There has been a lot written about the technology that became the Odyssey console by Magnavox, but not much understanding. Even though we have had a plethora of documentary information about it for over a decade, it seems that nobody has actually looked at these documents in much depth. In embarking to understand the stages of the development of the Odyssey, myself and other researchers have broken through much of the legendary narrative.
A typical rendition of the Odyssey story would go as follows:
Ralph Baer, lone inventor at Sanders Associates, uses his television expertise to create the first thing we would call a video game. Executing his vision with a small team, they bounce from prototype to prototype to create a box that can display three dots and a line – perfect for playing Table Tennis. After packaging their device, Sanders sells it to Magnavox who decide to make it too expensive with a load of dice and boards. Because of that and poor advertising, the Odyssey doesn’t do well, but its technology inspires Pong and cements the Odyssey’s place in video game history. Ralph Baer is never recognized for his invention until the 1990s when he begins making appearances at retro shows, revealing the duplicity of the attention hogging people at Atari.
Sure, this is a slightly reductive summary, but even the specific details are things that people believe are settled fact. We are going to break down each of these pieces one by one. Divided into sections about Vision, Production, and Legacy, we will peel back the curtain to see what the evidence supports for this typical tale of the Odyssey.
Perhaps the biggest myth about the creation of the Odyssey is that Ralph Baer knew exactly what he was trying to do from the start. This has been perpetuated for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that people are relying on Ralph Baer’s summaries of the event rather than his paperwork. In truth, there was no end of what the team thought the first game console might be able to do. What it landed on was a single possible future and can hardly even be attributed to Ralph Baer.
Starting at the beginning – for it is a convenient place to start – the original document drafted September 1, 1966 gives us some clues. For the “TV Gaming Display” or “Channel Let’s Play” project at Sanders Associates, Baer outlines an incredibly broad set of ideas of a device that can push images to a TV set for the purpose of playing games. He identifies eight different categories but in his technical outline does not get more specific on how these would be portrayed than this, “Bar, line, or dot generation – players control selective blanking, blinking, color coding of lines, bars, dots, fields via generator”.
This is important to know if you read through the documents: Baer is not a solitary genius who knew exactly what the technology was capable of. At the time he was 44, not incredibly old but very much falling behind the rapidly evolving technology of the 1960s. This would be evidenced in the fact that the TVGD used no integrated circuits, only transistors. Admittedly, Baer in his lifetime acknowledged this. The difference is that nothing in the documents indicates that he knew what the possibilities of the current technology were. While he got the idea off the ground of doing raster generation on a standard TV set, he couldn’t actually implement it. Every piece that was built was built with the help of others. Baer referred to these people as ‘technicians’ but they were just as much of engineers as he and they didn’t know what was possible either.
Perhaps the most misleading image that makes observers misunderstand what the project was at this stage is the September 6, 1966 page titled “TV Mode Data Entry Device“. On this page, a rough diagram is drawn up that appears to feature two objects that can move independently on the screen. This seems to state that not only had something been built, but that the functionality of the eventual Brown Box is fully realized. The Odyssey’s two different shaped players are now here and video games are not on a straight path ahead to Pong!
That’s not what this is though. Looking closer at the sheet, this drawing represents a implementation of an input device, comparing an Etch-A-Sketch toy. This is actually a demonstration of how potentiometer controllers might work. It has nothing to do with a TV screen! Additionally, the eventual Brown Box implementation of the boxes are perfect squares. Only once it becomes the Odyssey does it have two different shapes. However, we’re not even yet to the point of thinking about dots. While Baer had the vaguest notion of drawing images, he does not appear to have believed that he could accomplish nearly as much as he first spitballed from his initial memo once he actually had time to start working on it.
Momentum on the TVGD actually started in December 1966 where Baer began to outline the idea of a very specific functionality for the console. What he believed to be possible was to create dividing lines across the screen. This could manifest as either a selection intersected line, like a “+”, or dividing the screen into two different colors. The area of this divide could be moved across the screen at will. That was it. No dots. No objects. Only the most barebones game ideas, illustrated through rudimentary drawings. This appears to have been a matter of technical limitations. Baer brought on his first technical partner onto the project, Bob Solomon, and the first version of the TVG was run through a Heathkit generator. It didn’t appear to be possible with the vacuum tube technology they were using to drive the screen any more specifically than dividing it into halves. Even the selector idea was dropped before long.
