Simon says

Ralph Baer is the godfather of video games. In 1972 he released the Odyssey, the “brown box” game set that plugged into a TV and let you play “video tennis”, Breakout, and a few light-gun games. But, having single-handedly invented the video-game age, did he rest on his laurels? No sir. He went out and pioneered the hand-held electronic game — by inventing Simon.

But there was plenty of conflict along the way, including the fact that the military — for whom Baer worked — actively discouraged him from his work in video games; Baer and Atari founder Nolan Bushnell have also spent decades arguing over who was really the first person to invent the consumer video game.

Anyway, to set the record straight, Baer is releasing a book this spring with Rolenta Press. As a prequel, High Times (!) did an interview with him, and it’s a joy to read — mostly because Baer, who is by now like 117 years old, has clearly long ago ceased to give a crap what people think of him, and thus is piercingly funny and sharp in his tale-telling. Here he is on his military employers:

The technology was almost ready, and like anything new, there was a 50-50 chance that it would go over. I didn’t think of it as particularly important. The plan was to have a gadget with a TV set on top of it. I’m working for a company that only builds military products, and I’m an engineer exercising my freedom because I’m a division manager thinking I can do whatever I damn well please. That’s how that came about. Numerous people, including my boss, an executive VP, took great pains for several years to tell me that I was screwing around with things I shouldn’t be screwing around with. Then, ten years later, money started coming in as a result of various trials and court cases that we had won, and everybody stopped asking me if I was still screwing around with that stuff. On top of that, under contract, everybody reminded me of how supportive they’d been. Supportive my ass.

Even cooler, Baer discusses the sound design of Simon. As you might recall, Simon had only four notes — one for each color. But each note had to work perfectly with the others: Since the patterns Simon displayed were random, the notes would be played in equally random patterns. So how do you pick four notes that sound good no matter what order or periodicity they’re played in?

You pick a real-life instrument that itself only has four notes — the bugle. All four notes sound harmonious when played in any order, which is precisely why the bugle is such a useful military signalling technology.

(Before anyone rushes in to correct me on this last point — yes, I know that a skilful bugle player can produce a much larger range of notes than just four. You can also produce ton of weird in-between noises if you’ve got good embouchure control. I played the french horn for eight years myself, and my teacher forced me to play for weeks at a time without using the valves, until I too became able to produce a range of notes so high-pitched that fish would wash up dead on the shores of Lake Ontario. I still think Baer’s epiphany was cool.)

(Thanks to El Rey for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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