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Happy 40th birthday, video games Exclusive
Happy 40th birthday, video games
August 28, 2012 | By Frank Cifaldi

August 28, 2012 | By Frank Cifaldi
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    23 comments
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing, Exclusive



Home video games are officially 40 years old.

More specifically, the first sale of a home video game system in the world happened somewhere at or around this day, August 28, 1972, though pinning down an exact date is more than likely impossible.

The first home video game system, the Odyssey, was sold by television manufacturer Magnavox, based on patented technology developed in secrecy at a military defense contractor (yes, really). That technology was the brainchild of German-born American Ralph Baer, an engineer and inventor who holds what is probably the first degree in Television Engineering, issued to him by the American Television Institute of Technology in 1949.

"When technology is ready for something novel, when the components needed to build something new become affordable, it is going to get done by someone- and more than likely, by several people," Baer wrote in his book, Videogames: In the Beginning.

On September 1, 1966, Baer "took a mental inventory of all those hundreds of millions of TV sets across the globe that did nothing but play whatever one-way fare the local stations delivered.

"I had an inspiration -- a Eureka! -- and Home TV Games were born...a bit early, technically, because low-cost microprocessors weren't available yet and digital I.C.s were still too expensive, so the games had to be relatively primitive."



And indeed, the Odyssey -- based on Baer's prototype "brown box" console (now living in The Smithsonian), but with some flourishes added by Magnavox -- is as primitive as can be. Using overlays that stuck onto a user's television set, players would move simple white objects around on a screen and play simulations of roulette, a simple skiing game, and even a quasi-educational game involving U.S. geography.

But the real meat of the Odyssey was in its multiple variations of a simple tennis-style game, one which would be lifted and cloned and tweaked and iterated over and over in the earliest days of the video game industry, most notably by Atari's Pong.

My favorite artifact from the Odyssey is this segment from the game show What's My Line, where 70s quasi-celebrities Soupy Sales, Melba Tolliver, Jim Backus and Arlene Francis are just completely baffled when trying to figure out just what it is that Magnavox product manager Bob Fritsche is doing with that television.



This is, perhaps, the only recorded video in existence of adults being introduced to the concept of playing a game on a television. It was such weird concept that they can barely wrap their heads around it, and once they do, they're instantly in love with the idea.

Why today?

So why are we celebrating this birthday today? Well, we simply don't know when the first Odyssey was sold. Through some digging (and with help from my fellow members at the IGDA Game Preservation SIG), we know that Odysseys shipped out to 19 Magnavox dealers across the United States beginning in August, 1979. As far as we know there was not a hard "release date" as we think of it now.

That said, we do have newspaper clippings advertising the Odyssey's sale, most predominantly starting on August 30. Here's the earliest one I've managed to track down:


This was tucked away between a wedding announcement and plans for an upcoming "cactus show" in the August 28, 1972 edition of the Edwardsville Intelligencer, a small paper serving the local community of Edwardsville, IL. Until we find an earlier mention of the Odyssey being for sale -- or, miraculously, someone comes up with a receipt -- this is probably the closest we're going to get to a "release date" for the world's first home video game system.

Happy birthday, video games.


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Comments


TC Weidner
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I really enjoyed this article and clips, thanks for posting this.

Vince Dickinson
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Title should read: Happy 40th birthday, *home* video games. Minor thing, though, cool article! Didn't realize it was 40 years ago today (more or less).

David Klingler
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That's wonderful (in the video of the game show) how amazed they are at this such primitive beginning of our industry.

k s
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Hence forth August 28th shall be known as Gamer Day!

Jeremy Alessi
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Happy Birthday!

Hayden Dawson
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That little ad would seem to imply a measure of expected, existent knowledge on the part of some consumers. Although at that period of time, the Magnavox retailers were as close to a 'nerd haven' as you could find and that ad would also likely have brought in a few 'early adopters' just to see what was up.

Alan Rimkeit
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I love that the "What's My Line" video is multi-player gaming. LOL Multi-player from the start. The dude in the glasses got pwnd.

Happy birthday home consoles. August 28th is a day to celebrate from now on.

Now I am going to stop surfing the web and go play some Dead Nation.

Andrew Wallace
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I had never thought of stretching a package of frozen okra with canned corn. Neat!

Svein-Gunnar Johansen
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This must have been really awesome back in 72. Thinking back, I remember getting these kinds of games to my country (Norway) a lot later. Granted we only found oil and became properly modernized during the 70s, but I think it was around 1981 before anyone had something as sophisticated as a "tennis" game in their living rooms over here.

Svein-Gunnar Johansen
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As it turns out the "tennis" game I was remembering was on the Philips Videopac G7000, which is actually the European version of the Magnavox Odyssey˛.

kevin williams
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Obviously this is the Home Video Game anniversary - we had the first Video Game anniversary with Computer Space (1971) last year - marking the launch of the first arcade video game, the first competitive video game title and the first popular genre.

That said the Odyssey is a vital landmark in the whole sector, especially linked to the controversy of the 'borrowing' of the game design that got Atari into so much trouble! Mr. Baer was a true genius, and it was too long for this this to be recognized by the very trade that benefited from his idea.

Is it not time for an official National Video Game museum to be established - rather than this desperate traveling museum exhibits?

Joe Wreschnig
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"Is it not time for an official National Video Game museum to be established - rather than this desperate traveling museum exhibits?"

Travelling exhibits are critical for accessibility, and I hope they don't go away even if the United States gets an "official" national museum.

Also I'd hope any such museum would be an annex of some existing museum, e.g. ideally something like the Strong, or less preferentially one of the many computing museums, rather than an independent entity. Segregating video games from the rest of human play is not productive.

Roberto Dillon
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> Mr. Baer was a true genius

Mr. Baer *is*, as far a s I know he is still alive and well ;)

k s
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@Roberto: You are correct and on a sad side note Mrs. Baer died 1 week before Mr. Baer was awarded a medal by G.W. Bush for creating a new industry.

Leonard Herman
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Roberto: Ralph Baer is alive and well. He celebrated his 90th birthday this past March and I just visited him last weekend and had a wonderful time. It was he who pointed me to this article.

k.s.: Dena Baer actually passed away three days before Ralph Baer recevied his recognition from President Bush in 2006.

Leonard Herman
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By the way, here's a photo I took last week of Ralph autographing my Simon (which he also invented):

https://www.facebook.com/#!/photo.php?fbid=10152116960270203&set=a .10150869959235203.752670.688490202&type=3&theater

Nathan Alexander
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This is amazing! Look how far this industry has come. The next 40 should be just as revolutionary.

Miguel Castarde
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You can see more Odyssey1 games in the AVGN review: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kDAKxjG7VaI

The light gun is badass.

Ezequiel Alvarez
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Happy Birthday Fighting Games

Aaron Casillas
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I used to steal quarters to play Rastan and Scramble at the local ice cream parlor, the Star Trek pinball and Missile Command machines were rigged to play for free at the local Boy's Club but too far to walk for a quick fix.

Eventually I got caught, then the NES came out, it saved me from a life of crime!

Glenn Sturgeon
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I'm old so i remember seeing the original odyssey & fairchild channel F systems in stores.

k s
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Hoo old were you when you saw them in the store?

TC Weidner
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I remembering getting the first gen of pong via sears in 1975. We played that thing day and night for weeks. Still have it somewhere in an attic I think. Still remember our puppy chewed through the wire that connected to the tv overnight, we freaked, luckily it was easily spliced back and worked fine.

Back then people and family werent used to wires running to the tv from in front of it, so you had the constant family member tripping over it and pulling the system and wires all over and off. Ah the good ol days.


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