Only with the injection of new talent and vision did Baer’s ideas evolve beyond these incredibly simple understanding of what was in front of him. Aside from the initial pie-in-the-sky planning, it does not appear that the project had any technical momentum to actually achieve the capabilities of a robust display device until the two Bills entered the situation: William Harrison and William Rusch. Harrison set about redoing basically all the functionality that Baer and Solomon had put together while Rusch brainstormed with Baer about what the technology could possibly be. The result of this discussion, “Misc. Ideas for T.V.G.” would be perhaps the true foundational document for the Odyssey. The list of over 20 games ideas which Rusch produced was very specific about the technical stages needed for implementation and created the vision that was needed to make it real: A player controlled object.
A few of the ideas still adhere to the “split screen” concept and some were also rather wildly ambitious, but it’s undeniable that this new direction for the project colored everything else that came afterwards. Harrison would continue to work on the split screen idea and the first full implementation of a game on the system would be played a few days later, new hardware would be drafted immediately to produce more individual and complex shapes. Without the influence of these two characters, the Sanders Associates video box would not have been anything more than a limited way to create distinct screen areas. Baer did not have the vision or ability to take it beyond that, despite the image that he projected in later years. The documents make that much clear.
The visions from Rusch in particular did not stop there either. While it’s not necessary to run though all of the various ideas he envisioned (you can view all of the Magnavox Odyssey the documents newly uploaded to Gaming Alexandria) it is worth noting that the ideas for the project appear to have hit yet another wall. Several concepts involved creating world obstacles such as mazes and walls, rather than relying solely on the overlays they used in the final product. There were plenty of ideas which lingered on through the process as they continued to struggle finding their way. Even after the demonstration to give them full funding, nobody was happy with what they were able to accomplish. Just moving around dots wasn’t enough to make for interesting games. They proposed this system as a “low cost data entry device”, but without another breakthrough it was going to be functionally useless for any purposes.
Of course that breakthrough is well known, the October 18, 1967 brainstorm by Rusch which produced a new dot and a Ping Pong game. Putting the control of an object in the hands of the hardware was not an entirely new concept. They had conceptualized an idea for a torpedo shooting game, but they had never implemented anything. It was again not an obvious step to make it work. Rusch and Harrison traded off ideas of how to make collision detection and generated momentum work, which became the most singularly powerful technology within the entire project. It would be what the Sanders Associates patents were largely based on: The concept of electronically controlling the collision and redirection of dots. The date of October 18, 1967 is one of the most significant in the history of video games for that reason.
Once again, it’s reductive to only highlight this moment for the Ping Pong game. While Rusch put special emphasis on that game in his notes, he also came up with a number of others on the same day and beyond. Now that the idea of having an object controlled by the hardware was in place, he became truly creative. For the next two months, Rusch would go absolutely wild with ideas which included absolutely runaway ideas for games including competitive jet fighting, boxing, and more. Part of the reason he felt this was possible was because he was beginning to work out how to create more complex graphical objects with their hardware. Baer’s team did not just have a Ping Pong machine, what they were creating was robust and expanding every day. By the beginning of 1968, their basic device only cost $12 in materials cost and they felt they could expand it at not too great of an additional cost.
It is at this point that there is something else to acknowledge: The TV Gaming Device was not Baer’s only project. As part of the extension of his television engineering experience, Baer was also working on uses for cable television. Above is the internal video that was made in approximately 1969 which showcased the TVGD and several other television-related ideas he was working on. The TVGD is an extremely small portion of this presentation because the greater idea Baer had in mind was using the television as a conduit for interactive content. This was the true ingenuity of Ralph Baer. Though others would come around to the idea of interactive cable, he seems to be the first person truly working out the mechanics of how it would work technologically.
It should not come as a surprise then that the first avenue from which he felt he could get the game released commercially was through cable networks. Hardly anybody had cable television in the late 60s because of these technological limitations. Dedicated pay-per-view channels like HBO simply weren’t feasible because the technology didn’t exist to provide dedicated content. The infrastructure was slowly building though, so Sanders Associates would start talks with Teleprompter Corporation – more famous for their self-titled device – to examine Baer’s group of inventions. As a demonstration for the people at Teleprompter, Baer’s team created the capability to broadcast a closed-signal behind the action on the Brown Box. This was meant to display real-time backdrops of things like tennis courts for the Ping Pong game, incentivizing people to want a cable service to make up for the game’s lack of visuals.
