Where do novel ideas come from? Sometimes they come from left field, when you least expect them.
1966, I was the manager of the Equipment Design Division at Sanders
Associates Inc., a Defense Industry company and at the time the largest
employer in the State of
were about 40 million TV sets in the
1966, thoughts about playing games using an ordinary TV set began to
percolate in my mind. When I designed and built a TV set at Loral in 1955, I
had proposed doing just that: Build in a game to differentiate our TV set
from the competition. Management said No and that was that. During a
business trip to
got back to my office in
I asked one of the engineers in my Division to read, date and sign the document - standard procedure to establish a legal record. He did that. Some of the phraseology of that 4-page paper reflects the fact that I was working in a military electronics company. But it’s clear enough what it proposed: “Let’s Play Television Games!”
Page 1 of the 4-page Disclosure Document
did I know that I had started the ball rolling on something much bigger and
more significant than anyone could have imagined at the time:
The start of what was to become a very large Home Video Game industry
within 10 years! I also could not possibly have visualized that the pages of
the Disclosure Document would surface again after 1974 in Federal Courts in
Even thinking about Video Games had absolutely nothing to do with the normal business of developing complex military electronic systems in my Division at Sanders Associates. But I was running a pretty large operation then, so I could afford to put a technician on the bench and have him do some experimental work without even rippling my division’s overhead. So I just did it! It wasn’t long before the project became official; a few convincing demonstrations to our Corporate Director of R&D put the project on a legitimate track that would eventually pay off handsomely.
development activity continued thorough 1968 and 1969. Most of the work was
done by Bill Harrison, then an Engineering Associate; and by Bill Rusch, an
engineer who both made important contributions to game concepts. I
supervised the activity, stopping by a few times during the day in the
special room where we were doing the actual hardware development work. That
room was tucked away in a remote place of
Everything has to start somewhere: First and second TV Game chassis
Several progressively more complex game systems were developed during 1967 and in 1968. We could now play all manner of sports games: Ping-pong, volleyball, handball, soccer, hockey and several others. We also had a light-gun with which we could “shoot” at “targets” on the screen of the TV set.
By 1968 we had finished building our final demonstration game system, the “Brown Box”. It was switch-programmable and played a large number of sports, maze and quiz-type games.
In addition, we had several games based on the light gun so we could shoot at stationary or moving “targets”. It all worked very well and it was obvious to one and all that playing “TV Games” was fun.
The "Brown Box" multi-game unit with its Target Shooting "rifle"
As far as neat games and producible technology was concerned, we were done! The marketing effort was another story. It remained a major problem for two years. We tried to introduce video games into the Cable TV industry in 1968 without lasting success.
we turned to
Magnavox finally took a license in 1971 and their 1972 Odyssey Home Video Game, a production-engineered version of our Brown Box, was the result. It started the Home TV Game market.
According to the Agreement between us, Magnavox had the responsibility, as our sole licensee, to handle all sublicensing activities for video games. It took three more years of cajoling and pressure from our Director of Patents and from me to effect a sea-change of attitude at Magnavox. They finally committed to dropping notices of infringement on a group of arcade game manufacturers. Sanders and Magnavox went after the first set of infringers, the lawsuits began and would go on for the better part of fifteen years.
beginning, it was Atari which
was joined with Chicago Dynamics and Bally-Midway in a suit laid on them by
Sanders/Magnavox. Court proceedings started in June of 1976 at the
That lawsuit and others that followed it were largely about the interaction between manually-controlled and machine-controlled symbols on screen, like the paddles and the ball in a ping-pong game. Atari’s PONG game – which in any event came about because Atari’s President, Nolan Bushnell, had played an Odyssey ping-pong game at a Magnavox dealership demo in May of 1972 - infringed that technology and so did all of Atari’s competitors who copied the Pong game within months of it first appearance.
Judge Grady was very interested in the subject. He was very sharp and amazed all of us with the amount technical detail he absorbed and digested during the trial. He was friendly and often turned to me from the bench while I was on the witness stand, asking for explanations of some technical detail that had escaped him. I was impressed.
One day the opposition brought an arcade PONG-type game into the courtroom. When the judge asked that the back be removed so that he could see what’s inside, there was a modified Admiral TV set. Its r.f. front-end (the tuner and video IF amplifiers) had been bypassed to make it effectively into a TV monitor. I had described the use of monitors in my ‘480 patent. Judge Grady took one look at what he saw inside the arcade game and what he saw on the screen and drew the proper conclusions: Namely, that this arcade game had all the elements described in our patents - which had long since issued, having been filed many years earlier.
weeks of intensive proceedings in Judge Grady’s
Atari, the pioneer arcade video game manufacturer of the period was joined in that first lawsuit with Seeburg and some others. Once the trial began, Nolan Bushnell, Atari’s president, was having second thoughts and settled with us out-of-court.... our first licensee! Atari got a relatively low-cost paid-up license which acovered past infringement for US-sold products, but not foreign rights. Those were negotiated five years later. That initial Agreement was dated June 6, 1976. It was the first of two Agreements with Atari. The second one was signed in 1981. By then, Atari dominated the video game world.
The Magnavox Odyssey TV Game system jump-started the industry which we now know as the video game industry and did so in fair style. Close to 100,000 Odyssey games were sold in 1972. By the time newer models made their appearance in 1974, Odyssey had racked total sales of about 350,000. This happened despite the fact that the Odyssey system was a mid-1960's design using discrete components, like those of the TV sets of that era. By the mid-nineteen-seventies, integrated circuits and single-chip game designs were coming into use, reducing the cost and increasing the performance of games so that the industry took off like a big bird. By some calculations, its gross receipts now exceed that of the movie industry.
shabby for an idea that took off from a few notes scribbled in
Finally: For anyone really interested in the details of this story, please get a copy of my book “Videogames: In the Beginning” . See the Home page for details.
Copyright 1998 Ralph H. Baer