SLIDESHOW

Inside the Magnavox Odyssey, the First Video Game Console

Magnavox's 1972 settop box debuted so early that it didn't even include a computer. Here's a look at what makes this pioneer of home video games tick.

Happy Birthday, Magnavox Odyssey!

Forty years ago, Magnavox lifted the veil on the world's first commercial video game console, the Odyssey. Designed to work with a home TV set, the Odyssey blazed a trail that every game console follows today.

The Odyssey launched at $99.99 (about $548 in today's dollars) in August 1972 and included 12 games. Buyers could purchase other games separately, including an expansion set that included a realistic toy rifle--the world's first light gun.

Magnavox's console was built on technology originally developed by Ralph Baer, Bill Harrison, and Bill Rusch at Sanders Associates in the mid- to late 1960s. Baer's invention, together with Atari's work during the same period, founded an industry.

To celebrate the 40th birthday of this pioneering machine, I decided to take my Odyssey apart and see what makes it tick. It was a nice day outside, so I eschewed my trusty workbench for something a little more natural. Anyone who has an aversion to the color green should turn back now.

Meet the Odyssey

The Odyssey looks like a product of the 1970s: A smooth black base gives way to a curved, stark white protrusion that ascends to a textured plateau. A narrow strip of faux wood-grain trim separates top from bottom in a sci-fi design that presages the visual world of Star Wars five years later. The Odyssey would not look out of place on an Imperial Star Destroyer.

Anatomy of an Odyssey

From directly overhead, you can see the Odyssey's two regions of user interaction: the front, which contains the game card slot; and the back, which houses external controls and an array of sockets for controllers and accessories.

Interestingly, the Odyssey has no power button; the console turns itself on automatically when you insert a game card.

Sockets and Knobs

Here's a closer look at a section of the console's rear. From left to right, we see the player 1 controller socket, the center control knob, the accessory socket (used with the light gun mentioned earlier), the TV out socket, the speed control knob, and the player 2 controller socket.

The "center" knob controls the position of a vertical line on the game screen (that vertical line serves as the net in Table Tennis). The speed knob controls the speed of the "ball" on the screen.

Leaning against the console is the Odyssey's unique 12-pin controller plug. It fits into the controller sockets shown here.

Flipped on its Back

Adhering to the bottom of the Odyssey are various product labels; they reveal that Magnavox manufactured this particular unit during the console's second production run in 1973. On the right sits the closed door of the Odyssey's battery compartment.

Yep, history's first video game console runs on batteries (the Odyssey shipped with six in the box)! Alternatively, you can hook an optional AC adapter up via a socket on the rear edge of the console.

Inside the Battery Compartment

If this Odyssey were new, you'd see a white plastic battery caddy that held six "C" cell batteries within this compartment. The caddy plugs into the blue connector that you see here.

In my case, the caddy is long gone because the previous owner had left ancient batteries in the console that leaked and did significant damage. In the process of repairing and cleaning my Odyssey (over 12 years ago now), I must have tossed the caddy. I was younger then.

Game Cards

Unlike modern game consoles, the Odyssey does not contain a computer. Instead, it generates images based on discrete circuitry that directly manipulates the video signal going to the TV set. Each game uses different parts of the circuitry.

To do this complex switching, Magnavox devised a game card system using the plug-in cards you see above. The system shipped with six cards. Each card acts as a series of on/off jumpers or connecting wires that essentially programs the console to operate in a certain way.

Screen Overlays

Since the Odyssey can't generate color or complex graphics, the system relies on colorful translucent overlays to enhance game play (22 were included in the box, consisting of 11 different patterns in two sizes). These overlays were designed to be taped over the front of a TV set.

The Odyssey console can generate four "spots." In its most basic configuration, the unit stretches or compresses these spots to make (1) a ball, (2) the left player paddle, (3) the right player paddle, and (4) the vertical center line. Depending on the game card inserted, these spots turn on or off or have different behaviors. In conjunction with the colorful screen overlays, you can play games from Roulette to Ice Hockey.

Gambling Paraphernalia

The Odyssey's main attraction is its highly entertaining game of electronic table tennis, played with game card #1. Every other Odyssey game requires the players to exercise more imagination and observe some special rules.