Often this broadcast idea gets misunderstood as the idea of “distributing games” via cable. (For instance, this Gaming Historian video misinterprets the idea this way.) In truth, there was no idea of expanding the capabilities. This was just a more elegant replacement of the overlay system they were already using. Whether this would have worked on a broader scale is an open question. As released, the technology overrode the broadcast signal with its own, localized signal emanating from a box which plugs into the back of the TV. It would have required some sort of bypass for the cable signal to break through while still displaying the dots.
Ultimately, this would be a moot point. As negotiations with Teleprompter dragged on, the project was ordered to a scheduled stop on January 31, 1968. Ralph Baer, William Harrison, and Willian Rusch were told to go back to their normal positions and no longer work on the TV Game project until they had more funding. Had the project failed to show promise, it would have never been picked up again. Luckily, there was a resumption of the project some months later, though residual work had gone on in the interim.
The most surprising thing about the revival of the project in mid-to-late 1968 is that the team still does not have a firm grasp on what the system’s functionality should be. Rusch was no longer a full part of the team at this point (Baer claimed he was fired in layoffs, but he wasn’t) so some of the super ambitious ideas were by the wayside. However, Harrison continued to toy with producing different shape types. They desperately attempted to find a solution to the fact that the balls couldn’t properly ricochet off objects – Rusch even suggested a $12 addon just to make the game feasible. As it was, they stuck with their current solution with the English controller knob.
When the project was finally codified as the “Brown Box”, the types of games were narrowed down to a small list of games with general functionalities switched via flip switches on the front of the box. The system still had color capabilities and games which would never see it through to production, including the Pumping Game which they could never let go of. There were gun games and they even had the capability to displaying three total dots rather than just two for players. This version is what is seen in the famous video clip. Two slightly elongated rectangles and a perfectly square ball roll side to side across a totally solid line. That was the most attractive part, the part that made people understand what video games could be. Now it was time to interest a company.
With the route to cable companies having turned up empty, the next decisions by Sanders Associates was to approach TV companies. This may have been an appropriate route for two reasons. One, the team was thinking about possibly integrating their technology directly into televisions, therefore bypassing the complicated process of plugging in the box. This would have also reduced the price of the general technology, if affixing it to one brand of TV. Second, there was starting to be a movement for television addons. There was a port on the back of most televisions to plug in an antennae which could connect to UHF for cable, but there was also increasingly a desire to use it for more. The first cheap, home video formats were being experimented with in this time period and put the idea in the TV manufacturer’s heads of the eventual ubiquity of on-demand content.
Sanders took a broad approach in meeting with every television company worth a damn in the late 1960s. These would be RCA, Zenith, General Electric, Sylvania, Motorola, Warwick (who made the TVs for Sears), and they even considered Sony at one point who was beginning to encroach on the US market with their Trinitron brand of TVs. RCA and GE took repeat meetings with Sanders to attempt to work out terms, both having a stronger R&D focus than the majority of the companies in television. According to Baer, the RCA negotiations went all the way to final negotiations. However, for reasons he was not privy to nor found in the court documents, the agreement was never signed.
From the middle of 1969, the TVG project was effectively dead. While patents for the technology they had developed were being filed, Sanders had run out of options for who they could conceivably sell the Brown Box to. There was no consumer electronics industry. It was going to be too expensive to be a toy. The only way this worked was as part of a television market. For over a year, the project was completely dead in the water and didn’t move an inch. Had it not been for a serendipitous job move, there may have not been an Odyssey.
William H Enders, former RCA executive, was one of the enthusiastic players in that hot negotiation before it fell apart. When he took a job with Magnavox, he asked them to appraise it. Magnavox had not been considered by Sanders and it’s not certain why. (Though Baer spoke of a prior meeting with them, the records do not substantiate this.) Anything at this point is speculation, though the company had been having trouble in recent years. That may have at least contributed to the company’s willingness to take on this scheme as a way to supplement their flagging business.
