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My Trip to Meet
Ralph Baer

by JoAnn Thomasson

In the opinion of most classic gamers, I would probably qualify as a "non-gamer". Sure, I grew up with the Intellivision and have attended a Classic Gaming Expo with my husband, but I certainly haven't kept up with classic gaming much. Of course, being married to Michael of Good Deal Games, my involvement in classic gaming has certainly increased. And it is through him that I first heard of Ralph Baer. I have to admit I didn't know much about the Brown Box or Ralph's place in classic gaming history, but as soon as Michael mentioned that he was the creator of Simon, my interest was piqued.

I have heard Michael speak of Ralph Baer for as long as I can remember. He was so excited a few years ago when Ralph was scheduled to appear at the CGE and Michael was finally going to meet him. Unfortunately Ralph wasn't able to make it, and I remember Michael being incredibly disappointed. Well, through Good Deal Games and his acquaintance with Leonard Herman, the author of Phoenix: The Fall and Rise of Videogames, Michael was extended an invitation to visit Ralph in New Hampshire. We were supposed to go last summer, but I spent a month teaching English in Poland, and we couldn't get the timing right after that. Michael was assured the invitation was open whenever we could make it, and since Michael has been assisting Ralph with his upcoming biography, one snowy weekend we decided to head to New England.

Now, this was a big trip for Michael. I was looking forward to going, as Ralph seemed to be really interesting, and I enjoy any kind of road trip. However the Weather Channel had me a little nervous, talking about the Nor'easter that was supposed to be hitting, where else, Manchester, NH. Oh, and Albany and the area around the Berkshire Mts. (which we'd have to drive right through!) were expecting about 10 inches of snow. Michael, being from the south, wasn't going to let this deter him. I, having a healthy respect for a good snowstorm, was a nervous wreck. But on the day we were to leave, there was still no big storm, so I bravely set out on this adventure with my husband, the classic gamer.


As a non-gamer, I have to say that the day we spent with Ralph Baer was fascinating. We arrived at his house and one of the first things we noticed was the Simon on the coffee table. It didn't take long before Michael and I both had to have our pictures taken playing Simon in the home of its creator!
Ralph and his wife could not have made us feel more welcome in their home. We talked a lot about projects he is working on now, as well as some of his history with video games.

Michael, of course, couldn't wait to get down to the brown box and the rest of the setup - the G4 network and other networks had recently interviewed Ralph, so all of his gadgets were still on display. After a great New England lunch, we were finally invited down to the office and the basement with all the toys!!!

  The basement office was great! It was set up like an apartment, complete with a number on the door, mail and paper box, window box and shutters. What a clever idea!! We started with the video games, of course. One of the first things we saw was a reproduction of the brown box that Ralph is currently working on. We found out that he recently reacquired the original brown box from the Smithsonian where it had been on display. The display, however, had been dismantled, and Ralph didn't like the idea of his brown box sitting in a corner in Washington.


Ralph then showed us some joysticks he's been developing, made from cardboard boxes and Styrofoam balls! Definitely not something you'd find in the stores!! But playable, as Michael and Ralph showed me while playing a chase game on the brown box replica. Ralph had also rigged up a replica of the original light gun for the brown box, made with a toy rifle bought at a garage sale. It was a lot of fun watching Michael play with all the toys!!


  Outside of the office, the basement was full of toys and gadgets that Ralph designed or adapted, including Maniac, Simon, Amaze-A-Tron, Computer Perfection, Smarty Bear, Bike Max, Talking Toys, and more.

We also saw many toys that were never released to the public, such as GI Joes that could speak to each other and interact through infrared technology. What kid wouldn't love that?

For the girls, there were also talking Barbies. Well, at least a talking Barbie vanity. Barbie would sit at her vanity to wash up and do her hair, and Ralph had rigged it so the showerhead made noise and the vanity mirror said something about how beautiful Barbie looked.

My personal favorite was this great gadget, again using infrared technology that could blow the hood, door and tires off of a plastic car.

Not normally a destructive person (well, Michael would say I'm a klutz and destroy lots of things, but I digress), I asked Ralph to reassemble the vehicle and demolish it for me a couple of times.

Another personal favorite were Ralph's Funglasses, gaudy neon orange and green glasses that emitted pulsating light and funny sounds.

Of notable interest was the Kid Vid device,
the first talking video game apparatus for the Atari 2600.

  Further back in the basement we saw many of Ralph's patents, along with documents from some of his many lawsuits over patent infringement.

Some of the suits involved companies such as Atari and Nintendo. I guess when you've patented that many things, some infringement is inevitable. I guess the bright side for Ralph would be that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!!

Before leaving the basement, I had a photo taken with Ralph holding an Odyssey 1 hockey overlay, used to add color to the then black and white video games.

There were overlays for other games, of course, but being a big hockey fan myself, I figured that was as close as I may get to see any this season!

Michael and I also were able to play a few games on the original Odyssey and Brown box with the man himself. That was pretty cool, thinking that we were playing on some of the original consoles with the man who created them!

One of the neatest things we saw, thanks to the setup Ralph had put together for his earlier TV interviews, was an early TV game box prototype that contained a lever device to imitate a pump for a water pumping game. This version was never released because it was cost prohibitive, but it was really neat to see.

We even got to see some of the inside circuitry of the brown box. To me it looked like an electrical nightmare, but I could see Michael looking at it and figuring out what all the wires were for and how they all worked together to create video game magic!



When I could finally pull Michael away from all the inventions, we headed back upstairs for a little more visiting before we were on our way. Ralph was showing us some of his autobiography he'd been working on, and we got to talking about his growing up in Germany. I mentioned to him that I'd been in Poland the previous summer and visited Auschwitz, and this led to more discussion about his growing up Jewish during the time of Hitler and how he came to America. He has led quite an amazing life! After coming to America, he joined the Army and returned to Europe. I found this fascinating and asked where he'd been, and told him that Michael and I had visited the American cemetery in Normandy, France, when we took students there a few years ago. After learning that I am a French teacher, Ralph showed us a picture in his autobiography of a chateau in which he had lived during the war. The picture had been painted by Winston Churchill who used to enjoy coming to this particular chateau to paint! It was amazing to see a painting, by Winston Churchill, of a castle in France, where Ralph Baer could point out the room in which he stayed during World War II!!

So as you can see, even before becoming the inventor that he is, and creating the video games for which most of you probably know him, he was leading a fascinating life. I think that's what most impressed me about him - the fact that he has done all these amazing things, and talks about them so non-chalantly. He is an incredibly friendly and down-to-earth man, but full of remarkable stories. I knew the trip to New Hampshire would be fun, and I was excited about it for Michael, but I really came away feeling like I'd met an outstanding and noteworthy man! So thank you Ralph, and thank you Michael, for giving me the opportunity to meet the true Father of Videogames!


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