All Your Base Are Belong To Us - Chapter 1 - Pt. 3

Inventing was natural to Baer, Harrison, and Rusch; as engineers, they got it. But Baer lay awake at night thinking about the company president’s dictum. Over and over, he asked himself, “How do we sell this? We’re a defense contractor. We can’t manufacture this. We don’t have the infrastructure. Do we license it to someone? How do we do that?” To complicate matters, he still had no business plan whatsoever. By mid-June, management was unyielding; they demanded precise details. The business plan questions kept coming with far more frequency.

Baer racked his brain. His first plan was to involve the nascent cable TV industry. Cable TV, available in the United States since the late 1940s, was in the doldrums. Americans didn’t want to pay for television programming unless mountains interfered with their over- air signals. In the late sixties, people were more than content with innovations in network television—like the first Super Bowl, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek (which dealt with societal issues in a science fiction way), and the ever naughty Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (on which British mod- rockers the Who went wild and maniacally destroyed their instruments).

Baer believed his TV Games idea could give the cable industry a “shot in the arm.” To Campman, Baer suggested, “We could create the action, and the cable company would provide colorful backgrounds for our games” from their studios. Especially since the plastic layovers Baer and his team had been able to create were graphically unimpressive, the plan had merit. Cable companies could provide an almost photographic level of detail for backgrounds.

The TelePrompter Corporation, the people who now make the machines from which newscasters and others on TV read, also outfitted sixty thousand families with cable TV. They were the country’s biggest cable provider at the time. After some prodding, one of the founders, Hubert “Hub” Schlafly, agreed to meet with Baer in New Hampshire. Schlafly so thoroughly enjoyed the games experience that he suggested to Irving Berlin Kahn, the company’s president, that he better get up to Nashua because something important was happening there. A week later, an impeccably dressed Kahn arrived from New York in a stretch limo. After that, there was a series of excited, hopeful meetings with TelePrompter executives in New York City. But a recession had hit the nation, and TelePrompter wimped out: They claimed to be out of money when it came to new projects. The same sour outcome occurred after initially optimistic meetings with Manhattan Cable and Warner Cable. Who knows how much more quickly today’s downloadable games would have become popular had Baer’s cable deal been given the green light back in the early 1970s. Conceivably, a company like TelePrompter might now be as vital as Sony or even Nintendo in the videogame industry.

If Baer’s dealings with the cable companies were disappointing, he hadn’t endured anything yet. When the TelePrompter deal fell through, Campman unceremoniously ordered an end to the flow of money for the game console. Other projects needed work, and Baer hadn’t proven the viability of TV Games as a business. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that Baer was able to convince Campman to add some more research and development money and reassign engineer Bill Harrison to the project. Harrison’s first order of business was to go shopping at Sears to purchase a plastic toy gun. But he wasn’t going to play cops and robbers. With a mini- flashlight- sized lightbulb and a transistor amplifier, Harrison refashioned the toy into a weapon that worked when aimed at an object on the TV. Even more valuable was Harrison’s savvy when it came to circuitry, which allowed him to reduce the number of parts in the latest prototype by about 50 percent. But the box looked somehow unadorned. Baer asked Harrison to go out to the store to get some self- adhesive kitchen cabinet liner that made the box look a little better. While the liner had a cheesy, basement rec room look, it inspired a generally catchy name, the Brown Box. Like the adhesive, it stuck.

In 1968, there were more than one hundred TV makers in the United States alone. Baer got the idea to phone each of them to see if one would consider manufacturing TV Games. He had some help:
Sanders’s director of patents, Louis Etlinger, was a smart New York lawyer with a folksy demeanor that made people believe he was from the sticks. Etlinger made the cold calls and charmed his way into
setting up appointment after appointment with major corporations. But it was Baer who had to sell the idea, based on his demonstrations with Harrison. While Baer was an erudite speaker, he didn’t have
a salesman’s swagger. In one early meeting, a buyer from Sears felt their numerous retail stores would be mobbed by kids who wanted to play the system in the store, but wouldn’t buy it. The Sears buyer felt
that the stores would be forced into the role of babysitter for hordes of screaming brats. Baer sorely needed a Madison Avenue marketer to help him from that point on. But there was no budget for a show-
person who would come to meetings armed with talking points and glittering generalities.

The meetings with RCA were typical of the constant challenges and failures that Baer faced time and time again. In April 1969, RCA began serious negotiations to license the Brown Box. But these fell apart when the megacorporation began playing dirty pool. After months of waiting, the contract finally arrived.

“It’s no good,” said Etlinger.

“What do you mean?” asked Baer.

“It leaves Sanders with next to nothing.”

“That’s it, then?” asked Baer.

“That’s it,” responded Etlinger.

When Bill Enders, one of the RCA executives who was earnestly gung- ho about the Brown Box, became the vice president of marketing at Magnavox, he engaged in extensive, detailed talks with Sanders through Baer and Etlinger. By mid- July, the two (along with Bill Harrison) were jetting to Magnavox’s corporate headquarters in Fort Wayne, Indiana, for the most significant demonstration of Baer’s life.

As showtime approached, the weather didn’t cooperate. The Midwest had been besieged by rainstorms since Independence Day, and the area around Fort Wayne had seen water rise to emergency proportions. The city of 178,000 was situated in a floodplain, and loyal residents had to take the good with the bad. Baer wondered if the high waters amounted to a bad sign. As he drove, he thought he was traveling in some surreal, Night of the Hunter–like land of religion. He saw revival tents everywhere. He wondered to himself, “If Magnavox’s engineers are this religious, can they make a good product?”

When he and Harrison set up the machine at the end of a highly polished oak table in a fancy conference room, they were nervous and on edge. Once the presentation began, Baer saw a room full of bored
executives who were probably more concerned about eating dinner and getting to the bar for a drink than with listening to a pitch about what they most likely considered to be a throwaway toy.

Yet there was one person who nodded his head, his eyes focused and bright. After Baer did his dog and pony show for about twenty minutes, showing each game and each peripheral, the executive actually seemed to be downright thrilled.

“We’re going to do this, and we’re going to commit a million dollars to it,” proclaimed Gerry Martin, Magnavox’s vice president and general manager for console product. The formerly sullen executives
nodded their heads and exchanged huzzahs like the finest yes- men money could buy.

The Sanders trio was flying high. But they didn’t celebrate. They had been dealt too many disappointments, so they held back until the contracts arrived. One night, Harrison and Baer were on the road and stopped into a greasy spoon diner. They had a thrifty meal, saved the receipts, and talked a lot about how great it was to be doing what they wanted to do. That was the extent of the celebration for the first videogame device ever made for consumers.

Excerpted from All Your Base Are Belong To Us: How Fifty Years of Video Games Conquered Pop Culture by Harold Goldberg. Copyright © 2011 by Harold Goldberg. Published in the United States by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

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