True video game geeks know Ralph Baer, who led development of what became Magnavox Odyssey, the first home video game, while working at Sanders Associates (now BAE Systems) in Nashua. I wrote several stories about him while working at the Nashua Telegraph, which is why I have the above photo, taken by Telegraph photographer Don Himsel. It shows the two of us a decade ago (check my hair!) playing Pong on a “brown box,” the initial version of his game, in the basement of his Manchester home. His basement workshop, along with a brown box, is now an exhibit in the American Museum of National History, a Smithsonian museum, in Washington D.C.
Public recognition came late to Baer – it took the rise of geek culture brought him to the attention of folks outside the industry, but he loved it. He was a bit of a ham, but an entertaining one, and his family’s story (they were Jewish and just escaped from Hitler’s Germany) added to the interest.
Baer eventually was named to the National Inventors Hall of Fame and received a National Medal of Technology from President George W. Bush. Sanders Associates never emphasized the Odyssey work, which was always a sideline to their military-electronics business, and Baer didn’t get rich from it. He went on to invent a bunch of other electronic games, including Simon, the lights-and-noises memory game that was a national sensation for a while. BAE didn’t do much to recognize him until a couple of years ago, but they included him in a conference in December 2013, a year before he died at age 92.
On Monday, as the U-L reports, BAE Systems will unveil a plaque at the Canal Street building where Baer and his team worked on the video game as part of an IEEE Milestones event. It will include remarks from BAE and IEEE officials; Arthur Molella, Smithsonian Institution Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation; and Mark Baer, Baer’s son.