Americans love a good rags to riches story, especially when the protagonist has to work hard, pull himself up by his bootstraps, and eventually makes it big. Horatio Alger sold dozens of books based on this very formula. There’s also a Geek You Should Know that did this very thing! Ralph Baer is credited with creating the world’s first gaming console, the Brown Box–later called the Odyssey–but he didn’t start as a technological guru.
Baer was born in 1922 to a Jewish family living in Germany. His family fled to the United States right before the outbreak of WWII, when Baer was a teenager. His first job was working in a factory for $12 per week, but he had big dreams. The field of electronics was brand new at the time (unrecognizable from the field today); Baer quickly became interested in the field, and so took classes and became a radio technician. He was able to use those skills to aid in the Allied war effort when he was drafted in WWII. After the war, he went to college and graduated with a degree in (of all things) Television Engineering.
From college, Baer became an electronics engineer, rising through the ranks and moving from company to company as he climbed the ladder of success–even working for IBM for a while. He recognized that the new phenomenon of having a television in nearly every American household opened up a world of possibilities for technological advances that utilized the television set for more than just watching a few programs.
Baer ended up working for a defense contractor, Sanders Associates, and it was during this time, in 1966, that he convinced his bosses to front the money for a brand new idea: a stand-alone system that would allow people to play games on their television set. He and the two engineers who helped him design it, nicknamed it the “Brown Box” because it was covered in brown tape to imitate faux wood paneling. Sanders Associates and Ralph Baer filed a patent on the system, which had no software, and was simply made up of transistors and diodes.
His patented design was picked up by Magnavox, who christened the system “Odyssey,” but they were quickly challenged by the arrival of Atari’s Pong. Baer successfully defended his patent in court and received a monetary settlement from Atari, although Atari did become the more popular game system. Baer is also credited with inventing many of the video game styles that are still prevalent today, such as light gun shooting games (he invented the light gun itself as well), and pattern matching games. He passed away on December 6, 2014 at the age of ninety-two, but his own personal website, which is filled with cool photos and videos of major life events, including him receiving the National Medal of Technology from President George W. Bush, is still functioning.
Baer showed remarkable foresight and the ability to see the potential for budding technologies at a time when many of the systems that are ubiquitous today were just being created. Whether it was recognizing the possibilities available in the field of electronics, or the many new options that have televisions in every home would provide, Baer could see far beyond what was directly in front of him to new possibilities, and possessed the innovative thinking to make them a reality. This foresight and entrepreneurial attitude is what makes him a Geek You Should Know.