On Saturday, May 21, 2022, the city of Manchester, New Hampshire celebrated Ralph Baer’s 100th birthday by rededicating the statue of him that they put up a few years ago. I was invited to give a speech about Ralph’s relevance in the modern world. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend due to an onset of Covid-19. I was told a portion of the speech was read. So here is the entire speech.
When Ralph Baer wrote his unpublished biography, he asked me to come up with a title for it. Although we eventually settled on One Inventor’s Odyssey, my original title was The Wizard of New Hampshire. And why not? In my mind Ralph was as great an inventor as the Wizard of Menlo Park, Thomas Edison. Both were what I call serial inventors. While they were mostly known for one or two great inventions, they were responsible for many, many more. And although Ralph didn’t have over a thousand patents in his name like Edison, he still had a respectable 150+.
Even though most of Ralph’s patents have fallen into the public domain, many of them are still relevant today. First and foremost, of course, are videogames. Today, fifty years after they were first introduced, the videogame industry has global revenues of nearly $200 billion, much more than all of the other entertainment industries combined. And while the videogame console has evolved over the past five decades, many of the basic features of Ralph’s Brown Box, the prototype to the world’s first videogame console, the Magnavox Odyssey, still appear today. We still use detached controllers to play games on a television screen.
Ralph also foresaw that having the console only play one game wasn’t wise, as people would undoubtedly quickly grow tired of it. So, seven different games, which were accessible by flicking switches, were built into the unit. Magnavox cleverly built-upon this by changing the switches to plug-in cards. This way they could bring in more revenue by selling new, additional cards. This of course extended to later consoles through the use of cartridges, CDs, Blu-Rays, and downloading. Speaking of downloading games, that was another concept that Ralph pioneered. Even though he didn’t conceive something as powerful as the Internet, it had been his idea for early games to be delivered via cable, something that is ubiquitous today.
And who could forget Simon? Ralph invented what is arguably the most successful electronic toy of all time. And it’s still available on store shelves 44 years later.
But Ralph’s inventions weren’t limited to games. I’ll never forget the time I accompanied him to the Hallmark store at the Mall of New Hampshire. They were selling a new talking greeting card and he wanted to see if it used his technology. Just by looking at it he was satisfied that it did and we left.
Ralph had thought about many of the things that we take for granted today. For example, when we listen to CDs or MP3s we have the ability to skip ahead to the next song at the touch of a button. Ralph conceived that idea in 1977 when he invented the programmable record player. And with the recurrence of vinyl records, it’s possible that Ralph’s technology is being used again. After all, why reinvent the wheel?
There are other things we take for granted today that Ralph thought about fifty years ago. Let’s look at Amazon and QVC; two different forms of online shopping. Ralph also thought about online shopping back in the late sixties. His vision was to have a dedicated shopping channel that allowed people to view merchandise. And if they saw something they liked they could order it through his videogame console at the touch of a button.
Finally, I would like to talk about augmented reality. For those who don’t know what that is, it’s where the real world is enhanced with computer-generated graphics. One use of this is in the game Pokémon Go. Players search the landscape through the camera of their phone in search of these computer-generated characters. And no, Ralph had nothing to do with augmented reality. But he did visualize a camera being used with videogames. (TAKE OUT CAMERA CONTROLLER). When the Nintendo Entertainment System was available during the late eighties/early nineties Ralph modified this toy camera so it could hook up to the popular console. His idea was to create some kind of spy game that used the camera. Unfortunately, Ralph couldn’t think of a conceivable way to bring this to fruition, so he abandoned the project.
My first grandchild was born earlier this year, just a month before Ralph’s 100th birthday. I can only wonder what the technology will be like for him as he grows. But I’m certain that many of the things he’ll use in his everyday life will have been influenced by Ralph Baer in one way or another.
Copyright © 2022 Leonard Herman