Ralph Baer's workshop, icon of American innovation

By David K. Allison

Ralph Baer passed away on December 7. The world will remember him as the inventor of the first video game. Here at the Smithsonian, we also see him as a remarkable icon of American innovation. We are making him and his workshop part of our national story—and a focal point of a Year of Innovation at the Smithsonian.

Ralph Baer with one of his inventions 

I first learned of Ralph Baer when his son called me in 2003. "Hello, my name is Mark Baer, and I'm calling because my father invented the first video game." Now, we often get calls like this at the Smithsonian, and generally they turn out to be hoaxes. At the time Ralph's contributions to the field were less recognized than they are today, and I was not familiar with them. So I was very dubious, and pretty sure that Mark's call would lead to a dead end.

But we pursued the matter and soon learned about Ralph's remarkable history, first as a German émigré fleeing Hitler's oppression, and then as a pioneering television engineer who decided that there must be something more that you could do with television than watch soap operas. Ralph and Mark were wondering if the Smithsonian was interested in preserving some of Ralph's objects and papers.

Magnavox Odyssey Video Game Unit, 1972. Odyssey was a home video game system based on the "Brown Box," prototype invented by Ralph Baer. Additional games and accessories, like a lightgun, were sold in separate packages.

A team of us went to visit Ralph at his home in Manchester, New Hampshire. We found that he was not only the inventor of the video game, but was an inveterate inventor and tinkerer who had invented all his adult life and was still doing so in his 80s. We found a wonderful array of things that should come to the Smithsonian.

Elsewhere, we have summarized Ralph's biography and written about his invention of the video game. We also show many of the artifacts related to this development that we acquired from him to include in our national collections. His archival papers are also in our collection. 

Besides the first video game, Ralph invented crucial components for a game called Simon that became extremely popular. In this game, an electronic device produces a pattern of sounds and lights. Then the player or players are challenged to reproduce exactly the same thing. As the game goes on, the pattern gets increasingly complex. The player who reproduces the most complex pattern without a mistake wins.

Ralph Baer with the game Simon

Ralph Baer in 2003, with his Simon game

Not surprisingly, Ralph did more than invent objects. He also designed and built his own home. In the basement, he constructed a personal sanctuary—a workshop. Almost all inventors have a workshop somewhere, perhaps in a garage, a shed, or an attic. But Ralph’s workshop had a special personality. It had its own front wall and front door. It was a world apart. It even had a mailbox and address.

Here's what the entry looked like:

Entry to Ralph Baer's workshop

Ralph worked on most of his inventions in his workshop, both before and after he retired. These included the original video game and lots of other toys. When we saw the workshop, we knew immediately that it was a remarkable place. It not only represented Ralph's retreat, but also symbolized the workshops or workbenches of thousands of American tinkerers and inventors.

Over the next several years, as we collected objects and archival records of Ralph's remarkable career, we talked about someday collecting his workshop as well. But even in his late 80s, Ralph was still inventing! He couldn't let it go.

In July 2015, the museum will reopen the first floor of its West Wing. This will be a highlight of our yearlong exploration and celebration of the role of innovation in American History. The new West Wing will include a number of exhibits related to the theme of invention and innovation, including Places of Invention, American Enterprise, the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Object Project, and Draper Spark!Lab. As we planned the space, we needed to select an object that would serve as an appropriate introduction to the space: something visitors would see as they came down the hall towards it. We call this a landmark display.

One day, it hit us: we should ask Ralph Baer again if we could collect his workshop to serve as this landmark.

Ralph was now in his 90s, but it was still a hard sell. He only agreed that we could acquire the workshop if his son, Mark, would build him another, more modern one. Finally, in September of this year, a team of us went back to his home and collected the objects that we will put on display as the first-floor landmark next July.

Here's a view of the interior of the workshop in September, with Ralph sitting in it. It was the last time he did so. This is what visitors will see as they approach our new display on innovation in America.

What was Ralph working on in the workshop then? He told us that he was experimenting with some miniature electric cars. "I'm hoping I can get them to play bumper car hockey," he said.

Ralph's workshop exemplifies what it takes to be a successful inventor. All inventors have new ideas, but it takes more to succeed. Inventors also need broad knowledge of their field, and extensive experience. They need specialized training, tools, parts, references, and prototypes. They need persistence. Ralph had them all. Indeed, his workshop was a veritable encyclopedia of the history of electronics, with materials from the 1930s all the way up to the present. He had lived the full history, beginning with ham radio and stretching to the Internet and contemporary chip design.

Photo of workshop

Ralph was sad when we packed up the workshop and hauled it away for installation in the museum. We promised him that he could come see it again next July. But he had a premonition that he wasn't going to make it that long. Still, he was enthusiastic that visitors from around the world would be able to see the special place in his home where he invented for most of his life. When I asked him why he had never stopped, he said, "I can't ever stop. I'm German." And all-American.

David Allison is the associate director for Curatorial Affairs.