Saturday, May 28, 2016

A Very Special Toy Inventor

Ralph Baer, inventor of Hasbro's Simon, the widely popular electronic memory game introduced in 1979, passed in 2014. While some may remember him as the creator of Simon, the world will remember him as the "Father of the Video Game". It is likely that title got the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History to make Ralph and his workshop part of their national story and a focal point of the Year of Innovation in the Museum's Innovation Wing.

Ralph has good company in the Museum among the likes of SC Johnson, inventor of the Ziplock Brand bag, Kirk Christiansen, inventor of the Lego block, Clarence L. Fender, inventor of the electric guitar, Earl Tupper, inventor of Tupperware, and of course, Thomas Alva Edison, inventor of the incandescent electric lamp.

Longtime industry friends, Richard and Sheryl Levy made a recent visit to the Smithsonian to view the tribute to Ralph. It made Richard recall the day speaking with Ralph on the phone when the Smithsonian was at Ralph's home in Manchester, New Hampshire collecting elements for the  Museum exhibit. "They are collecting everything that is not nailed down," whispered Ralph into the phone. "I have some stuff hidden under the staircase so they don't take everything."

"You cannot miss the Smithsonian exhibit" reports Richard. "It is the first exhibit you see as you enter the West Wing. Without doubt, the Smithsonian curators put tremendous value on Ralph's contributions to American innovation." And consumers to this day continue to see the unique play value in Ralph's Simon game nearly forty years after its introduction.

Phil Orbanes, Vice Chairman of Winning Moves Games, remembers Ralph as "a down-to-earth genius". Orbanes met him the year after Simon exploded onto the games' scene. "Unlike so many boastful inventors, Baer took success in stride and treated everyone he met as an equal." Speaking of Ralph's inventive skills, Orbanes said, "Once he got an idea, he could build it. In the early years that meant using a soldering iron to create the circuitry. But in time, he taught himself to program EPROMs (chips) and even build plastic cases and related parts to see his concepts come to life. He was an inventing marvel. Nothing deterred his enthusiasm for a new idea."

Originally a native New Englander, Ralph spent months in his later years in the land of the Sunshine Santas (that concentration of inventor talent in south Florida), where he was able to visit frequently with the Levys and discuss among other things the state of the toy industry, and of course, invention.

Ralph was among some 80 professional toy and game inventors we profiled with their personal advice and tips in the The Toy and Game Inventors Handbook. You can see his pithy remarks in that publication.

If the Smithsonian exhibit in D.C. doesn't work for your travel schedule, you can see Ralph's work memorialized at The Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, NY.

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