Ralph Baer Interview
June 5th, 2012
Ralph Baer is an independent engineering consultant and internationally-known inventor generally credited with creating the videogame console industry in the 1960’s. He has worked on some of the worlds greatest toys like Simon, The Odyssey and Laser Command!!
Ralph has a new book out (Videogames: In The Beginning) which you can purchase here
1. As a history major and someone who has studied World War II, I will have to start out with this question, what was it like in 1938 before you left Germany? Everyone has read books and seen movies but if you wouldn’t mind sharing your experience with us, we would appreciate that.
My parents, my sister and I left Germany in August of 1938, barely three months before Kristallnacht. While my father (a WWi German Army veteran) had been struggling for two years to get all our papers in order and get affidavits from our numerous NY relatives (all on my mother’s side) I was just a 16-year-old kid and had no sense of what lay ahead. In fact, although all of my father’s sisters and brothers and most of their children eventually died in places like Buchenwald, Treblinka and other concentration camps (I have the exact dates and places!) , I knew nothing about the level of atrocities that came to pass in the Germany I left behind. Even in the Army, during ’43-’46 I had no information about what had happened to my father’s relatives and millions of others. As a student of history, you must know that Roosevelt suppressed information about the Holocaust and made no attempts to respond militarily in any way. It wasn’t until I returned home in January of 1946 that I first heard about what had taken place in Germany, Austria, Poland and so many other countries under Hitler’s control.
2. What are you working on these days? Still inventing?
Yes, but at a reduced rate….I only did about ten different product demos over the past 18 months and am still waiting for my marketing guy to place a single license…but I am slowing down rapidly….one just doesn’t get past 90 without the energy levels dropping drastically. Besides I am very busy trying to get my bio and a new version of my book “Videogames: In the Beginning” into iBook format for the iPad because both books have large numbers of .mov movies in them….so print is out of the question.
3. It would seem that your work as a radio service technician started you on your path to create such items as Simon, the Odyssey and Laser Command. Can you fill us in on how you got started on your path as one of the most inventive engineers of our time?
When someone like me inherits that “inventor’s gene” from some progenitor (thank you, whoever you are!), ideas come by the bucket full and never stop. As experience in a chosen field get stronger, that will eventually translate into a consistent record of coming up with new stuff all the time. It wasn’t more than two years into my correspondence school training as a Radio and TV Technician, that I started designing novel stuff (like a record hiss noise reduction circuit for 78 rpm records that pre-dated Dolby by decades)…and I never quit coming up with new ideas and converting them into real products…and getting many of them into production, which is another, major piece of the puzzle…so why would I quit?
4. What was your favorite game to play on the Odyssey? Why?
That’s obviously ping-pong, because it’s (a) a really challenging, fun game and (b) its strength enabled us to get the industry started.
5. Out of your entire career, what would you say has been the most fulfilling aspect of it?
The conversion of ideas that bubbled up in the morning and having something that began to work within a day or so. That is almost always the most fun. I also like to job of developing complex systems that may take months of effort, but a lot of toy and game ideas were converted in much less time then that…and then it’s great to see that work show up as a product on the shelves of Toys-R-us or Walmart or wherever.
6. M.A.S.K. was a big part of my childhood and still a big part of my life today. I will be honest, I never thought of the men and women who made the toys when I was younger. I just wanted them! As a fan still today of the toy line and cartoon, I thank you for what you created with Laser Command. How did you become involved with Kenner on this project?
I built a number of electronic backpacks for G.I. Joes and my partner back then had a good relationship with someone at Kenner….so I came up with the exploding truck idea and we showed that and some other stuff to Howard Bollinger at Kenner in Cincinatti and he got hooked instantly. Kenner did a really fine job with the mechanical design of the Laser Command vehicle.
Re. drawing etc.: I donate all of my toy&game files to the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, NY where my files will eventually be scanned and made available to researchers as will the files of other toy&game inventors that have donated material up there.
7. Can you give us some insights on how you came with toy and how it worked?
I had built several backpacks that had infra-red (IR) transmitters in them and other backpacks for MASK or GI Joe figures that would receive those IR signal and explode or topple a figure over or whatever. Doing an exploding truck was just another one of those interactive IR toy ideas. Re. how the Laser Command toy worked: The pushbutton on the crate” activates an IR signal that feeds the IR-emitting diode poking out of the front of the crate. That signal is received by one of two back-to-back IR receiving diodes that cover roughly 360 degrees around them. These IR receiving diodes are located in the small dome on top of the truck. The electronics use the first received IR pulse burst to cause a stepping mechanism to release the hood, then the wheels and finally, the door (not sure about the order.)
8. Is there anything you would like to say to the fans of M.A.S.K. or anything you would like to promote?
Yeah! Why didn’t more of you go out and bought the product? Too young, I guess! I don’t remember how big the production run was but I do know that it wasn’t a big deal financially. I tried to get Hasbro do a similar product several times over but they didn’t bite. What would I like to promote: Go to my website at <www.ralphbaer.com> and buy a copy of “Videogames: In the Beginning”…I am still several grand in the hole and would like to move all copies before the iBook version finally hits the deck.