How a WWII Refugee Became the Father of Video Games

It involved, in his words, “a piece of Jewish chutzpah.”

Ralph Baer arrives at the Lara-Games-Award 2009 in Cologne, Germany.

Photo by Michael Schilling/wikipiedia/creative commons

This piece originally appeared on Zócalo Public Square.

It’s perhaps fitting that the father of the video game, that quintessential American invention, was a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, whose personal story converged with America’s at a critical time in the nation’s history.

“I had the misfortune of being born in a horrendous situation,” Ralph Baer told the Computer History Museum, of his birth to Jewish parents in 1922 in southwestern Germany. When the Nazis came to power, they threw all Jewish students out of school, forcing him to seek employment at the age of 14. He worked as an office typist, collected money for bars, and took a menial job in a shoe factory, among other places. According to a story his son Mark passed on to me, his boss at the shoe factory told him he would never amount to anything. Undaunted, the young Baer showed up his boss by inventing a machine that automated what had been a one-off hand process, an early sign of his innovative talent, not to mention his defiance.

A quick learner, Baer began a lifelong process of self-education. He taught himself English, which he said proved critical in getting his family to the U.S. under the miniscule quota for German refugees. Just weeks before Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass” that signaled a major escalation of the Nazi state’s war on Judaism, the Baer family escaped Hitler’s grip. They made their way to New York, where Baer’s mother had relatives. In retrospect, horrifying as they were, Baer’s early years in Germany sharpened personality traits that helped prepare him for a career in innovation: perseverance, scrappiness, risk-taking, resourcefulness, and self-confidence.

Baer was only 16 when he arrived in New York in 1938. He immediately showed a characteristic immigrant’s work ethic and drive to succeed. Resuming his self-education—necessary because of his lack of any school degree from Germany—he spent afternoons studying at the New York Public Library. He also took correspondence courses in radio and television electronics. In 1943, he was drafted into the Army and then assigned to military intelligence on account of his fluent German. After the war, like millions of veterans, Baer went to school on the GI Bill. He earned what he believed was the first B.S. degree anywhere in television engineering.

Innovation requires the good fortune to be at the right place at the right time, as much as it does individual genius. Baer came to the United States during the heyday of the American industrial research lab, and New York was a center of electronics innovation. It was a world that seemed made for him. Intelligent and ambitious, he quickly found employment in the growing defense electronics sector in New York City, including at such companies as Loral Electronics and Transitron.

While he did well at jobs that capitalized on his military experience, Baer kept an eye on the extraordinary things happening with commercial radio and TV. In America’s postwar economic boom, televisions were entering homes at an amazing rate. By 1960, there were more than 50 million TV sets in American living rooms, and in this, Baer saw a rare opportunity.

He was convinced TVs were underutilized as a one-way, passive medium. Thus was born his idea of interactive TV, and what were initially called “television games.” One of his first assignments at Loral Electronics was to build a television set. “When I was with Loral,” he recalled, “I suggested that we do something drastically different with a TV set. But the chief engineer said, ‘Forget it. You’re already behind schedule anyway, so stop screwing around with this stuff. Build the set.’ ”

Baer finally had a chance to realize his dream at his next job at Sanders Associates, a defense electronics firm in Nashua, New Hampshire. Rising quickly in the organization, Baer showed he knew how to operate within a large corporate R&D structure but soon proved his imagination could not be contained by that, or for that matter, any structure.

While managing a military research lab of hundreds of technicians and engineers, Baer quietly commandeered a small former library space on the fifth floor of the company’s Canal Street building, where he secretly started what he called his own “skunk works.” When the pace of business allowed, he and a couple of circuit designers he had selected to assist him worked sporadically on the idea of a game console that could work on unmodified TV sets.

Baer was having trouble creating a device that would actually introduce images on the TV screen until he had a eureka moment while on a business trip to New York City. Sitting at a bus stop, he realized he could build a small radio frequency signal device, “so you could get into the antenna terminals of a TV set on Channel 3 or Channel 4.” “Little by little we got stuff on the screen,” he remembered. “Then we started thinking about what games to play.” That included the first-ever on-screen ping-pong game.

Out of this original idea came his famous “brown box,” the first video game console, now in the collections of the National Museum of American History. Once he created a prototype, he finally went public. Baer presented it to his managers, convincing them that they could make money with video games, even though video games had nothing to do with the serious business of radar and other defense R&D. And make money they did—Sanders licensed the brown box to a TV company, Magnavox, which produced the hugely popular Odyssey video game console. Sanders ultimately earned roughly $100 million from the patents Baer assigned to the company. What distinguished Baer from other early video game inventors was his attention to commercialization. He knew an invention didn’t count unless it actually found a market. When he was later asked how he managed to develop commercially successful home video games at a military contractor that had nothing to do with television, he quipped it was “a piece of Jewish chutzpah.” “I just did it,” he said.

Much of Baer’s inventive tinkering took place at home, in his cozy basement in Manchester, 18 miles away from Sanders, where he was clearly happiest working, amid family and his favorite tools and devices. West Coast garages rank high in the hierarchy of temples of innovation—both Hewlett-Packard and Apple famously trace their origins back to suburban garages—but if you’re into video games, you owe a debt of gratitude to an East Coast basement. We’ve reassembled it at the American History Museum, as a key exhibit in our new wing dedicated to innovation and American enterprise.

Experts often debate whether invention and innovation rely more on solitary endeavors or institutional collaboration, but Baer’s work shows that it’s more often than not a combination of both dynamics that sparks technological revolution, as he straddled both models with his twin workplaces. Sanders provided resources and an “ecosystem” for innovation. But his Manchester basement, with its bright red door, provided his all-hours escape and unfettered freedom. Baer’s personal odyssey has become part of our common American story, and I am proud that his basement workshop has been enshrined for future generations of video game enthusiasts.