THE FINAL CORRESPONDENCES WITH NOLAN – PART 1 – RALPH BAER

The rivalry between Ralph and Nolan was legendary. Ralph invented the first videogame console, the Magnavox Odyssey, which was released in 1972. Working independently, and completely unaware of Ralph, Nolan & Ted created the first videogame arcade machine, Computer Space, which was released in 1971 and was a commercial failure. After seeing a demonstration of the Odyssey, and its key game, video table tennis, on May 24 1972, Nolan came up with the idea of his own ball & paddle game which would be called Pong. It was released in late 1972 and was a commercial success. Court battles soon ensued between Ralph’s Sanders Associates & Magnavox and Nolan & Ted’s Atari. An out-of-court settlement was arranged and Atari became a licensee. Nolan soon claimed to be the inventor of videogames and Ralph didn’t challenge this because Nolan was a licensee and therefore a customer.

At an arcade trade show in 1974, Ralph spotted Atari’s Touch Me. In this game, players watched four large buttons randomly light up and had to match the order by pressing the appropriate buttons. Ralph took this idea, added musical tones and colorful buttons, and was able to sell it as Simon in 1978. Simon has since become one of the most popular electronic toys of all time and is still available today. The rivalry between the two men continued.

In 2000 both men were invited to Classic Gaming Expo (CGE) which was to be held in Las Vegas in August and both men agreed to attend. The organizers set it up so that the two men would play against each other at Pong. Ralph was excited to do this. When I saw Nolan in New York prior to CGE, I told him that Ralph looked forward to playing the game and he said he did too. In the end, Nolan never showed up. Ralph tried contacting Nolan several times but Nolan never returned his emails.

By that time few people knew who Ralph Baer was. That changed in January 2000 when Electronic Gaming Monthly, the world’s number one videogame magazine, published my article, The Baer Essentials, which spotlighted him. After that a new generation of videogame executives, designers, players and fans learned who he was and soon afterwards he was invited to museums around the world and inducted into different hall of fames. This ultimately led to his receiving the National Medal of Technology from President Bush on February 13, 2006.

Shortly after Ralph received the award, the IEEE, a professional association for electronic and electrical engineers, published an article about Ralph’s acceptance of the Medal of Technology in one of its journals. Shortly after the article was published, Steve Bristow, a very early Atari designer, emailed Ralph. That email no longer exists but Ralph explained to me the timelines in an April 3 2009 email. “Steve Bristow reads IEEE article, sends me an e-mail that chides me for not acknowledging that we all stand on the shoulders of others, etc.

And this led to the email exchange that follows.

I tell (him) of my numerous attempts and that of others to get together at Game shows etc. and Nolan never shows up, doesn’t answer mail.

I asked Steve Bristow to tell Nolan to write to me.”

Bristow responded to Ralph with the following email:

From: (Steve Bristow)

To: (Ralph Baer)

Subject: Re: Simon and other things

Thank you for your detailed an informative reply. While I do think it is incorrect to have gotten a patent on the game play that we did on TouchMe and while I think that it was incorrect to have gotten a patent years after it was sold on the way that the quak gun worked, I also fully acknowledge and am impressed that with your continued work to invent new things and the way that you have been able to get new things done and into production. I can only wish you continued health in success in working on new things as that is what it counts. I did not know about your reaching out to Nolan. He has his own soecial attributes and perceptions.

So again, I really do appreciate your reply and hope to read more about what new things you are coming up with……steve bristow

To Ralph’s surprise Bristow did pass on to Nolan the message to contact him. Ralph received the following email on June 12, 2006.

From: Nolan (Bushnell)

To: (Ralph Baer)

Cc: (Steve Bristow)

Subject: Bristow’s email

Date: June 12, 2006 3:41:45 AM EDT

I too read the article and thought it was a little puffy. It is funny that I have never received any email or telephone call from you and have actually attended and spoke at functions which the organizers asserted that they had tried to get you on the panel with no luck.

Just to get the record straight I would be more than happy to get you on the phone the next time I am interviewed about the early days so that we can have a dialog about our perceptions of who did what and let the public decide.

