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Ralph Baer, father of home video game console, dies at 92

Engineer invented the predecessor to today's home video game consoles while working at a defense contractor in the late '60s and early '70s.

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Ralph Baer, inventor of the first home video console, receiving the Medal of Technology from President George W. Bush in 2006. WHITE HOUSE

Ralph Baer, widely known as the father of home video game consoles, died Saturday at the age of 92.

Baer, whose death was confirmed by the New York Times, began exploring the possibility of playing video games on a television screen while working as an engineer at a defense contractor in 1966. The result of his work was the "Brown Box," a prototype for what would become the Magnavox Odyssey, the first home gaming console. His invention helped transform computer gaming, an activity previously isolated to large, expensive computers, into a global market now generating billions of dollars in revenue each year.

Sanders Associates, the Nashua, N.H.-based military contractor that employed Baer, applied for a patent for Baer's invention in 1971 and was granted US Patent No. 3,728,480 in 1973. In 2010, Baer recalled how his invention immediately captivated the patent examiners reviewing his application.

"The examiner and the lawyer were talking jargon back and forth, and the examiner really wasn't paying much attention to me," he told the US Patent and Trademark Office. "While they were bantering back and forth about the claims, I set up a small television set and my game console in the examiner's office, and within 15 minutes every examiner on the floor of that building was in that office wanting to play the game."

Sanders licensed the system to Magnavox, which released the Odyssey in 1972. The Odyssey, the predecessor to today's Xbox and PlayStation consoles, was primitive by today's standards. The unit produced no sound, was powered by batteries and used translucent overlays to simulate color graphics on TV screens. Priced at $100, the Odyssey sold nearly 100,000 units in 1972, five years before the Atari 2600 video game console took the gaming world by storm.

While Baer admitted in a 2011 interview that at the time he could not foresee the revolution his invention would unleash, he remained modest about his contribution.

"Could I project how far this thing was going to go? The answer's obviously no. Nobody realized, even at that time, that we were on this geometric curve ... that would go straight up to heaven," Baer told the Salt Late Tribune. "It was unforeseeable; it was fantastic. I'm glad it happened. And if I hadn't had started it, someone else would have."

Born in Germany on March 8, 1922, Baer immigrated with his Jewish family to the US on the eve of World War II. Settling in New York with his family in 1938, Baer soon found a job in a factory making leather goods. After seeing an advertisement for a correspondence course in radio electronics, Baer quit his factory job and became a radio service technician in 1940.

After serving in US military intelligence in London during WWII, Baer used the GI Bill to get a Bachelor of Science in television engineering from the American Television Institute of Technology in 1949. Baer went to work at Sander in 1956, remaining with the defense contractor until his retirement in 1987. Baer, who held 50 US patents and about 100 worldwide, also designed a number of early video games, including Ping-Pong, Handball and Soccer, as well as the memory skill game Simon.

Baer was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President George W. Bush in 2006 for his "groundbreaking and pioneering" contribution to the video game industry. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2010.

Baer's prototype "Brown Box" is on display at the Smithsonian Institution.