By the time Baer, Harrison, and Rusch were deep into it, the trio had tested many prototype machines, drably named TV Games #1 through #7. To the untrained eye, the inner workings seemed like a vision of chaos. The insides of even the later prototypes looked like a mass of angel hair pasta swirling in a pot of boiling hot water.
Yet the machine worked like magic. It hooked up to a TV’s antenna terminals and used the frequencies of channel 3 or channel 4. On the screen were what Baer called “spots,” little white squares that could be moved around smoothly like a puck on the ice. Attached were two metal boxes that had knobs for vertical and horizontal manipulation. TV Games #1 used four vacuum tubes. There were no circuitry chips; they were luxuries that were too expensive at the time. And there were no transistors. Although Higinbotham used them in his tests, Baer didn’t yet trust transistor technology. But when the box was switched on and that spot moved on- screen for the first time, it was quite the eureka moment. Baer didn’t jump up and down or wave his fist in the air. But inside, he was thrilled and amazed.
What the primitive contraption would do was extraordinary. It would make the television an extension of you, the player. It would let you interact with a square on a black- and- white screen, and if you had even the lamest imagination, it made you believe you were volleying at tennis, aiming carefully as a brave marksman, even playing hero to the innocent as you saved lives.
While the design work proceeded apace, there were continual roadblocks. Worker bees would be called off the project, assigned to work on some secret, pressing defense initiative. At the same time, Sanders executives sometimes seemed aloof and uninterested. In addition, the machine itself became unwieldy. One of the early prototypes was completely impractical, with a chassis that was as large as a kitchen sink. It also looked like something out of high school shop class.
On June 14, 1967, Baer showed Herb Campman a shooting game with a toy gun rigged up with a light mechanism, which interacted with the TV screen. Campman and Sanders’s patent lawyer was impressed enough to call a meeting with the company president and the stodgy board of directors—the next day. Baer had seven games he wanted to show on a color TV set: chess, steeple chase, a fox- and- hounds game, target shooting, a color wheel game, a bucket- filling game, and that firefighter game in which you’d whale on a pump handle like you were trying to get water from a well. If you did it right, water would get to a window in a house. If you failed, the house would go up in flames. On the night before the demo, Baer
frantically searched for a script explaining the seven games that he’d recorded circus- barker- style on a sixty- minute Mercury cassette tape. Though he found the tape quickly, Baer was still apprehensive.
He tossed and turned in his bed. But he was ready.
The big bosses filed into a dreary conference room on June 15. There was whispering and conferring and the raising of eyebrows during the demonstration. Bill Harrison noticed that Sanders himself was completely uninterested. He was gossiping about a competitor with another colleague. But, ultimately, the suits seemed impressed. Harold Pope, the affable company president who’d come up through the ranks as an engineer, didn’t quite know what to do with what he had seen. Pope’s command to Baer was “Build us something we can sell or license.”
“Build us something we can sell” was a grim declaration that would irk Baer during the next several years. Compared to figuring out how to sell it, getting the console to work properly was the least of his worries. Because gossip had begun among Sanders employees, Baer made sure the work in his ten- by- twenty- foot lab was treated as a top secret project. He told Harrison, “I don’t care if people in the company think we’re making some kind of guitar. I just want to get the job done without a lot of questions from people who aren’t involved.” It was like the first rule of Fight Club. Baer told his team in no uncertain terms, “You don’t talk about TV Games.”
In February 1967, the three created the Quiz Light Pen, which, when attached to TV Games, could be used for an educational instruction and game show–like experience. “Just point it at the screen and click a button to make it work,” announced Baer in impresario mode as he spoke to the camera in a primitive half- hour black- and- white instructional video, which showed how aiming the pen at small boxes on the screen could be used to answer multiple choice questions. Maybe it could even be used for a game show, thought Baer, like Jeopardy!
The inventiveness didn’t stop there. In a memo stamped “Company Private,” Baer also made plans for a steering wheel for racing games and a device that would let you make artistic drawings on the TV screen. There was a baseball game and a strange ESP- like number guessing game. There would be a peripheral for a golf game that included a putter. There was skeet shooting, soccer, and horse racing, too. And there was a cool, addictive version of a Ping- Pong game, the game that people would play the most. (It was also a game that would soon be ripped off, become more popular than Baer ever imagined, and herald a very nasty lawsuit.)
Admittedly, these games were all done with “spots,” not high- quality artwork. To make the games feel more real, the team designed plastic overlays that, through static electricity, stuck to the TV screen. They looked like Howard Johnson restaurant place mats but were somewhat transparent. There was no masterful artwork to the overlays, but the best of them resembled the most dramatic back glass art on pinball games of the day. The first joysticks included were two controllers that had horizontal and vertical abilities and knobs to add English to the ball, somewhat like Tennis for Two (which Baer said he never saw at the Brookhaven National Laboratory).
More ideas for technology and games spewed forth, and so did some manna from heaven: $8,000 more from Sanders’s Campman. The goal in early 1968 was to beef up the console’s circuitry to make it a leaner, meaner machine. Rusch was also able to make those all- important square spots circular, even star- shaped. Initially, Rusch preened, thinking he had done something as historic as translating the Dead Sea Scrolls. Baer was totally enthused, too, until they found a problem with the spots. They moved randomly when they weren’t supposed to. They ran up or down or to the side like feral animals. Sometimes, they’d even change their shapes. Baer decided to stick with the square spots, even though Rusch put up a fuss. This was a constant cycle between the two. Baer would try to mend fences with Rusch. He’d seem OK for a while. Then he’d go off the rails and get angry again.
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.Purchase All Your Base - In the U.S.:* Amazon* BN.com* Borders
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