How do you build a better television set? That was the question before Ralph Baer, an engineer at Loral Electronics, in the early 1950s. One of Baer's ideas was to use the TV to play some sort of game. Nothing came of it at the time, but the idea stayed with him.
By 1966, Baer was employed by Sanders Associates Inc., a military electronics firm, and no longer worked with television technology. Yet somehow the idea of TV games kept returning to him. One day, while waiting at a New York City bus terminal, he jotted down some notes. By September he had schematics, and by October, he and fellow engineer Bob Tremblay had built a working video game involving two spots on a screen, chasing each other. It was simple, but impressive enough for Sanders management to authorize and fund the project.
By 1967, the project had matured into the "Brown Box," which played a variety of games and supported a light rifle. Sanders shopped the device around, and in 1971 licensed it to Magnavox. The television manufacturer re-engineered the console, packaged it with some accessories, and released it in 1972 as the Odyssey. The world's first home video game was born.
The Odyssey is a sleek, white console with a black veneer. It can display only rudimentary graphics: two player-controlled squares, a moving "ball" square, and a vertical line. As a result, nearly all its games play like Pong. Moreover, the Odyssey cannot keep score, cannot display color, and produces no sound effects. To compensate, Magnavox packaged most Odyssey games with translucent plastic overlays that players fit over their TV screens, providing some color and aiding in play. Most games also use accessories like dice, poker chips, play money, and so forth. The console came with six numbered cards that plug in to select the different games.
The Odyssey contains no microprocessors, only its internal circuitry of diodes and transistors. The plug-in cards contain no chips, and hence no programming code, making them unlike future game cartridges. Rather, the cards' circuitry interfaces with circuitry inside the console to reconfigure it, changing the movement and placement of onscreen objects. Since all the graphics are identical, multiple games are often played using the same card, only with different accessories. Most games lack the sophistication even to enforce their own rules. In maze games, for example, only players' honor keeps their spots within the paths shown by the overlay.
The Odyssey controls consist of two boxes shaped like cigarette packs. Each sports a reset button and rotary knobs on both sides. One knob controls a paddle's vertical movement, another the horizontal. A third knob adds English to the ball. A light rifle attachment was separately available. Because the rifle only senses light sources, simply aiming at a light bulb and pulling the trigger can register hits.
Odyssey sold in acceptable numbers, moving about 200,000 units by the time production ceased in 1974. Sales might have been higher, but ads implied the system would function only on Magnavox-made TV sets. Also, Magnavox salespeople were not well trained in pushing the machine. The success Odyssey did enjoy is probably related to the success of Atari's Pong coin-op, which also debuted in 1972.
As Baer said, "If you wanted the Pong experience at home, there was only one way to do it: go out and buy an Odyssey machine." Ironically, Pong may owe its existence to Baer's handiwork. Atari founder Nolan Bushnell played the Odyssey version of Table Tennis at a product demonstration in Burlingame, CA, and dreamed up Pong shortly thereafter. Once Pong came out, Magnavox sued Atari for copyright infringement and won. However, Atari was able to continue producing Pong units after paying Magnavox a licensing fee.
Magnavox had patented the concept of a home video game system, and would bring litigation against several companies entering the emerging video game market. The courts usually sided with Magnavox, and the only game companies to prosper were those, like Atari, that were smart enough to pay licensing fees. Litigation pertaining to these early days of video gaming was still being pursued as late as 25 years later.
Pong may have kicked the home video game revolution into high gear, but Odyssey is where it all started. Odyssey may not have had the renown or popularity of Pong, but it sold well enough to warrant future consoles in the Odyssey line. Magnavox released several Odyssey consoles containing built-in games, giving them numerical suffixes (Odyssey 200, Odyssey 4000, and so on). There was even a cartridge console, the Odyssey 2, which hit the market in 1978.
As for the home video game industry the console launched, that odyssey continues with no sign of stopping. ~ William Cassidy, All Game Guide