Video games, Ralph Baer, and my first accession

Imagine that it’s your first day on the job and your new boss brings you into a storage area. It’s filled with boxes of papers and strange looking objects, all donated by Ralph Baer, the Father of the Video Game. These are the notes and prototypes that made playing games on your television possible. And now it’s your job to process them.

This is exactly what happened to me about three years ago. I started my work by separating out all the papers, which were then picked up by the Museum’s Archives Center. That left me with about ten objects to identify, without the benefit of a list. The Objects Processing Facility documented and assigned each object an accession number, a unique identifier that tells us the object is officially a part of the Museum’s collections. I created records for each object in our electronic collections catalog, gathered all the important documentation that proved that Ralph Baer had donated these objects and that we were now the official owners, and submitted everything to the Registrar. I found a space in the storage cabinets for the objects, updated the location records, and figured that I could consider my first accession to be a success. That was the end of the story… or so I thought.

Brownbox The following spring, Smithsonian Networks approached the museum about a segment on the Brown Box, the video game prototype that led to the Magnavox Odyssey (the first video game system produced). They wanted to fly Ralph Baer down for the filming, which was to become part of their Stories from the Vaults series. I was excited to meet host Tom Cavanagh (who I would sometimes watch on Ed and Scrubs) and to see a television episode being filmed. But I was thrilled about meeting Ralph Baer.

Something highly unusual happened during that filming. We don’t run the objects in our video game collections. Ever. But since we had the inventor there, we felt like we could make a special exception. We decided to run the Brown Box one last time. You won’t see me in that episode, but I was just offscreen, sitting under a table as I watched Ralph Baer and Tom Cavanagh play Ping Pong on the Brown Box. (Definitely an unorthodox place to sit, but it gave me a very good view without being in anyone’s way.) It was incredible to see an inventor using his own invention right before my eyes! Things like that don’t happen… except at the Smithsonian.

The funniest thing about all this? I’m not a gamer. I rarely pick up a video game controller and, when I do, it’s usually at the request of one of my brothers. Strangely enough, this is something I have in common with Ralph Baer. He’s admitted that he is “not a game player. I don’t play any of these things. My kids do. I don’t. I’m not a game player. I’m a lousy game player.” For him, the fun was being able to figure out how to create the games, not in playing them. For me, the fun is being able to share the story of how video games got their start.

Petrina Foti works in the Computers Collection, part of the Division of Information Technology & Communications, at the National Museum of American History.

Posted at 5:31 pm EDT in From the Collections