Fifty years ago the first video game console came out: the Odyssey, from Magnavox

The ancestor of Switch, Xbox or PlayStation celebrates its fifty candles. The American Magnavox Odyssey, the first console to be marketed, was launched between mid-August and mid-September 1972. It was the first electronic device to bring video games into homes. However, only wealthy customers could afford it: it was sold for $100 (the equivalent of about €720 today). It has thus sold about 350,000 copies, according to the National Museum of American History.

Still little known today, The Odyssey marks a fundamental stage in the history of the video game industry: the beginning of the commercialization of video games and the beginnings of their democratization. In fact, between the 1950s and 1970s, it was accessible only to a restricted audience, on computers usually owned by universities, military bases, or large companies. Beginning in the 1970s, the first arcade terminals appeared, but were still produced in small numbers.

In addition to being avant-garde in the console sector, the one that takes its name from Homer’s poem (and probably from the movie 2001 a space odysseyby Stanley Kubrick) is also the source of inspiration for the first great success of video games: the game stinkin an Atari arcade terminal, an American pioneer in the field.

Released a few weeks after the Odyssey, stink It consists of wielding a white bar on a black screen to return a ball, represented by a square. This principle is very similar to the tennis game on the first console. Nothing surprising about that: lawsuits filed since 1974 by Magnavox against Atari establish that Nolan Bushnell, the co-creator of Atari, plagiarized the Odyssey after a previous demo. Magnavox thus launched one of the first legal soap operas in the very young video game industry.

Although it seems primitive today, this device was “futuristic” fifty years ago.

An avant-garde designer

The brand specializing in televisions and hi-fi equipment remains inseparable from the Odyssey. But behind the then-Indiana-based manufacturer Magnavox, one man played a key role in inventing the device: Ralph Baer. This American engineer of German origin imagined it between 1966 and 1969, when he worked for the Sanders military electronics company. He made several prototypes, one of the last, dating from 1968, was called “Brown Box”. Magnavox later acquired it to develop the Odyssey.

Despite its obvious kinship to current Microsoft, Sony or Nintendo machines, the one that was almost called Skill-O-Vision turns out to be unique. Its brick-shaped controllers have three wheels on the sides to manage movement. Battery operated, like a toy. Its fine numbered cartridges are not used either to store the programs, previously integrated into the console, but rather to tell the device which one to execute.

The Odyssey box also includes many accessories: cards, dice, tokens, point counters to mark scores or layers to display on the screen to represent scenarios. These make it possible to compensate for a very limited power that only allows the display of a few white pixels. But the console cannot produce sound effects.

Also read: Death of Ralph Baer, ​​inventor of the first video game console

Two years after its launch, Ralph Baer and Magnavox filed the first exploited patent related to video games on cathode ray tube televisions. This intellectual property title has become essential in the sector: for almost two decades, manufacturers of home consoles have been sued by the creators of the Odyssey for patent infringement. All lawsuits end in Magnavox victories or out-of-court settlements. These financial deals would have brought nearly $100 million to Magnavox, according to New York Times. Usually signed with the utmost discretion, they helped keep Ralph Baer in the dark for some thirty years; it was only from the early 2000s (until his death in 2014), that he publicly claimed the title of “father of video games”. .

In 1972, Magnavox did not use the terms

A time when video games were confidential

What is the exact release date of the Odyssey? The mystery remains, in the absence of explicit files. Only its first appearances on television or in American newspaper advertisements allow us to date its release to the end of the summer of 1972.

A program broadcast on October 16, 1972, but recorded at the end of August, allows us to understand how new the concept of video games was for the public at that time. Joystick in hand, a facilitator and a company executive play a game of tennis. Celebrities face them. They only see the back of the TV and are tasked with guessing what the players in front of them are doing.

The guests hesitate, raise their eyebrows and multiply the questions: “Are you moving something in the picture? », “Is there a cartoon on the screen that comes to life as I speak? »… No one is able to guess the principle of the device. Nothing suggested that, fifty years later, video games would become an industry whose global turnover is estimated at around 180,000 million euros by 2021, according to the specialized firm Newzoo.

Also read: Is there really a “father of video games”?

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