The ancestor of the Switch, Xbox or PlayStation celebrates its fifty candles. The American Magnavox Odyssey, the first console to be sold, was launched between mid-August and mid-September 1972. It was the first electronic device that brought video games into homes. However, only wealthy customers could afford it: it was sold for 100 dollars (equivalent to about 720 euros today). So it has passed about 350,000 copies, according to the National Museum of American History.
Little known today, The Odyssey marks an important period in the history of the video game industry: the beginning of the commercialization of video games and the beginning of its democratization. In fact, between the 1950s and 1970s, it was accessible only to a limited public, on computers that usually belonged to universities, military bases or large companies. From 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 maybe from the film. 2001, A Space Odysseyby Stanley Kubrick) was also the source of inspiration for the first major video game success: the game pongat the Atari arcade terminal, an American pioneer in the field.
Sold a few weeks after the Odyssey, pong consists of using a white bar on a black screen to return a ball, represented by a square. This principle is very similar to the game of tennis on the first console. There is nothing surprising in that: the lawsuits brought from 1974 by Magnavox against Atari made it possible to establish that Nolan Bushnell, the co-creator of Atari, plagiarized Odyssey after a preview demonstration . Magnavox thus launched one of the first legal soap operas in the very young video game industry.
An avant-garde designer
The brand specializing in television sets and hi-fi equipment is still inseparable from Odyssey. But behind the manufacturer Magnavox, based in Indiana, one man played a key role in the invention of the device: Ralph Baer. This American engineer of German origin imagined it between 1966 and 1969, when he worked for the military electronics company Sanders. He made different prototypes, one of the last of which, from 1968, was called “Brown Box”. Magnavox took it to develop the Odyssey.
Despite its obvious connection to today’s machines from Microsoft, Sony or Nintendo, the one almost called Skill-O-Vision turns out to be unique. Its brick-shaped controllers have three wheels on the sides, to manage movement. It works on batteries, like a toy. The well-numbered cartridges are not used to store programs, which are pre-installed in the console, but to be displayed on the device to be launched.
The Odyssey box also includes many accessories: cards, dice, tokens, point counters to mark scores or layers to be displayed on the screen to represent the scene. This makes it possible to compensate for a limited power that only allows the display of some white pixels. But the console cannot produce sound effects.
Two years after its release, Ralph Baer and Magnavox filed the first exploitable patent related to video games on cathode-ray tube televisions. This intellectual property title has become important in the sector: for almost two decades, manufacturers of home consoles have found themselves sued by the creators of Odyssey for patent infringement. All cases ended in Magnavox victories or out-of-court settlements. These financing agreements would have brought in nearly $100 million for Magnavox, according to New York Times. Often signed with the greatest discretion, they helped to keep Ralph Baer in the shadows for almost thirty years – it was only from the beginning of the 2000s (until his death in 2014), that he publicly claimed the title ” father of video games” .
A time when video games were confidential
What is the exact release date of Odyssey? The mystery remains, due to the lack of clear archives. Only its first appearances on television or in advertisements in American newspapers make it possible to date its launch at 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. Artists face them. They only see behind the television set and have the task of guessing what the players are doing in front of them.
The guests hesitated, raised their eyebrows and asked more questions: “Are you moving something in the picture? », “Is there a cartoon on the screen alive as I speak? »… No one can guess the principle of the device. There is nothing to suggest that, fifty years later, video games will be an industry whose global turnover is estimated at around 180 billion euros for the year 2021, according to the specialized company Newzoo.