After some demonstrations in July and August of 1970, talks were underway between Sanders and Magnavox. Without being privy to the executive decisions, it’s uncertain why this process took as long as it did. When they concluded in March 1971 though, Magnavox signed what was essentially an option to produce a product based on the Sanders Associates technology. This wasn’t a full commitment to building the product quite yet, but it was time for a full technological evaluation of the product. Dormant for over two years, the Brown Box was finally getting somewhere.
Baer and Harrison met with a large contingent of Magnavox people on March 30, 1971 to begin hashing out the road to production. In this meeting, there were some significant decisions made about the product. It was decided that they would use circuit cards to change between games, rather than dials or switches. Controllers would have wires extending from the console of four to six feet. The look of the device would echo something like a cassette player – themselves relatively new – potentially to cue in people to multi-faceted potential of the device. The team also recognized that it would be useful to have somebody who could devise game concepts without needing to be part of the engineering staff, a concept of a game designer. That designer was going to have to work within some strict limitations though.
At first, it seemed like it would be everything that the final demo unit had been, but as they worked on the technical specifics they found numerous problems. The color generator remained too expensive and Harrison spent yet more time trying to minimize it. In the end, the device would not have color. The gun also gave them quite a bit of trouble and Magnavox realized that it was not necessary to the actual shipment of the machine. That would be excised to an addon to try and keep the cost of the essential components low. Internally at Magnavox, the system would be redesigned for mass production. In this process, they decided to make a difference between the size of the dots of the two players. Comparing the final design to the 1969 Brown Box, it’s clear to see they are not exactly the same.
The salesmen at Magnavox were rather intimidated by the prospect of selling this machine. Nothing else like it existed on the market. They weren’t even sure that within a year they would have a product ready. There were a few champions of the machine within the company though, and they pushed for the box to be test marketed. In those days, television manufacturers primarily sold their product through dealers across the country aligned with a specific manufacturer. This would change in a few years due to anti-trust suits, but it was the perfect place to do focus groups which would target the core audience. In July 1971, the first test of the modified TV Game Device would be held in a store in San Diego with a number of people involved with the project in attendance.
Using the name “Skill-O-Vision” for the name of the product, a three day test of the machine was held. Questionnaires preserved by Baer show the available games as well as what the company was most interested in finding out. They had to determine demographic information, what types of games the people enjoyed, and how much they were willing to pay. For play they made available one variant of the Ping Pong game, a chase game, an educational game about US geography, a baseball-guessing game, and one of the rifle games. Several of these games had elements outside of the game, as originally envisioned, though the active elements were all done on the screen.
The datasets suggested that people were very strong on the system, enjoyed the competitive and the educational games, and were willing to pay at an asking price of $75. The results were repeated when a second test was done in Michigan the following month. These tests informed Magnavox’s decision to commit to a small, nationwide rollout of 50,000 units in the first year to 18 major markets which corresponded to their sales territories. In retrospect, this seems ridiculously small. However, thinking in terms of televisions, that was a significant run.
In this time though, a new marketing manager named Robert Fritsche stepped in to redirect the project. He made an argument based on the existing data that people were actually willing to pay more for the system than argued because of the leading nature of the question. He felt that the games needed to stray towards education in order to have significant value to the consumer, since this would be a device pointed at the whole family. Finally, he pushed Magnavox to produce double the number of units and increase the number of markets. His suggestions were all taken and the final stages of putting together the product commenced.
Creating the games would be the work of a contract artist firm called Bradford/Cout Design. Using the few electronic functions they had to work with, they had to construct ideas for games going off the lead of the early experiments at Sanders Associates. They produced chase games, gun games, semi-action games, and a lot of games which required external game boards. These had not been part of any prior design and seem to have been incorporated to give the games a structure they lacked with the inability to keep track of any win or fail states. The twelve games created for the console used six circuit cards to utilize different functionalities of the system, the Football game using two for separate plays within the sport. All of the art for these extra pieces provided the system with its visual identity which couldn’t be replicated on screen, shifting it towards something very child-friendly.
