The very first video game, every schoolchild knows, was Pong, the thrill-a-minute table tennis adventure in which players bounced a white cube back and forth forever. Designed by Allan Alcorn, the first Pong prototype appeared on an Atari system in a Sunnyvale, California bar in 1972. “In no time at all,” writes Wired, “videogames went from almost zero to a multi-billion dollar global industry.” This brief history, however, doesn’t get it quite right.
Atari deserves credit for pioneering early gaming machines, but the first home video game console appeared several years before their 1972 founding. Invented by Ralph Baer in 1966, under the auspices of his employer, defense contractor Sanders Associates, it was known as the “Brown Box” (or “TV Game Unit #7”). Baer’s invention, crude-looking by any standards today, established the basic design for virtually every console system since.
“It all started out as a side project within the company because Baer’s employer initially didn’t see the point of the device,” writes Tim Bowman at Quarter Disorder. “Coworkers often told him he was wasting his time. With around 40 million television sets in U.S. homes in 1966, Baer believed he could have a lucrative business turning them into a form of interactive entertainment with playable games.”
With a case made of vinyl-covered aluminum, the vacuum tube circuit-powered machine had two controllers, an early joystick, and even featured a rifle for a target shooting game. Other games included checkers and a table tennis sim that predated Pong by several years. “The minute we played ping-pong,” Baer later recalled, “we knew we had a product. Before that we weren’t too sure.” The primitive console could be programmed to play its different games with the switches on the front, with a series of cards serving as user instructions.
In 1971, Baer licensed his technology to Magnavox, who turned the Brown Box into the 1972 Magnavox Odyssey. This machine could display only three moving objects at a time and came with colored transparencies to place on the TV screen to create different areas of play. Also an analog device, its circuitry consisted of 40 transistors and 40 diodes.
The Odyssey succumbed to its competitors rather quickly, in part because Magnavox mislead many consumers into believing that the console would only work on Magnavox television sets. But it’s notable for starting the video game arms race that followed in its wake. “Between 1972 and 1975,” TechCrunch notes, “when the Magnavox was discontinued, around 300,000 consoles were sold.”
Commercials for the Odyssey, which retailed for $99.95, ran on television, and it appeared on a popular 70s game show. But it didn’t take off, and poor sales of the console were “blamed on mismanaged in-store marketing campaigns and the fact that home gaming was a relatively alien concept to the average American at the time.” The tides soon shifted with the arrival of Atari and by the 80s, with the Commodore systems and the Apple II.
Baer, who died in 2014 at the age of 92, is now memorialized as the “father of video games,” but his invention often goes overlooked in popular histories of the world-changing technology. Nonetheless, his legacy has been well-preserved. The original Brown Box resides at the National Museum of American History. See several more photos of the historic artifact below.