The way I see it you invented Odyssey. You saw my lab book and saw the list of games and descriptions that clearly had a tennis game listed long before I saw your game in Burlingame. I still believe that your “means for claims” in your patents were clearly barred because of prior art. None of us ever used anything like your circuitry. Your game clearly was on my mind when I gave Alcorn the project. I felt the Odyssey was not very fun and we could make it better. As you remember my tennis game postulated a bouncing ball more like Higgenbothems though I did not know about him at the time. Your simple straight across the screen was an interesting way of play. Had Odyssey been fun you would never have had to claim invention of PONG. It is a very different game. You should thank me because most of the people who bought Odyssey thought they were buying a PONG for the home. Odyssey made it very difficult for us to launch home PONG because people perceived that it was a dud. Thank goodness for Sears.

If we were keeping score you have clearly been “inspired” by more of Atari products than Atari was from yours.

My email address is very easy to find since my companies are well known. Perhaps a good dialog would be fun.

Nolan

Ralph thought long and hard on how to reply to Nolan. Finally, nine days later, he responded with the following email, which countered Nolan’s email paragraph by paragraph.

From: (Ralph Baer)

To: (Nolan Bushnell)

Cc: (Steve Bristow)

Subject: Contact!

Date: June 21, 2006 10:56:54 AM EDT

Hello Nolan:

Thank you for your recent e-message. I just got back from a European trip and am slowly coming out of the usual jet-lag fog. It gets harder as you grow older. Please, allow me to take your message one section at a time:

You wrote: I too read the article and thought it was a little puffy. It is funny that I have never received any email or telephone call from you and have actually attended and spoke at functions which the organizers asserted that they had tried to get you on the panel with no luck.

Just to get the record straight I would be more than happy to get you on the phone the next time I am interviewed about the early days so that we can have a dialog about our perceptions of who did what and let the public decide. My latest attempt to reach you was last year. While sorting some old documents, I came across a copy of a FAX that I had sent to you in July of 1977 – from one old-timer to another, I thought. That ancient FAX suggested that we get together in New York and talk about Interactive TV. You were still at Warner then. On impulse, I e-mailed that to you because I thought you would be amused by it but I got no response. Also, arrangements to meet you at CGE 1999 and 2000 never came off. I was there, looking forward to playing a game with you. After 2001, my long-term leukemia started acting up and I couldn’t travel. Fortunately, I have been in remission for the past three years which allows me to keep cranking, albeit at a much slower rate than I’m used to.

You wrote: The way I see it you invented Odyssey. You saw my lab book and saw the list of games and descriptions that clearly had a tennis game listed long before I saw your game in Burlingame.

I am happy to hear that there was a log book, although I neither saw or heard of it. I would love to see it and so would the rest of the world of videogame historians and collectors. Seeing that would be fantastic! As far as making all of MY ancient documentation publicly available, I have just recently received 32 CDs from the Smithsonian with high resolution scans (mostly TIFFs) of some 500 pages of the original notes, schematics, mechanical drawings, etc. generated by me and my two associates during September of 1966 through 1972, plus scans all of their handbooks. We were lucky to find all of this stuff, mostly in lawyers’ storage places. Finding it took several years and a lot of hustle. This archival material was scanned at the Lemelson Center of the Smithsonian and is now being permanently stored there. I also donated all of the original game hardware ( five different game systems) and their accessories (joysticks, light guns, etc.) to the Smithsonian where they surely belong and where they will be displayed in the future. For hands-on demonstrations of early game systems at various museums, I have built multiple replicas of the Brown Box (the Odyssey’s prototype) and of several other, earlier TV Game systems which we had originally built in ’67 and ’68; all of these replicas are fully functional. They are in the Museum of the Moving Image in NY, at the Tokyo National Science Museum, at two German museums, at the British Game-On exhibit traveling the US currently and several other places. I mention all this by way of telling you that I have nearly finished archiving my part (and that of my two associates) in videogame history for reference by future historians. I hope that documents and hardware telling the Atari story will also find their way into the public domain before they are scattered and lost.

I sincerely hope that documents from the early days, such as your log book, are still in existence. That log book should certainly be archived by an institution like the S.I. or the Museum of the Moving Image along with any other data which you, Dabney, Al Alcorn, Steve Bristow and others generated during those exciting days. They need to become part of the public historical record and should be available to future historians and the public. It would be a crying shame to have them lost and forgotten.

You wrote: I still believe that your “means for claims” in your patents were clearly barred because of prior art. None of us ever used anything like your circuitry.

