Prior to Ralph Baer’s Brown Box none of the video games that were previously developed were ever released to the general public or commercialized due to the expense of the technology that was needed for these games to be played. The games were created with no commercial potential in mind as they were experiments in university labs. It wasn’t until 1966 when Ralph Baer came up with the idea to create a gaming system that would work on a standard television set with inexpensive materials.
It was technically 1951 when Baer first conceived of the idea to create a game that could be played on a television set but at the time it was not for the purpose to create a commercialized game but to demonstrate what televisions were capable of doing. When he was designing a television set at Loral Electronics in 1951 he proposed the idea of creating a built in game to differentiate their television sets from their competition. Management at Loral Electronics passed on the idea and Baer would not revisit his idea until 1966 while working at Sanders Associates Inc.
In 1966, thoughts about playing games using an ordinary television set started to make perfect sense to Baer. There were about 40 million television sets in the homes of America not to mention the rest of the world and Baer seen the potential to create an affordable gaming system that would be marketed to the general public. It was in August of 1966 while Baer was on a business trip in New York that he started planning out the details around his idea to create the first television set gaming device.
While waiting at a bus terminal for another Sanders engineer to arrive in town for a meeting with a client, Baer took the opportunity to write down some notes on the subject of using standard home television sets to play games. The following morning, he turned his notes that he written down into a four-page paper which described the idea of playing television games on a home television set. The document listed various types of games that might be playable using a standard television set, such as action games, board games, sports games, chase games and many others. Baer was creating what is now known as video game genres even before a system was created. The four paged document is now located at the Smithsonian along with all of the game hardware that was created over the next three years.
What Baer originally had in mind was to develop a small game box that would play simplistic games and perhaps cost $25 at retail. He asked one of the engineers in his division at Sanders Associates to read, date and sign the document he created as this was a standard procedure to establish a legal record. This document was used years later in 1974 in Federal Courts in Chicago, San Francisco, New York, Ottawa and many other cities in pursuit of patent infringement which would result in millions of dollars changing hands.
Sanders Associates was a military electronics company and video games had absolutely nothing to do with the normal business of developing complex military electronic systems. At the time Baer was a Division Manager and Chief Engineer for Equipment Design at Sanders where he ran eight departments with up to 500 technical and support personnel. He also supervised much of the internal research and development work at Sanders. Baer was running a large operation at the time and could afford to utilize a technician to do some experimental work without affecting his division’s productivity. After a few demonstrations to the Corporate Director of Research & Development at Sanders it wasn’t long before the project became official and would eventually payoff very handsomely for Sanders.
The development of the gaming device continued through 1968 with most of the work being done by two engineers, Bill Harrison and Bill Rusch. Both of these engineers made important contributions to the game concept as Baer supervised the activity which was being done at Sanders Canal Street building in Nashua, New Hampshire. Several game systems were developed which allowed them to play different types of sports games such as Ping-Pong, volleyball, handball, soccer, hockey and several others. They also developed a light-gun which could be used to shoot at targets on the screen of the television set. Though this was not the first light gun game it was the first light gun developed to work on a television set, the first to be used in a video game and was the first video game peripheral.
By late 1968 Baer finished building their final demonstration game system, the “Brown Box”. It was switch programmable and played a large number of sports, maze and quiz games. The system also had several games based on the light-gun which was created and gave the ability to shoot at stationary or moving targets displayed on the screen.
The system was finally complete and the technology that went into the system was something that could be massed produced at a reasonable cost to allow for it to be marketed to the general public. Baer tried to introduce video games to the cable television industry in 1968 but was not successful. He then proceeded to approach American television manufacturers throughout 1969 in hopes that they would be interested in this new concept. The “Brown Box” was demonstrated to representatives at RCA, Sylvania, GE and Motorola but no one was willing to take the risk involved in marketing the new concept to the general public.
Representatives from Magnavox went to Sanders Associates in Nashua, New Hampshire where Baer and his team demonstrated the “Brown Box” for them. The reactions were overwhelmingly favorable but still it was seen as a large risk for Magnavox and they held off on moving forward. Two years later in 1971 Magnavox revisited the idea of television gaming and finally took a license from Sander Associates. Their 1972 Odyssey home video game system, a production engineered version of the “Brown Box” was the result. This was the first home video game console and was the beginning of the home video game market which is now a multibillion-dollar industry.