Ralph Baer is widely acknowledged to be the “father of video games”, thanks to his work in the 1960’s pioneering the device that would become the Magnavox Odyssey, the world’s first ever video game console.
Unlike most men and women in the industry today, though, his background is not that of a comfortable middle-class kid. No, Baer’s early years were a little more exciting.
Ralph H. Baer was born on March 8, 1922 to Jewish parents in the town of Pirmasens in south-west Germany. This was an…inopportune time to be growing up Jewish in Germany, as Baer’s early years run parallel to the rise to power of the National Socialist Party.
In 1933, Baer was expelled from his school. Not because he was a trouble-maker or a bad student, but simply because he was Jewish. Forced to transfer to a new, all-Jewish campus, it was quickly becoming clear that Germany was becoming an unsafe place for people of his family’s ethnicity/faith to reside, so in 1938 – and just two months before the infamous Kristallnacht attacks on Jewish stores and homes – the Baer’s fled first to Holland, and then to the United States.
Once safe in America, it didn’t take Baer long to begin work in the field of electronics, graduating as a radio service technician from the National Radio Institute in 1940. For the next three years he ran a store in New York City servicing and repairing not just radios, but PA systems and early television sets as well.
The Second World War cut this venture short, however, and in 1943 Baer was drafted by the US Army. His intelligence wouldn’t have him storming beaches, however. It landed him a job in…intelligence, as Private R. Baer (serial number 32887607), where he first wrote training documents for Allied troops preparing for D-Day (identifying German uniforms, using German weapons, etc) before later being assigned to General Eisenhower’s headquarters and being stationed in France.
Were it not for a freak illness, however, things could have gone down very differently. In May 1944, Baer became separated from his unit after a paperwork mix-up, and was pressed into service alongside some replacement GIs preparing for the invasion of Normandy. During training, however, Baer contracted pneumonia, and was shipped off to a military hospital where, bed-ridden, he completed an army correspondence course in algebra.
Within a few weeks his old intelligence unit had found him and he re-joined them. It was only later that Baer learned that the unit he had been “saved” from had shortly after his departure taken part in the D-Day landings.
During the war, Baer became an expert not on radios or communications, as you’d expect given his training, but on small arms (pistols, rifles, submachine guns, etc). Indeed, he became such an expert that, when the war was done, Baer managed to bring a whopping 18 tonnes of Axis and non-US Allied weaponry home to the United States with him, with which he ran a number of exhibits with the blessing of the US Army.
In 1949 he graduated from the American Television Institute of Technology with one of the world’s first Bachelors of Science in Television Engineering, and from there didn’t look back. In addition to his work on the “Brown Box” games machine, which would evolve to become the Magnavox Odyssey, Baer also worked on a number of other large electronics projects, including the launch equipment for NASA’s Saturn V rockets.
At age 89 Baer held over 150 patents, and in 2006 was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President George W Bush for his work on pioneering the video game industry.
TOTAL RECALL is a look back at the history of video games through their characters, franchises, developers and trends