This is the story of a German from humble beginnings, who was to mark the history of the game with his brown box.

If you have teenagers, you probably have a gleaming games console next to the TV that would once have been thought of as a supercomputer. This one owes its origins to a man and his brown box.

The Brown Box wouldn’t have existed in the first place if not for a lucky escape. 14-year-old Rudolph Baer was expelled from school because he was Jewish. Seeing which way the wind was blowing, the Baer family decided to leave Nazi Germany for New York, arriving in 1938 just in time to escape the Nazi Kristallnacht pogrom. In America Rudolph became Ralph and a new life began.

Ralph’s great interest was the then booming subject of radio communication. Graduating as a radio technician, he was drafted into military intelligence when the European war finally came to America. After the war, America helped Ralph again, thanks to GI Bill paying for his Bachelor of Science degree in the rising new technology of television engineering.

Not that television played a big part in his immediate future. Working for a medical device supplier, he designed and built a new generation of electromechanical aids for surgery, as well as the ancestor of those electric “body toning” systems that were so popular in the 1970s and 1980s. It wasn’t until 1956 when he moved to military contractor Sanders – where he was commissioned to develop the Brandy spyware system for eavesdropping on East Berlin – that he again encountered the type of high technology that would lead to the Brown Box.

The idea of ​​playing games on a cathode ray tube had been suggested before, and if you had a mainframe it was even possible, thanks to ‘Spacewar’ on the DEC PDP-1. Yet Baer envisioned building a device to plug into the TV screen and transforming that device from a one-way receiver into an interactive game machine. He had suggested a similar idea 15 years earlier to his former employer and met with the usual engineering genius response: “Why would anyone want that?” However, after remembering the idea in 1966 while waiting at a bus stop, Baer crafted a quick four-page proposal and presented his idea to the Sanders’ leadership, immediately receiving a $2,500 development budget to try to make it a reality.

By December of the same year, Baer and his team of two engineers had created TV Game No.1. It wasn’t exactly “Halo” – involving the operator moving a vertical line up and down on a television screen – but Baer had turned a passive device into an interactive one. If it wasn’t impressive, all it took was getting the funding to make it an official company project, and Baer commissioned engineer William Harrison to build the first prototype. Meanwhile, Baer had to think about what kind of game was possible with technology that only allowed one “dot” on the screen. He sketched ideas for driving games (using a steering wheel control), card games, board games, chess and even educational math games. The first hands-on game had a player pressing a button to fill a container.

With the two-point capability came more possibilities, including chase games, golf, horse racing, and even football.

Baer also created a schematic for a “light gun” that could be “fired” at the screen in shooting games or used as a virtual pointer. The shooter appealed to Baer’s boss, who asked him to demonstrate the machine to senior management. Looking back, we can see this as the start of a multi-billion dollar industry, but board members were less impressed. However, they reluctantly agreed to fund the project until completion, presumably with the intention of selling or licensing the idea later.

The need now was to create a prototype that was attractive enough to sell, but that would be around Baer’s ideal price point, i.e. $20. After a while, new team member Bill Rusch found a way to have three controllable spots on the screen and suggested a game of ping pong that eventually became the first major video game. – “Pong”.

Seven prototypes later, the final version, wrapped in brown wood veneer tape, was ready. This was the famous Brown Box, the world’s first true video console.

The patent filing saw queues of patent examiners lined up to play the games, and soon the prototype was shown to potential buyers.

One of them was Magnavox, which made the first plasma displays for the military. After two years of negotiations, the company agreed to manufacture the commercial product as initially the Skill-O-Vision before settling on the Magnavox Odyssey, which hit stores in May 1972. The rest is up to the story of the game.

Sign up for the E&T News email to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.