Your Old School Gaming Weekend: Magnavox Odyssey: A look at the first videogame console

The Magnavox Odyssey was the very first home video game system. An exciting new interface which allowed users to play “Ball and Paddle” games such as Ping-Pong, Tennis, Volleyball, Basketball, and others. On January 27th, 1972, Magnavox began production on the machine, and the system was released in May. The machine was discontinued in late 1974 with the release of the Odyssey 100. 200,000 units were probably sold in all. The Odyssey allowed users to play a whopping total of 28 different games. Discover the old days of graphic interface overlays made of plastic and game accessories such as chips and dice from the Magnavox Odyssey era within.


The videogame invention dates back to 1951 when Ralph Baer entered into employment at Loral, an electronics equipment manufacturer. Ralph was employed for his television experience. Sam Lackoff, Chief Engineer, told him to “Build the best television set in the world”. In the process of constructing the product, Ralph suggested to add some sort of “interactive game” to the television to distinguish his team from the crowd. Unsuccessful, his idea sat on the back burner without investigation for the next 15 years.

Before 1966, there was no real demand for videogame systems. Only a few select people even had a chance to play computer games, which at that time would have been on multi-millon dollar mainframes. We can therefore, rightly wonder just ‘WHO’ on earth could have gotten the idea of making a videogame system for the home. The answer is a man named Ralph Baer.

During the Summer of 1966, Ralph Baer (who had immigrated to the U.S. from Germany in 1938), built the first prototype based on the designs he had for his videogame invention. His system was roughly based on the “Ball and Paddle” principle. The genius of his invention was the use of a regular television set as screen, rather than an expensive monitor, oscilloscope, or other such equipment that used a CRT (Cathode Ray Tube). At that time, Ralph was working at Sanders Associates.

His idea was to design a system allowing to transform a regular TV set into a home game system. The story really began on September 1st, 1966 when Ralph Baer wrote a 4-page description of his idea. No later than September 6th, had he drawn the schematics of a simple two-player game. He was to first play with it on May 7th, 1967, and later demonstrated it on June 14th, after having improved it with the addition of an electronic gun which allowed the user to shoot targets on the television screen. After recruiting Bill Rusch (an engineer) and Bill Harrison (a technician) in October/November to assist him in the development of his system, Ralph designed the very first TENNIS videogame, later sold by Atari as PONG. With that invention he later demonstrated his complete system between November 9th and 13th to several manufacturers such as Teleprompter, and even a NYC cable company as an interactive cable game system, but the company was skeptical, and hence no progress came of that solicitation.

This “interactive cable game system” idea was extremely advanced and new at that time, since games played in network only appeared 15 years later when computers were vastly sold for home use, and only became a real and substantial standard in the 1990s with the growth of the internet.

Ralph Baer is often considered as the Thomas Edison of the videogame industry, as a result of such work.

Background Summary: Reiterated

On the 1st of Setpember, 1966, Ralph wrote a 4-page paper describing his videogame invention.

On September 6th, he draws the diagrams of a two-player game: his “Chasing Game”. The game consisted of two squares that could be moved on the screen. The game was operational on May 7th, 1967. He’ll demonstrate the game after adding a light gun to play additional games.

In October-November 1967, he works on the Ping-Pong concepts with Bill Rush (Engineer at Sanders) and Bill Harrison (Technician at Sanders). The fully functional Ping-Pong game was put in demonstration between November 9th and November 13th.

On the 15th of January, 1968, Ralph fills his first patent on the videogame concepts.

The 1st of October, 1968, he shows the complete switch-programmable video game unit (his “Brown Box”), capable of playing Ping-Pong, Volley-Ball, Football and gun games using colored, transparent overlays as backgrounds. The videogame console was born.

In January, 1969, he starts to demonstrate the revised unit (adding a light gun and joystick interface. This is the very first fully programmable, multi player videogame unit. Demonstrations were made to several TV-Set manufacturers (including RCA, General Electric, Zenith, Sylvania, Magnavox, and Warwick -Sears-). Most demonstrations took place at the Sanders Associates plant at Nashua, NH. This will result in a first license agreement with RCA in March 1970, later canceled.

