The Boy Who Thought Out­side the Box: The Sto­ry of Video Game Inven­tor Ralph Baer

Mar­cie Wes­sels, Beat­riz Cas­tro (illus­tra­tor)

  • Review
By – April 5, 2021

The title of this new biog­ra­phy of video game inven­tor Ralph Baer (1922 – 2014) is a clever allu­sion to the medi­um itself, but also a metaphor sus­tained through­out the book. Ralph Baer, a Jew­ish refugee from Nazi Ger­many, resist­ed all the lim­i­ta­tions placed upon both him­self and his ideas. Baer’s genius and per­sis­tence set the world of video gam­ing on its expan­sive course — one where imag­i­na­tion meets fea­si­bil­i­ty in the form of con­stant­ly evolv­ing new prod­ucts. Begin­ning with Baer’s response to the dis­rup­tion of his child­hood by immers­ing him­self in exper­i­ments with con­struc­tion sets, and con­tin­u­ing on to describe his adult career as a vision­ary with a metic­u­lous approach, Wes­sels and Cas­tro present a tru­ly acces­si­ble hero to young readers.

Baer’s ear­ly life in Cologne, Ger­many, is idyl­lic, a time of live­ly play, until the rise of the Nazis. Castro’s pic­tures are crisply defined with deep col­ors as she traces the abrupt tran­si­tion that Ralph expe­ri­ences. Soon he is fright­ened, sit­ting on a shrink­ing globe that rep­re­sents his dimin­ish­ing world. With­draw­ing into his home and his fas­ci­na­tion with a toy con­struc­tion set, Ralph turns the lim­it­ed num­ber of build­ing parts into a chal­lenge. Castro’s view of Ralph cap­tures his thought process; sit­ting at a table cov­ered with care­ful­ly arranged draw­ings and mechan­i­cal pieces, hand in chin, he tries to resolve the puz­zle. This need to con­fig­ure and recon­fig­ure” would become the hall­mark of his engi­neer­ing projects.

After immi­grat­ing to the Unit­ed States, Ralph and his fam­i­ly sup­port them­selves with the tedious job of sewing leather goods as piece work. Before long, Ralph’s incli­na­tion toward prob­lem-solv­ing leads him to invent an improve­ment to the process. But his first real engage­ment with elec­tron­ic inno­va­tion comes when his fam­i­ly obtains a radio. This con­nec­tion to the out­side world will be anoth­er box” that can­not con­tain Ralph’s curios­i­ty. Before long, hav­ing tak­en a course in radio repair, he is work­ing on all the sets in the neigh­bor­hood. Castro’s detailed and nos­tal­gic images of Ralph’s immi­grant home, with its del­i­cate lace cur­tains, small knick­knacks rest­ing on doilies, and promi­nent globe, remind read­ers of Ralph’s hum­ble background.

Like many Amer­i­can men at the time, Ralph serves in the army and returns to com­plete his edu­ca­tion. Soon the new medi­um of tele­vi­sion becomes the next box for Ralph to expand. When he first con­ceives the idea of design­ing a method for inter­ac­tive game­play through TV, his ideas are met with skep­ti­cism. Cas­tro por­trays Ralph as dis­cour­aged at this point, his eye­brows raised in a frown behind his round glass­es. But ulti­mate­ly this set­back becomes a pro­duc­tive path for Ralph; he builds equip­ment for the mil­i­tary and NASA, learn­ing to minia­tur­ize elec­tron­ic devices. Final­ly, his patience is reward­ed when he syn­the­sizes his ideas and expe­ri­ence into a break­through: One day in 1966, while wait­ing for his bus, Ralph unboxed his orig­i­nal gam­ing idea.” His video game sys­tem would use an exter­nal box to oper­ate the game through the TV. Tri­al and error, flex­i­bil­i­ty, and the sheer good luck of a new boss who is more open-mind­ed allow Ralph to reach his dream. Castro’s draw­ing of the device’s pro­to­type is a delight­ful reminder of art and sci­ence as an insep­a­ra­ble rela­tion­ship. The grey box with turn­ing dials looks almost like a face; a pen­cil lying to its side reminds read­ers of creativity’s basics; and the wires and cir­cuits wait­ing to be con­nect­ed rep­re­sent a work in progress.

At first Ralph meets rejec­tion, dis­ap­point­ment, even the con­tempt of exec­u­tives, one of whom actu­al­ly turns his back on Ralph by swivel­ing his lux­u­ri­ous chair. By the time Mag­navox accepts his inven­tion for the Odyssey game sys­tem in 1972, young read­ers will feel as reward­ed as Ralph Baer him­self. All it took was stub­born per­sis­tence and a mind that works over­time, even while wait­ing for the bus.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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