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Odyssey Home Video Game System

Magnavox Odyssey Home Video Game System played by Susan and John Gyarmati of Cedarburg, Wisconsin during the 1970s.
(Museum object #2006.95.2)

This Odyssey Home Video Game System, made by Magnavox between 1972-1974, was one of the earliest video games created for the home. Simple and crude by today's standards, its release was nonetheless met with much anticipation. Susan Hunzinger of Brookfield, Wisconsin and John Gyarmati of Mishawaka, Indiana wed December 21st, 1974 while students at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana. Days later they used some of their wedding gift money to purchase their Odyssey just in time for Christmas.

The Odyssey made for the perfect purchase as the Gyarmatis did not have much space for other larger items in their college apartment, and it was something they both really wanted. They brought it with them when they moved to Cedarburg, Wisconsin the next year and played the game system during the 1970s.

Ralph Baer, often considered the "father of video games" designed the Odyssey. Magnavox released it in the fall of 1972, but Baer had already created a functional prototype a few years earlier. The game console looks similar to today's games, but its functions were not. To play a game, one inserted a circuit card (similar to a game cartridge) into the console. The card did not contain the actual game program, though. Rather, it altered the signal path in the machine to change the light output coming through the television screen. Depending on the game, the light, which showed through the overlay, could be a race car, a baseball, a hockey puck, etc.

Different games could be played on the same circuit card by simply changing the acetate television screen overlay, which simulated background color graphics, and by using a different set of accompanying accessories: game boards and pieces, scorecards, chips, maps, etc. In reality, games were mostly played with the accessories instead of the simple graphics on the screen. In that way the Odyssey was very similar to traditional board games. The Odyssey and its later versions did not have sound capability.

The Odyssey originally included twelve games, with eleven more games and a shooting gun attachment marketed shortly thereafter. Sales were solid but the Odyssey was not a major hit. A major reason was that some consumers believed that the Odyssey only worked with Magnavox televisions, which was not the case. Production ceased in 1975 after 350,000 systems were sold.

The Odyssey brought the arcade experience into the home and helped pave the way for the next generation of home video games such as the 1970s icon Pong. It demonstrated that the home console system would work and that there was a viable market. Later game makers adapted and modified the Odyssey's capabilities to create an enormous home video game system for the television and later the personal computer.

[Sources: Baer, Ralph, Videogames: In the Beginning (Rolenta Press, 2005); Van Burnham et al, Supercade: a Visual History of the Videogame Age 1971-1984 (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001);
Ralph Baer website online at www.ralphbaer.com; Odyssey history in more detail at www.pong-story.com.]

JEK


Posted on December 21, 2006

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