What was the first video game console? If you said the Atari 2600, you would be wrong, but we’d forgive you. After all, the Atari was early and widely sold. It also had the major features you expect from a video game. However, there was an earlier console available. the Magnavox Odyssey.
This system was black and white, had two wired controllers, and while it didn’t quite have cartridges, you could select from one of several games. The system seems inexpensive today at $100 (not including the optional light gun). However, adjusting for 1972 currency value, that’s equivalent to about $600 today.
It was not an impulse buy, and the differentiation between games was mostly an exercise in imagination. But the the Magnavox Odyssey nevertheless brought computer technology into the home and that was exciting. It proved a market existed for home video gaming, and served no small part in the success of Atari.
The console developed by [Ralph Baer] did lack quite a few modern features: no color, no sound, and — in fact — it could only display 3 dots and a vertical line on the screen. Depending on the game, the dots did different things. For example, a pong game used two dots as player paddles with the third dot as the puck. You can see a 1972 ad for the game, below.
[Baer] originally thought of the TV game in 1966. He wound up making seven prototypes and the seventh — called “the brown box” — was the one Magnavox agreed to produce and market. He also received patents on the idea, which would become a critical point of the story years later. He actually did the work as part of his job with a defense contractor, but produced the first prototype “under the radar” until he had a working prototype to demonstrate to management.
The game employed diode–transistor logic using discrete transistors and diodes. ICs of the day were too expensive, although by the time the console came to market ICs were more affordable. Programming was via “game cards” that were actual printed circuit jumper boards that plugged into the console. Some of the cards served for multiple games. As important as those early “cartridges”, some games came with static cling plastic screen overlays which you would place on the television screen to make the game appear different even though the three dots on the screen did the same thing. These optical cues combines with different rules applied to the same onscreen elements make up the “imagination” component I mentioned earlier.
Many companies were offered the new device. None were interested, although one executive at RCA was impressed and when he went to Magnavox, he convinced the company to look at the new device. Magnavox made some changes including removing color output and adding the game cards for configuration.
Artificial Limit on Sales
Numbers are somewhat in dispute, but Magnavox sold about 100,000 units the first year. By 1975 they’d sold 350,000. The price was probably keeping a lid on sales, but it wasn’t just the price. Magnavox elected to only sell the games via authorized dealers who sold their TVs. Even though the game would work with just about any TV, the dealers often strongly implied that it would only work with a Magnavox TV — the better to sell a new TV.
Magnavox almost discontinued the device when initial sales were somewhat disappointing. But there was some demand and they produced a few more which eventually sold.
During this time a man named [Nolan Bushnell] had been servicing pinball machines to keep himself afloat while working on starting a video game hardware company. [Bushnell] saw a demo of Odyssey’s tennis game and had his burgeoning company, Atari, begin development on a similar game which turned into the coin-op arcade version of Pong. The sales of this actually helped drive sales of Odyssey, too.
Magnavox eventually produced a line of consoles that didn’t have the plug cards and only played a few games, and they eventually produced a second version of the Odyssey as well. But there had not been much new game development, despite [Baer’s] proposals, which made the follow-up hardware a hard sell.
Lawsuit Over Dots on a Screen
Once Atari became a big enough target, Magnavox sued Atari and several other companies for patent infringement. At the end, Atari was on the hook for $1.5 million dollars and Magnavox wound up making about $100 million from the patent lawsuits.
In 1985, Nintendo sued to invalidate the patents. They argued that an earlier tennis game invalidated the patent. However, the court decided that because that game Nintendo was citing used an oscilloscope and not a TV signal, it didn’t apply.
Although it didn’t look like much, the Odyssey launched the home video game business. Although Magnavox gets the credit, the real credit goes to [Baer] and his vision as well as his ability to convince a company that had no reason to produce a piece of consumer electronics to do it anyway. He did receive the National Medal of Technology for his work.
We are always surprised there aren’t more Odyssey emulators, especially in hardware. There are a few software emulators, but this would be a great project for an Arduino. There are lots of cheap ways to generate analog video (with color, even) from an Arduino, or you could use a video card, but that does feel like cheating, a little.