Meet the American who invented video games, Ralph Baer, a German Jew who fled Nazis, served US Army in WWII
Ralph Baer’s childhood was stolen by the Nazis.
The German-born Jew gained a semblance of revenge overseas, imagining a new way for children of all ages to play.
Ralph Baer invented video games.
A natural tinkerer as a child, he reclaimed his youth after arriving in the United States, where he was freed to unleash his creative energy and technical genius in the Land of Opportunity.
“Moving to America was magic to my dad,” son Mark Baer, director of the Ralph H. Baer Trust and based in Salt Lake City, told Fox News Digital.
“He was appreciative of this country for the rest of his life.”
Baer joined the U.S. Army in World War II, shipped off to Europe and helped defeat Hitler’s National Socialists just five years after he fled persecution.
He completed the world’s first video game console, dubbed “The Brown Box,” in 1967, while working for Sanders Associates in Manchester, New Hampshire.
“My father escaped Nazi Germany as a child, and he spent much of his life after that thinking differently about the world and trying to introduce more fun and whimsy into it,” Mark Baer said in an interview with the Museum of Play.
“He was a visionary and creative force who never stopped learning, inventing, and tinkering — even into his 90s.”
Rudolf Heinrich Baer was born on March 8, 1922, in Pirmasens, Germany, near the border of France, to Leo and Lotte (Kirschbuam) Baer, and later raised in Cologne, an ancient Roman city on the Rhine River.
Germany was a broken society crippled by hyperinflation following its defeat in World War I.
“This economic disaster had social consequences as well,” reports the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Many Germans who considered themselves middle class found themselves destitute.”
A hard life grew desperate for the Jewish family after Adolf Hitler ascended to authority in Germany in 1933.
Dad Leo was forced out of his tannery business despite being a wounded veteran of the German army who fought in World War I, said Mark Baer — and the family was restricted from attending its synagogue.
“Ralph was a super-creative child with a million friends,” Baer biographer Marcie Wessels of San Diego, author of “The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box,” told Fox News Digital.
His social life quickly unraveled, she said, citing Baer’s private personal memoir. The boy was kicked out of school. His best friend joined the Hitler Youth.
Other friends disowned him; and he was bullied as anti-Jewish animosity infected Germany.
“He turned inward on his inventions when his social relationships fell apart,” said Wessels. “I think he was inspired by his loneliness. Later in life he saw video games as a way to bring people together.”
The Baers leveraged family connections in the U.S. to flee Germany in 1938.
They arrived in New York City just two months before the infamous Kristallnacht of Nov. 9, 1938 — “Night of the Broken Glass.”
“Nazi troops throughout Germany smashed windows of stores and homes owned by Jews and set fire to synagogues, injuring — and even killing — German citizens of Jewish descent,” reports the Smithsonian Institution in its Baer biography.
“These state-sponsored, anti-Jewish riots are considered to be the start of the Holocaust.”
The Baers escaped Germany only weeks before it might have been too late to do so.
Baer renewed his schooling in the U.S., studying radio technology before joining the U.S. Army when America entered World War II.
“He wasn’t even a citizen yet,” said Mark Baer.
The future innovator became one of the legendary “Ritchie Boys” — an elite intelligence unit trained at Camp Ritchie in Maryland that included thousands of German-speaking Jewish refugees.
“These soldiers were often highly motivated to return to Europe to defeat Nazism,” reports the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The Ritchie Boys, by some accounts, were responsible for up to 60% of all the intelligence gathered by the U.S. military in Europe during World War II.
Ralph Baer fought back against Nazism with intellect that group rejected because of his faith.
Baer restarted his education for the third time in life after the war, with the benefit this time of the G.l. Bill.
He earned a degree from the American Television Institute of Technology in Chicago in 1949.
“As a new graduate in 1951, he had proposed to the television company that employed him that they should build games into their brand of television sets to differentiate them from those of their competitors,” reports the Smithsonian Institution.
The idea was quickly rejected.
Baer was two decades ahead of his time.
He went to work in 1955 for military contactor Sander Associates in Manchester, New Hampshire, where he lived most of his life.
He pursued his own innovations in his home workshop at nights and on weekends, many of them games. Television had reached almost every American home by 1966. Baer took another look at the idea of turning the tube into a platform for play.
He approached his employer with the idea, understanding toys would be a tough sell for the military contractor.
“So the first thing I don’t do is call it a toy,” Baer said in an interview with the National Museum of American History. “But I can call it gaming.”
The term “gaming,” the museum notes, was used in the military. It’s now entrenched in video game and wider popular culture.
Sanders Associates bit and agreed to support his research. He produced a working interactive console in 1967, dubbed “The Brown Box” because of its clunky design.
It was the world’s first video game. It contained features still recognizable today: two controls and a console that gave users multiple options, including ping-pong, checkers and several different sport games.
“The minute we played ping-pong, we knew we had a product,” said Baer.
Baer’s “Brown Box” technology was licensed to Magnavox and released in 1972 as Magnavox Odyssey, the world’s first home video-game system.
Sales were modest. But Baer’s vision proved the standard for video games to come. Proof of its potential came in the form of efforts to duplicate his technology.
Entrepreneurs Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney launched Atari in 1972, introducing the first arcade video game, Pong.
They launched a home version of the ping-pong game in 1975. Magnavox sued, claiming Atari had violated its patents — Baer’s original patents.
“Ralph Baer had carefully documented his work,” reports the National Museum of American History.
“Magnavox could prove that they demonstrated Odyssey to the public in 1972 and that Bushnell had attended the demonstration … Rather than face a lengthy and undoubtedly unsuccessful court case, Atari settled with Magnavox.”
With Baer’s intellectual property secured, he is known today as the “Father of Video Games.”
Ralph Baer died at his home in Manchester on Dec. 6, 2014, at age 92. He’s buried at Manchester Hebrew Cemetery.
His inventive life produced more than 150 patents, scores of them for electronic and interactive games and toys.
One of his inventions, the colorful memory game Simon, was released amid great fanfare at the famed New York City disco hotspot Studio 54 and became a commercial sensation through the early 1980s.
President George W. Bush awarded Baer the prestigious National Medal of Technology and Innovation in a White House ceremony in 2006.
In a more intimate posthumous hometown ceremony, the Ralph Baer Memorial Bench was dedicated in Manchester in 2019, with Baer’s children Mark, James and Nancy in attendance.
It features a bronze statue of the bespectacled inventor smiling with a video game remote control in his hands.
Baer donated his life’s work to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in 2006.
His workshop was put on display in the museum’s Innovation Wing in 2014.
The global video game market he inspired was valued in 2022 at $217 billion; about 82% of the global population plays video games, according to various industry estimates.
The video gaming industry took directions Baer probably never imagined.
“He’d be excited to see the incredible ways the technology has evolved,” said Wessels, the Baer biographer.
“He was opposed, though, to [the] violence that’s emerged in video games. And he didn’t love the idea of something sitting alone in the dark. He always saw video games as a way to bring people together.”
Countless opportunities have emerged for entrepreneurs and programmers.
Major universities today offer scholarships to top gamers. The best players have made a career of what Baer first dubbed gaming in the 1960s.
Johan Sundstein of Denmark reportedly has earned a record $7.4 million as a professional video-game competitor.
“Dad had the creative genius to look at the world and emerging technology in a new way, and the technical ability to execute his vision,” said Mark Baer.
“His greatest legacy is resilience. He learned from his childhood that he could make something essentially from nothing.”
The Nazis stole Baer’s childhood.
But they never robbed him of a childlike fascination with the world.
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