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A beaming Ralph Baer surrounded by his inventions. / Courtesy Mark Baer

How a boy who fled Nazi Germany became the father of video games

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How a boy who fled Nazi Germany became the father of video games

A beaming Ralph Baer surrounded by his inventions. / Courtesy Mark Baer

Minecraft, Super Mario Bros., Guitar Hero, and Grand Theft Auto. Today, these and other best-selling video games are the source of endless hours of entertainment – or maybe distraction – to millions of players of all ages from around the world.

But few people know the name of Ralph Baer, a Jewish refugee whose family fled Nazi Germany and who – in the early 1970s – was the creative and enterprising genius behind the first-ever commercial home video game.

What began as a dot on a black-and-white TV screen launched a multibillion-dollar industry that barely existed 60 years ago.

Baer (1922-2014), a radio and television engineer who spent his career at Sanders Associates, a military electronics company in Nashua, settled and raised a family with his wife, Dena, in nearby Manchester.

He became a prolific inventor with some 150 patents to his name.

In addition to transforming his “brown box” console into the Magnavox “Odyssey” video game system, Baer created scores of electronic games, including the hugely popular Simon electronic game that continues to have a place on toy store shelves.

In his lifetime, Baer was honored with numerous awards, including the National Medal of Technology in 2006 from President George W. Bush, who called him the “father of video games.” Baer’s lab is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Now, in the centennial year of Baer’s birth, his remarkable life story is being recognized anew with celebrations and exhibits in Manchester and beyond. The SEE Science Center in Manchester has programs planned throughout the year and there’s an exhibit about Baer at Manchester’s Millyard Museum.

“Blips on a Screen: How Ralph Baer Invented TV Video Gaming and Launched a Worldwide Obsession,” is a new, delightful, and engaging picture book by Kate Hannigan and illustrator Zachariah Ohora that brings Baer’s inspiring and fun story to life for a new generation of kids.

Planning the commemorative events has been more than a labor of love and devotion for Mark Baer, one of Ralph and Dena’s three children.

“We are doing it not just to honor him but to call attention to the scholarships the family has established as a way to pay it forward with a new generation,” Baer told the Journal in a phone conversation. There is an endowment fund for invention education at the National Museum of American History.

That’s what his father did and also his mother, a longtime kindergarten teacher at the Jewish Community Center in Manchester who passed away in 2006.

The family were members of Temple Israel in Manchester, where the kids had their bar and bat mitzvahs. Later, they were members of Temple Adath Yeshurun, a Reform synagogue in town.

Last month, in a festive ceremony, a statue of Ralph Baer originally installed in 2019 was rededicated with a new plaque in Manchester’s Arms Park, named Ralph Baer Square.

Hannigan, an award-winning children’s writer whose own kids are avid video gamers, was intrigued about how gaming became so popular. When she discovered Baer’s life story, she sensed it would resonate.

The book is more than a story about technology and science, Hannigan told the Journal.

“It’s global history and understanding humanity,” she said.

In school visits, Hannigan raises questions about being a refugee and what it means to leave a life behind. “His childhood ended when he and family had to flee Nazi Germany. I try to get them to think about that,” she said.

Rudolph Heinrich Baer was born on March 8, 1922 in Pirmasens and raised in Cologne. His family escaped Nazi Germany, just months before Kristallnacht on Nov. 9, 1938, the terrifying pogroms that targeted Germany’s Jews. After settling in New York City, Baer changed his name to Ralph to avoid the stigma associated with Germany during the war.

Baer’s journey to what would become his life’s work began with a correspondence course in radio technology and included World War II service in the Army across Europe as one of the Ritchie Boys, the then-secret military espionage unit that included many German-Jewish refugees.

After the war, Baer earned a college degree in the emerging field of television engineering at a time when millions of Americans were buying their first TV sets. He eventually took a job as an engineer with Sanders Associates. But he never let go of his vision to make the passive television screen more fun as a platform for interactive games.

In Hannigan’s book, kids discover how Baer tinkered on his own for years in his home workshop, eventually gaining the support of his bosses at Sanders. The “Brown Box” that Baer invented and patented in 1971 was sold to Magnavox, which marketed it as “Odyssey,” the launch of home TV gaming.

Baer’s playful, childlike spirit inspired his inventions, but he was also intense and a seriously smart guy, his son Mark recalled.
“That why I’m continuing to do this, to recognize his place in history but to use it as platform to pay it forward for the next generation,” Mark said.

For more information, visit shttps://see-sciencecenter.org/ralph-baer-100/

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