He even had the idea of using the cable television as an interractive media to replace the overlays on the screen. By superimposing the picture generated by the game system and having the constant picture of the overlays broadcasted through the cable, Ralph had a very advanced system which could show a possible tv-user interaction, using a cable network. This system worked pretty well and was demonstrated to NYC Cable Television. But the decreasing success of cable TV at that time resulted in the death of this revolutionary project. 15 years will pass until network games become widely available.

The 17th of July, 1970, Ralph demonstrates his “Brown Box” to Magnavox TV-Set engineering, production and marketting management in their Ft. Wayne, Indiana plant. It’s a GO! A preliminary License Agreement will be signed with Magnavox in Ft. Wayne on March 3rd, the following year.

Between March and September 1970, Ralph will assist Magnavox engineers in turning out a production version of the “Brown Box”. Magnavox signs an exclusive License Agreement.

In March, 1972, Magnavox shows the first “Odyssey” videogame system to large groups of Magnavox dealers in several US locations. Home videogames are launched nationwide!

On 29th of May, 1972, Nolan Bushnell (later President of Atari) visits the “Magnavox Profit Caravan” at the Airport Marina Hotel in Burlingame, CA. He signs the guest book for Magnavox Odyssey Demo and plays the Odyssey Ping-Pong game hands-on. Later, he hires Alan Alcorn to design and build a coin-op version of the Ping-Pong game: PONG. This will mark the begining of the coin-op maket.

Between August and December 1972, 100,000 Odyssey systems will sell…

Original patent of the Television Gaming Apparatus filed by Ralph Baer:

“The present invention pertains to an apparatus [and method], in conjunction with monochrome and color television receivers, for the generation, display, manipulation, and use of symbols or geometric figures upon the screen of the television receivers for the purpose of [training simulation, for] playing games [and for engaging in other activities] by one or more participants. The invention comprises in one embodiment a control unit, an apparatus connecting the control unit to the television receiver and in some applications a television screen overlay mask utilized in conjunction with a standard television receiver. The control unit includes the control, circuitry, switches and other electronic circuitry for the generation, manipulation and control of video signals which are to be displayed on the television screen. The connecting apparatus selectively couples the video signals to the receiver antenna terminals thereby using existing electronic circuits within the receiver to process and display the signals generated by the control unit in a first state of the coupling apparatus and to receive broadcast television signals in a second state of the coupling apparatus. An overlay mask which may be removably attached to the television screen may determine the nature of the game to be played or the training simulated. Control units may be provided for each of the participants. Alternatively, games [training simulations and other activities] may be carried out in conjunction with background and other pictorial information originated in the television receiver by commercial TV, closed-circuit TV or a CATV station.”

After an initial deal with RCA falls through, the unit was further marketed and Magnavox was licensed to manufacture and distribute what was released in May of 1972 as the ‘Odyssey Home Entertainment System.’

On a side note, the system was sold primarily through Magnavox-affiliated stores. Retailers (and perhaps Magnavox themselves) implied to
potential customers that a Magnavox television was required in order to use the Odyssey. This was probably done to increase television sales. But alas, limited distribution combined with shady and uninformed retaillers proved to be fatal blunders that ultimately backfired and killed the machine within a year.

However, the Odyssey was re-released in 1974 to be exported in 12 foreign countries

The Odyssey system:

The Odyssey was sold in a large two-level styrofoam box (one level for the system, the controllers and the cables, and the other level for the remaining accessories). Customers could also buy a special carrying case. In that case, the overlays were rolled in the upper part.

The Odyssey originally came with 6 cartridges, a 36-page user manual for the 12 games offered by the system, and a number of accessories. There are several variants of the Odyssey, and it is even possible that some of them are still unknown to this day. It is however important to note that a special export version was made in 1974, and this is by far the rarest.