One of the biggest misconceptions put forward by Baer was that these extra pieces raised the price of the system. In truth, it did not. Fritsche was pushing for an upped price of the system. Production costs for the electronics of the main console were $32. The boards, cards, poker chips, and all added up to only $5 extra. This would be sold to Magnavox dealers for $65, ending up at a $99.95 price point for the consumer. While it’s entirely possible to criticize what the company believed would be successful as far as what games were produced, it’s unfair to believe that the pricepoint could have been significantly reduced based on the electronics components alone.
Why had the price gone up from estimates of around $12 to over $30? It’s not certain, but a possible reason could be that the technology was so old. In 1967 when full work began on the TVG, they were just moving away from vacuum tubes to discrete components. In 1972, some of the necessary pieces to make the system as it was designed may have been hard to come by. Integrated circuits had utterly taken over the market and it wasn’t nearly as easy to create a precariously packed circuit board with individual transistors hanging atop it. That is merely speculation though. The fact was, it was more expensive than Sanders bargained for, but as long as people paid for it Magnavox wasn’t too upset.
The final agreement between Sanders and Magnavox was signed in February 1972 as they readied to release the console as their major product that year. This agreement more or less constituted the assumption of responsibilities for the legal rights of patents to Magnavox, with Sanders able to also sign deals for its use on a limited basis. For the moment, they would concentrate on making their system – called the Odyssey – a success. It was revealed to stockholders at the beginning of May 1972 and then commenced on a nationwide tour to the dealer network of Magnavox in a procession called the Magnavox Profit Caravan. It appears the reason they needed to do this was that dealers for Magnavox televisions had some discretion over what products they would carry and needed to be convinced by having grand showings in which the public could attend to gauge the appeal of the device.
It’s not entirely clear how outsiders would have found out about the showings. Famously, Nolan Bushnell attended one of the demonstrations in Burlingame, California, but how he heard about it remains a mystery. These were not technically public events, they were semi-private and required people to sign in to get an early view of the system. After these showings, some of the dealers would be able to get demonstration units around the time of August 1972. The full launch of the system though was held until September 1972, well outside the normal television buying season, but hopefully just the right time for its launch.
In advertising in both print and television, Magnavox would emphasize the futuristic aspect of Odyssey. The most common tagline was, “The electronic game of the future.” Kate Willaert’s excellent piece Creating The First Home Video Game goes into detail on the contemporaneous advertising for the Odyssey in general media. She also tackles another myth of Ralph Baer, one of his most pervasive, that Magnavox deliberately created the impression that the system would only work on Magnavox-branded televisions. This may have accidentally been implied by some of the early advertising, but they corrected it quickly and it was in no way official policy from the company. Even though the Odyssey was largely an accessory by which Magnavox could draw customers into the store to buy televisions, they did not undersell the product by tying it in explicitly with their line.
The product that shipped off the line was a far ways away from the vision of anybody who worked on the early stages of the product. It wasn’t Ralph Baer’s vision of an interactive TV channel. It wasn’t Bill Rusch’s view of a recreation of every type of physical game in existence. It wasn’t even Magnavox’s initial vision of a largely TV-bound device that persisted purely on its novelty. Odyssey was very much a rushed design by committee, and it showed. The identity of the product was muddled. It still held a promise for the future though. It was the first video game console.
Sales for the Odyssey didn’t live up to expectations in the first year. They sold 69,000 of the 100,000 they produced which nearly convinced Magnavox to pull out of the product. However, in a clever bit of marketing, they had held back a thirteenth game which could be acquired via a registration card. These responses were encouraging for the Odyssey marketing wise as many users were responding extremely favorably to the product. On top of that, they also received a number of messages from institutions like hospitals, nursing homes, and air traffic training schools about them using Odyssey for leisure and training purposes. It was a promising future which made the company reconsider their plans to not extend the product line into the future.
The following years of the Odyssey saw a number of new game releases in packs and an expansion of the product to overseas territories. These later years are worth an examination on their own, but suffice to say that the product was not a total failure. Even though the overall unit sales were slight – 350,000 systems in all – it was an ambitious statement of new technology. Magnavox built a basis by which others in the future could emulate and learn from while also avoiding their mistakes born out of uncertainty. Far more important to summing up the results of this moment though are the ripple effects of the legacy for the Odyssey and how it really should be remembered.
