The Odyssey - where gaming began!

Many people think of Atari as the pioneers of the video game console, but it was the Magnavox Odyssey that brought the first commercial video games to market and inspired Atari’s development.

Ralph Baer

 

The Odyssey’s hardware was designed by a small team led by Ralph Baer who worked at Sanders Associates - a company that was one of the premier flexible printed circuit manufacturers of the 1960’s and 70’s. It specialised in complex flexible circuit assemblies and printed wiring boards for the U.S. military including the space programs.

Magnavox Odyssey console

The design

The Odyssey consisted of a black, white and brown box that connected to your home TV set. It came supplied with two controllers that were permanently attached by wires.

The console connected to your TV through a switchbox. This allowed the user to switch the television input between the Odyssey and the regular television input cable, presenting the Odyssey content like a television channel.

Magnavox press ads

The controllers were designed to sit on a flat surface. By today’s standards they are far from ergonomic and look incredibly simplistic with one button marked ‘Reset’ on the top of each controller and three dials - one on the right side of the controller, and two on the left with one extending from the other.

The reset button is not what you might think, it resets individual elements depending on the game (which was actually a circuit board inserted into the console, for example, making a player’s dot visible after it has been turned off). The entire system was powered by six batteries, which were included in the box along with an optional power supply that was sold separately.

Odyssey leaflet

Graphics

The Odyssey is capable of displaying three square dots and one line of varying height on the screen in monochrome black and white. There were various behaviours associated with the dots, depending on the game being played.

Screen overlays

Players placed plastic overlays on to the TV screen to create the background and other visual elements of the games.

Silent movies

The console could not generate any audio, so you played in silence with no sound effects. The Odyssey couldn’t track your scores either!

 

Odyssey product sheet

Unboxing

The Odyssey console came packaged with dice, paper money, and other board game paraphernalia that is typical of what we would now call traditional board games. There was a peripheral controller available as well, the first video game light gun, this was sold separately.

 

Shooting gallery box

Game play

The games did not use ROM cartridges like many of the later consoles, instead they used “game cards” made using printed circuit boards that plugged into the console. These cards modified the internal circuitry like a set of switches, so the Odyssey would display different components and react to inputs differently depending on the circuit it had connected into it. Multiple games used the same cards, with different instructions being given to the player to change the style of game.

Making history

The idea for a video game console was conceived by Ralph Baer in August 1966. It took him three years working with Bill Harrison and Bill Rusch, together creating 7 successive prototype consoles before the product was market ready.

The seventh, known as the Brown Box, was shown to several manufacturers before Magnavox agreed to produce it in January 1971. The first units went on sale on May 24th 1972. After releasing the console through their dealerships, Magnavox sold 69,000 units the first year and 350,000 by the time the console was discontinued in 1975.

 

Games collage

The legacy

The Odyssey console spawned the Odyssey series as well as the 1978 Magnavox Odyssey 2. The later could run 28 different games including a ping pong game. It was this game that was the inspiration for Atari’s incredibly successful Pong arcade game.

The release of the Odyssey marked the beginning of the first generation of video game consoles and played a pivotal part in creating todays video game industry.