Circuitry was not an issue in those lawsuits. The main issue was our contention that there was infringement if a game had interaction between a machine-controlled symbol on the screen (such as the ball in ping-pong) with manually-controlled symbols (such as the paddles in ping-pong) which resulted in a change of motion, direction or other behavior of the machine controlled symbol. That is mainly what the courts ruled on and found infringed. As far as the business of “analog” vs. “digital circuitry” is concerned, that was a red herring which even the non-technical judges understood and promptly threw out. One look at the schematics of our last three designs (including the Brown Box which became the Odyssey game) shows that the circuitry is nearly all digital and pulse circuitry, except for the modulator-Ch.3/4 oscillator and the sync generators. There is a Set-Reset-Flip-Flop for ball reversal upon coincidence with the paddle. Another S-R FF reverses the ball upon coincidence with the wall in Handball. All coincidence detection is done by diode AND-gates, etc. Even the symbol generators are pulse circuits (two consecutive one-shots). So much for the “analog circuits” myth.

You wrote: Your game clearly was on my mind when I gave Alcorn the project. I felt the Odyssey was not very fun and we could make it better.

your comments on the subject of the Odyssey game “not being much fun to play” are contradicted by the enthusiastic reception the games got during the 1971 user acceptance tests done by Magnavox all over the US and by the fact that 350,000 Odysseys were sold by the beginning of 1974, even though the design was certainly technically a relic by then, reflecting as it did mid-1960’s design technology. What made the game challenging and fun was the use of the English knob which allowed the players to change angle of reflection after the ball left their paddle. I have a feeling that you were not aware of the existence or the function of the English control when you played the Odyssey ping-pong game in May of 1972. Without the use of that control, there is no game.

You wrote: As you remember my tennis game postulated a bouncing ball more like Higgenbotham’s though I did not know about him at the time. Your simple straight across the screen was (not) an interesting way of play.

Pong is totally unlike Higginbotham’s game. The latter moves the “ball” spot through a parabolic path whose height is determined by just when the player pushes the RETURN button. Pong had segmented paddles which determined the return angle of the ball (which proceeded in a straight line after coincidence). Just like you, I had never heard of Higginbotham’s game until Nintendo’s lawyers paraded him in court in NY. In any event, his was not a TV/video game and the Court was not fooled.

You wrote: Your simple straight across the screen was (not) an interesting way of play. Had Odyssey been fun you would never have had to claim invention of PONG. It is a very different game.

As I wrote above, Odyssey did not have a “straight across the screen” game play…that would have been a meaningless game. English-control made it the game it was (and is).

You wrote: You should thank me because most of the people who bought Odyssey thought they were buying a PONG for the home. Odyssey made it very difficult for us to launch home PONG because people perceived that it was a dud. Thank goodness for Sears.

There is absolutely no question that the presence of several thousand Pong-type games by Atari, Midway and others in 1973 and 1974 helped sell Odyssey games. How else to play a “Pong”-type game at home?

You wrote: If we were keeping score you have clearly been “inspired” by more of Atari products than Atari was from yours.

How about an example, Nolan? I have no idea of what you are referring to. The dates of many of the 150+ patents I hold world-wide should put that statement to rest.

You wrote: My email address is very easy to find since my companies are well known. Perhaps a good dialog would be fun.

Your e-mail address was and is no mystery to me, Nolan, but when I tried to contact you that way, I got no reply. I am 84 years old and long past the point where I hold grudges. I have always admired the rise of Atari and the guys who did it, including you. I have started companies and worked in others – large and small – as an engineer, a VP for Engineering, as a Lockheed Engineering Fellow and in my own toy-and-game business for the last 25 years, so I know how hard it is to get something started and keep it going. I’ve been at it for sixty-five years and I’m not done yet. I also know only too well that inventing, building hardware and writing code is easy if you know how, but selling the stuff is the hard part…and you clearly excelled at that game. So you deserved to drive the Mercedes while I was content with my Ford (or a Buick, at best).

Let’s talk.

Cordially,

Ralph

This was the final communication between Ralph Baer and Nolan Bushnell as Nolan never responded to this email. Ralph moved on. As he later said to me several times, it was he who received the Medal of Technology from the president, not Nolan. There was no question who invented videogames and he no longer had anything to prove or defend.

PART 2 – TED DABNEY

Copyright © 2022 Leonard Herman

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