Operation of the Odyssey:

The operation of the Odyssey is very basic. To play the games, the user had to place special plastic overlays on the screen. These overlays had all the background of the games, because the system could not display them. Each of the 12 games had two same overlays in order to be played on a small or a large screen. A special scoreboard was used to mark the scores. Some games even came with plastic chips, carton cards, or other accessories such as a pair of dice, small chips and game decks. The system was so simple that a same cartridge could be used to play several games. The difference was made by using a different set of accessories or by changing the game rules, since the games were mostly played with the accessories rather than with the poor graphics shown on the screen.

Here’s a good description by Ralph Baer himself of his Brown Box:

“The two horizontal rows of switches on the front panel were moved for each game with the aid of a card placed between the two rows of switches. Each card (for example the ping-pong card) had dots next to the switches to indicate which of them had to be moved downward. The replacement of these switches with the p.c. carts by Magnavox was the major difference between the Brown Box and the production version Odyssey 1 unit (good idea). The other difference was that my Brown box had electonically-generated colored backgrounds (green for ping-pong, blue for hockey etc,). Magnavox did not include the color-circuitry for cost-reasons (bad idea!).”

What sort of games were played with the Odyssey?

The Odyssey was a very simple machine by today’s standards. Microchips were very expensive in 1972 (Intel had just released the microprocessor in 1971). Subsequently, the Odyssey was designed with only 40 transistors and 40 diodes. It did not keep scores, did not produce sound effects, and displayed a black and white picture with its very minimal graphic
capabilities. The only objects it could display were two paddles (one for each player), a ball and a vertical line.

All of them were not always displayed. TENNIS used them all, but for example, the game called “Simon Says” only used the paddles. Note that those paddles were squares and not rectangles like in the later PONG games. Even if those graphic elements were extremely simple, the Odyssey allowed to play 28 games of various types: sports games (Tennis, Table Tennis, Volleyball, Football,
Basketball, Baseball), money games (Roulette), space games (Interplanetary Voyage), shooting games (Dogfight, Shooting Gallery), and even edicational games (Simon Says, States).

How were the games played?

Due to the extreme simplicity of the few graphics displayed on the TV screen, most of the games required the use of additional accessories, and those were numerous. Except Table Tennis, all games used transparent color plastic overlays which contained the backgrounds of the games. Those were to be taped onto one’s television, or stored when not in use. More than 300 other accessories came with the Odyssey, including several sets of paper cards and paper money, dice, and miscalleanous plastic chips. These items helped to improve the machine’s aforementioned simplicity.

The Odyssey games were mainly played using those parts, and they were selected by using small cartridges (six of them were originally provided). Each cartridge allowed playing a certain type of game, hence several games used the same cartridge. Some games even required the use of two or three cartridges, since they were not always played the same way. If the Odyssey only allowed you to play 12 games, other games were also released as add-ons. They were either sold separately or by packs of 6. Each game came with its own overlays and accessories, and would sometimes come with a
cartridge when not using one of the six cartridges originally provided with the Odyssey.

Also, an electronic rifle called Shooting Gallery was available. This extension allowed playing four games. This simple light gun would only detect light, thus allowing the player to cheat by shooting a light bulb. Since no scores were displayed on the TV screen, cheating was obviously irrelevant. As mentioned earlier, a rumor went around implying that the Shooting Gallery rifle would only work with a Magnavox TV set. Although wrong, lots of users didn’t buy this rifle and only 20,000 or so were sold.

What’s inside the Odyssey and how does it work?

The game cartridges consisted in a small printed circuit board with no components but only jumpers which would merely enable the necessary parts of the machine (ball generator, paddle generators, central line height and location, collision detection) and select how the collisions between the ball and the other objects were detected and what those collisions would interract with.

The Odyssey is a modular system since it is programmable. It contains five types of modules: spot generators (which display a rectangle with preset size, location and brightness; one for each player, one for the central line and one for the gray backround which
“illuminates” the overlays), sync generators and RF modules (which generate some parts of the video signal sent to the TV set), flip-flops (which toggle the direction of the ball and where the english effect
acts), and gate matrix (which determines how collisions happen and how they interract on the objects drawn). Therefore, opening the Odyssey will
reveal a main board with all the modules mentioned before.

