown Box controller, complete with an “English” knob. I was transported to that day, six years before.

Baer played host to many a reporter, including, frequently David Brooks, currently a reporter for the Concord Monitor, and previously for the Telegraph of Nashua. Brooks recalls interviewing him about a half dozen times over the years, beginning in 2001, when his story was not very well known outside the video game world.

Brooks said he was also given a chance to play against him on the Brown Box.

“He really was always thinking of new angles to existing products or new ways to do things. He lived to tinker and to invent,” Brook said.

But he said Baer’s story is also a little complicated because of the long legal fights over who invented what, particularly between him and his “nemesis” Nolan Bushnell of Atari.

The muddy waters of American invention myths are replete with rivalries — Thomas Edison vs. Nikola Tesla or Philo Farnsworth vs. David Sarnoff, for example — and Baer’s story is no exception.

“Family members of some of his team told me they thought he took too much credit, but would never talk about it on the record,” Brooks said.

While Baer could be a charmer, with self-deprecating humor, Brooks said he could also be “spiky,” too.

“He was a character, and he knew he was a character,” Brooks said, “He didn’t like one story, I forget why; he called up and yelled at me and said he’d never talk to me again. Six months later, we were talking again.”

Brooks said he remembers how Sanders, then Lockheed, then BAE Systems “never said a word about” the work Baer did the early years. Perhaps because toys and games were not the usual portfolio builders for defense contractors.

BAE Systems helped sponsor the creation of a bronze statue of Baer and informational display that the was unveiled on Friday.

“It’s kind of funny the way BAE System is now patting itself on the back for harboring this ingenious inventor because for decades after the invention they held it at arm’s length,” Brook said.

Baer told me he remembers some of the same Sanders board members who were skeptical of his invention in the 1960s, patting him on the back after it became successful, acting as though they had supported him all along.

That’s another common aspect to invention myths: True visionaries are never recognized in their time.

Ryan Lessard is a freelance reporter and contributor to Manchester Ink Link.