Magnavox Odyssey - The First Gaming Console

The Magnavox Odyssey System. Photo by D.S. Cohen

In 1966 Ralph Baer, Chief Engineer for Equipment Design at the defense contractor Sanders Associates, began work creating a technology where a simple game could be played on a television monitor. One year later this became a reality when Baer and his team created a simple game consisting of two dots chasing each other around the screen.

The government continued funding the now top secret Brown Box project as a military training tool. Baer’s team continued their innovations improving the tech and also creating the very first video game peripheral - a light gun that would work with the TV system.

From the Brown Box to the Odyssey - The First Video Game Console:

The plan to use the Brown Box for military training didn’t quite work out. Six years later the top secret status was dropped and Sanders Associates licensed the tech to electronics company Magnavox. The Brown Box was renamed, slightly redesigned and released as the very first gaming console system for the home market - the Magnavox Odyssey – and an industry was born.

In 2006 President George W. Bush presented Ralph Baer with the National Medal of Technology award for inventing the home video game console.

As it says in the manual, “With Odyssey you participate in television, you’re not just a spectator!”

The Basics

  • Year of Release: 1972
  • Manufacturer: Magnavox
  • Creator: Ralph Baer

Originally Packaged With

  • Master Control Unit
  • 2 Player Control Units
  • Game Cord
  • Antenna-Game Switch with mounting hooks.
  • 2 sized sets of 11 Overlays for medium and large television screens.
  • 6 Game Cards
  • Multiple game and score cards.

Master Control Unit - The Console

The original Odyssey was a battery powered rectangular unit with a front loading game card slot. The back housed ports for the two controllers, the light gun rifle accessory and the audio/video RF Cord. On the bottom sat the center control knob which adjusts the graphics display and a compartment for 6 C-cell batteries with a Channel 3/4 switch inside. The side base also had a small external jack for a power adaptor (sold separately).

Game Cord: One end of the cord plugged into the Master Control Unit and the other into the Antenna-Game Switch.

Player Control Units - The Controllers

Unlike the joystick or modern controllers, the Player Control Unit was square and designed to sit on a flat surface. At the top sat a reset button with the control knobs placed on the sides, and an English Control (EC) node at the end of the right knob. The knobs controlled the vertical and horizontal movement of the “paddle”, while the EC adjusted the “ball”. To place the ball in the center of the screen, you turned the EC to the raised mark indicator.

Multiplayer: The system was designed to accommodate two players. A multiplayer game was activated by pressing the reset button on the second Player Control Unit.

Antenna-Game Switch

This type of switch was common in the '70s and '80s but became obsolete with today’s modern units. Back in the day, an antenna sent signals to the TV via a wire connection through the VHF terminals. To install the switch, you disconnected the antenna’s U-shaped wires from the VHF terminal, attached them to the connection screws on the Antenna/Game Switch, then took the lead from the switch and connected it to the TV's VHF terminals. When you flipped the switch from Antenna to Game, the signal from the Odyssey went to the TV.

To connect to a modern TV you need a special adaptor - available at most electronic stores.

Graphics and Screen Overlays

The only graphics the Odyssey offered were white dots and lines. Although the games didn’t have background graphics the system came with transparent screen overlays. These stuck to the screen and were used as color backgrounds for the games. Some of the games could be played without a background, such as table tennis, while others required them.

The system came packaged with two sets of differently sized overlays. The large was for 23 and 25-inch TVs while the medium ones were for 18 to 21-inch screens.

The overlays included…

  • Anologic
  • Cat and Mouse
  • Football
  • Haunted House
  • Hockey
  • Roulette
  • Simon Says
  • Ski
  • States
  • Submarine
  • Tennis

Game and Score Cards

The system lacked any writeable memory to track scores and not enough graphics capabilities to generate elaborate text, so many of the games required the use of game cards, like the ones in board games, and score cards, like the ones from golf or bowling. Because these additional accessories were often discarded or lost, it is extremely difficult to find a complete Odyssey system today.

Game Cards - Cartridges

The game cards also doubled as the power switch for the Master Control Unit. Placing the game card firmly into the Game Card Slot turned the system on, so you had to be sure not to keep the card in the unit when you’re done playing or you'd drain the batteries. Each Game Card could be used for multiple games when combined with different Overlays.

The system came packaged with six Game Cards:

  • #1 Table Tennis
  • #2 Ski, Simon Says
  • #3 Tennis, Analogic, Hockey, & Football Part 1 (for passing & kicking)
  • #4 Cat and Mouse, Football Part 2 (for running), Haunted House
  • #5 Submarine
  • #6 Roulette, States

Football Note: Because the game was split between two cartridges, (one for running, the other for passing & kicking) plus the Odyssey had no save feature, you needed to keep track of your score and positions using the included game and score cards, as you switched between cartridges on the console.