One thing that is confusing about the console is how it relates to video games that came after it. Some say that the Odyssey is a critical piece in the story of the medium because it inspired Pong. Others would say that it has no relation to later technology and that it shouldn’t even qualify as a video game because it’s actually analog technology. The latter claim is more accurate, but the reasoning is wrong. The Odyssey is not analog at all. What makes up the video inside the box is pretty much all digital components. This argument was invented as part of the defense in the lawsuits over the Sanders Associates patents to invalidate the consideration of the technology. Even running on that premise, the defense still failed to substantiate its claims.
What is true is that nobody attempted to create a game like the Odyssey. The way it determined how to do a video signal was replicated by almost nobody except maybe some of the extremely early home consoles. The standard method of displaying info on an analog screen was entirely derivative of what Ted Dabney invented for Computer Space. In that sense, Baer did not invent anything crucial to the evolution of video games technologically, except for the RF modulator. His solution of overriding a television’s native input system on channel 3 or 4 was replicated by every console maker for decades. It may have even inspired the connection used on early home video players like Betamax, VHS, and LaserDisc (though it’s uncertain). Ironically the most fiddly and outdated part of the system may have been its greatest legacy.
Insofar as inspiring Pong, that remains mostly true. The fact of this was almost immaterial to the lawsuits that later emerged, the broad strokes of which are covered elsewhere. What tends to be said though is that Pong totally overshadowed the Odyssey and became the landing point for people looking for the “beginning” of commercial video games. As a result of this, the general public was not aware of the Odyssey. More importantly for Ralph Baer in his retrospectives, people were not aware of him as the head behind the technology. This injustice was propagated by Atari who used their influence to override the record.
This again is not borne out when looking at artifacts from the time. Starting in 1976 with promotional materials by Sanders Associates for the launch of the later Odyssey 100 series of consoles, Baer was featured heavily as the creator of video games. He gave his opinion to early articles on video games, was presented with an award at the Gametronics conference, and appeared in the prominent publications of the day including Video Invaders, Electronic Games, and Screen Play. Even then, the argument would often be framed of his battle with Atari over who was really first. The semantics of the debate aside, Baer was always present, if not always the forefront voice he may have wanted to be. The Odyssey was not at all forgotten in the early discourse on video games.
Things may have been different in the 1990s, where in a post-Crash period there was less awareness of things which weren’t a major success. The Odyssey continued to be a presence through the North American Philips lawsuits around the patents, but certainly general knowledge would have said that Pong was the first video game. Of course, even that negates Computer Space. General knowledge is not exactly the barometer on whether something had totally been forgotten. When Baer started making public appearances at retro conventions though, it was a big deal, though not necessarily because nobody knew who he was. He gave public demonstrations of the work he was doing in the 1960s, a first time that tangible history at the dawn of gaming was before people. In that regard, he can be thanked, and his work in promoting himself eventually earned him the National Medal of Technology as well as a place for his documents in the Smithsonian.
Baer and Odyssey’s story is a foundational tale well worth examining for the truth amid the basic understanding. It is natural for historians to exalt Baer for his consistency in life and being friendly with people who were interested in his story, but I have not come across any source that has ever looked at the documents he made accessible to us critically. That plus the revelations of the court documents I helped unearth provide us with a picture which is more complicated and challenges our basic instinct of attributing all aspects to a sole inventor. Bill Harrison and Bill Rusch deserve immensely more credit for their work on the TV Game project than merely a side role as Baer’s assistants. He didn’t have the necessary skills to form his vision, and if we can be critical of Nolan Bushnell for his failings to acknowledge the people who helped his ideas come to life, we should do the same of Baer. That is not to fully sideline his vision, merely to put it in a greater context which helps us appreciate the mindset and evolution of technology to implementation.
This new history of the Odyssey hopefully illuminates part of what the world’s first video game console truly meant. It shined a light without being a guiding vision. It inspired without having much to inspire with. From its technology came little consequence in practice, enormous consequences in law. This is only a piece of the Odyssey story, how its origins intersect with a rapidly developing electronics environment of the late 1960s. More can be said about its introduction overseas, its later iterations, and the legal case that truly defined video games. As it is though, we can’t give the Odyssey that much credit for “starting” anything. It wasn’t much. But it was there.
Videogames: In the Beginning, 2005, Ralph Baer.
View the documents for the Odyssey now on Gaming Alexandria!