The different parts of the Odyssey

Here is the complete list of the parts that came with the Odyssey, both US and export versions. Be aware: some items existed in several different versions. For example, the US user manual exists in three forms, the stickers pages exist either as a three-page set, or a single page set, and the red/white/blue tokens also exist in two sizes.

What items came standard with the Odyssey?


– Master control unit (ITL 200 1 of 4 pcs.)
– 2 Player control units (ITL 200 1 of 4 pcs.)
– Game cord (ITL 200 1 of 4 pcs.)
– RF switch with 2 hanging hooks (ITL 001). Came in its own box.
– 6 red-label Eveready C batteries

6 game cartridges:

– Table Tennis
– Ski, Simon Says
– Tennis, Analogic, Hockey, & Football (for passing & kicking)
– Cat and Mouse, Football (for running), Haunted House
– Submarine
– Roulette, States

22 Overlays (2 per game, for different screen sizes):

Cat and Mouse
Haunted House
Simon Says

Standard game accessories

– Stick on numbers (642978-2)
– Football Game board field/Roulette Layout board (642898 0001)
– Odyssey stadium scoreboard (two versions)
* 642964-1 for the normal 12-game Odyssey console
* IB2874-1 with no detachable paper tokens for the 1974 10-game Odyssey
– 2 Football tokens (attached to the Odyssey stadium scoreboard)
– 2 Yardage markers (attached to the Odyssey stadium scoreboard)
– 20 Pass cards
– 20 Run cards
– 10 Kick off cards
– 10 Punt cards
– 2 Pass card
– 2 Run cards
– 2 Punt cards
– 30 Clue cards
– 13 Secret message cards
– 50 chips (16 red 16 blue 18 white) with ziplock bag
– Money (approximately 100 each of $5 $10 $50 and $100)
– 28 Simon says cards
– 50 States cards
– Affairs of states (answer folder) (591549-1)
– States study map (591550-1)
– Pair of dice

In addition to the games provided with the console, customers could order additional games by mail. Ten different extra games are known to exist, but their rarity does not allow us to estimate in which quantity they sold in 1972. Very few are the collectors who own the complete set of these games, and it is extremely rare that an Odyssey comes with them. Magnavox has also promoted the Odyssey by offering a free bonus game, if the user would fill out a piece of paper with questions on it and send it back to Magnavox (this paper would register the purchase of the Odyssey). This bonus game is called PERCEPTS, and is extremely difficult to find, since it was only available as a promotion. But it appears sometimes with an Odyssey sold in auction.

Rifle extension:

The original “Brown Box” allowed playing some games with a light gun. Thus, the Odyssey had a special connector to plug an additional rifle which allowed playing four extra games using two additional cartridges (#9 and #10). This “rifle pack” is called “Shooting Gallery”. The amazing thing is the operation of this rifle. Since it uses a photocell, players could point it to a light bulb, thus simulating a true shoot on the screen.

Games sold with the rifle pack


Prehistoric Safari

Shooting gallery

Technology of the Odyssey:

Because of its technology, the Odyssey is completely different from modern videogame systems. It uses no microprocessor and no memory. It is pure analog. Opening the system will only reveal discrete components: resistors, capacitors, etc… The only semiconductors are about 40 diodes and 40 transistors.

The cartridges contain no components: they are only made of a jumper set. When plugging a cartridge in the console, the game is not changed like with actual systems. The game is completely built-in. As a matter of fact, the Odyssey contains everything to make a game based around a ball, one or two paddles representing the players, and a central line. It is made of several parts (or modules), which are connected together by the cartridge to form the game. The cartridges act on the 40 diodes of the Odyssey to set the aspect and the position of the central line (located on the left or on the middle, displayed in whole or in part, or even not displayed), and to determine the interraction between the ball and the other graphic objects: bounce or erasure when there is a collision with a player or the central line (a player could even be erased after a collision with the ball). Ralph Baer tried to design advanced cartridges equiped with some additional components to add more realistic features to the Odyssey. Unfortunately, nothing came out of this idea.

For more info and history on games and gaming consoles from the old school days, see pong-story. or click link here.

Author: thee_InVection_report

News Service: pong-story


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