Some of the games involve extremely simple visual upgrades: If you add the hockey rink overlay, table tennis suddenly becomes Ice Hockey. Move the center line, and it becomes Volleyball. Other games seem closer in lineage to physical board games than to electronic ones, relying on accessories such as cards, poker chips, dice, play money, and scoreboards to enhance their play. Magnavox included those accessories with every Odyssey it sold.

Player Control Units

The Odyssey included two controllers (which Magnavox called "player control units") for playing its games. Magnavox designed these boxy devices to be set on a table and manipulated with two hands, one on each side of the controller.

Each control unit sports three knobs and one button. The button resets or moves the position of the "ball" spot on the screen. Two of the knobs control the horizontal and vertical positions of an on-screen "paddle" spot. A smaller knob set in the horizontal control controls "English" on the ball, which merely moves the vertical position of the ball on the screen so you can fake out your opponent.

It's a lot of control to put into the players' hands, but in the absence of much intelligence on the console's part, the Odyssey depends largely on the player to stick to the rules by which each game is played.

Inside the Player Control Unit

Two screws and one forceful opening later, all is revealed about the Odyssey controller.

Here we see a circuit board with one regular potentiometer for vertical paddle control and two nested potentiometers to control horizontal paddle movement and English. A momentary push switch (for the reset button) sits in the center of the board.

Removing the Case

Only four screws separate us from the inside of the console itself, where we find the main circuit board populated with ten obvious (and two hidden) daughter card modules (we'll take a look at them in detail later).

Attack of the Modules

Magnavox designed the Odyssey with modular circuitry because modules cost less to manufacture and the company believed that this approach would lead to more-efficient testing and production. Some of the modules are identical, so they could be built and tested in a separate assembly line process, and then plugged into the board.

The metal "RF box" on the main board contains two modules that generate the video image and modulate it to simulate an antenna signal (an "RF" or radio frequency signal) so that a circa-1972 TV can display the image.

Main Board Details

The four spot-generating modules on the main board are accompanied by four internal dials that technicians can adjust to calibrate the proper height, length, position, and brightness of each spot on the screen. Three of the dials are visible in this photo. They provides a very flexible and tunable system.

You can switch the Odyssey's output from Channel 3 to Channel 4 on your TV by using the output selector switch hidden within the battery compartment.

Everything Apart

Here are the modules from the main board separated and set aside. Let's take a closer look at one of them.

Odyssey Module Up Close

The Odyssey contains eight types of internal modules. Two of them live in the metal RF box we saw earlier. The others are labeled thus: spot generator, vertical sync generator, horizontal sync generator, gate matrix, flip-flop, and summer board. (It sounds like a regular beach party going on in there.)

If you'd like to read more about what each module does, check out this explanation over at Pong-Story.com.

The RF Switch

Now let's take a look at the most underrated video game peripheral included with the Odyssey: the RF switch box.

This simple box was the first of its kind in the video game world, establishing the template for dozens of similar designs that would follow in the next few decades. The RF switch, which hooks to the antenna jack on the back of a TV set, has one simple function: to allow you to switch easily between watching broadcast TV and playing the Odyssey game console.

Inside the RF Switch

The RF switch performs a very simple function, but it shows how well thought-out the Odyssey system was from the beginning. Ease of use was key.

To display an image on a TV set back then, the game console had to generate its own broadcast TV signal (with an RF modulator). The antenna jack on the TV picked up the console's signal in the same way that it would a signal transmitted from dozens of miles away.

Ralph Baer (Odyssey's creator) didn't invent the RF modulator, but his use of one in the Odyssey is what allowed video games to be played on regular, unmodified home TV sets. That was perhaps his most profound innovation.

A Four-Decade Legacy

Magnavox's message included with the Odyssey reads, "Thank you for purchasing Odyssey. We hope it will bring you and your family many hours of pleasure."

I'm happy to report that Magnavox achieved its goal. The Odyssey was a resounding success, selling over 330,000 units worldwide. It launched a line of Magnavox home consoles and dozens of clones. Its underlying patents proved very lucrative. And perhaps most important, it directly inspired Pong, the game that launched Atari.

Odyssey's inventor, Ralph Baer, turned 90 in March. So please join me in wishing Mr. Baer a very happy belated birthday. We love what you've created.