Friday, January 30, 2015

Video Game Genealogies - Ralph Baer

For this post, I thought I’d take a break from my Atari depositions series and try something a little different. One of my hobbies is genealogy, so I have access to a good deal of genealogical info. So I was thinking about doing a series of posts on the genealogy of some of the key figures in the video game industry. I have no idea if there is any interest in this kind of thing, as it gets into some information that really isn’t directly relevant to video games and that general hasn’t been covered in video game history.

Since Ralph Baer recently passed away and since I don’t have a tremendous amount of information on his ancestors, I thought it would be easier to start with him.

Maternal Ancestors - The Kirschbaums

On his mother's side, I basically have just names and dates, so I'll start there.

Ralph's mother was Charlotte Lauren Kirschbaum, born 15 December 1899 in Guben, Germany. I'll talk more about her later, but for now, here's what I have on her ancestry.

Her father was James Kirschbaum, born 24 November 1869 in Bremerhaven, Germany and died 26 May 1931 in Guben. He married Adele Davidson on 1 June 1868.

James's father was Adolph Kirschbaum, born 24 July 1834 in Bremerhaven and died in Guben on 29 October 1920. He married Laura Cohen.
In 1902 (probably after Laura died) he came to the U.S. to stay with his son Alfons in New York. On the 1910 census, they were living on 113th street in New York City. Alfons was a butcher and the family had a personal servant, so they appear to have been doing well. Adolph was listed as a widower. They also had a cousin living with them who was a treasurer in a theatre. At some point, Adolph must have returned to Germany.

Adolph and Laura (photo taken from page of one of Ralph's sons.
Guben is a city in Brandenburg located (today) on the Polish border. The population was 23,704 in 1875 and grew to 40,602 by 1925. In the 19th century, Guben was known for its textile industry. In 1822, it supplied 65% of the hats in Germany. In the last half of the century, Guben became well-known for its leather gloves. After World War II, the city was divided between Germany and Poland.

Paternal Ancestors - The Baers

I have a bit more info about Ralph's father's side, but not much. Here, I only went back to his grandfather, Joseph Baer. Joseph was born 1 February 1848 in Germany and died 10 May 1922 in Germany. He married Henrietta.

Ralph's parents, Charlotte ("Lotte") and Leo

Ralph's father was Leo Baer, born 1 March 1894 in Rodalben, a city in southwest Germany near the French border in the Alsace-Lorraine region. Rodalben was known for its shoe and at one time there were over 60 shoe factories in town. Leo also served in World War I. It appears that he served in the Bavarian Ersatz Division (a division originally made up entirely of Bavarians) in the 18th infantry regiment. The Division fought in the Battle of Verdun and the 2nd Battle of Aisne. In 1917 it was transferred to the Romanian front and then to the Ukraine before returning to the western front in April, 1918. It looks like he also served in the 2nd Landstrum Infantry Battalion. Two of Leo's brothers, Hugo and Otto, were both killed in action during the war (it appears they were his only two brothers).

Personnel Roster entry for Leo Baer
2nd Landstraum Infantry Battalion (I don't think Leo is in the picture)

After the war, he returned home. At some point (before or after the war), he moved to Pirmasens, a town about 5 km from Rodalben. Leo ran a tannery that supplied leather to the town's many shoemakers (like Rodalben, Pirmasens was known for its shoes). Ralph Henry Baer was born Rudolf Heinrich Baer on 8 March 1922 in Pirmasens. By then, however, there likely wasn't much shoemaking going on. The town had been devastated by World War I, food was scarce, French Moroccan troops occupied the area, and inflation was rampant, causing many (including Baer's father) to go bankrupt. When Baer was one-and-a-half, his family moved to Cologne, where things became even worse following the Nazi's rise to power. At 14, the Nazi's kicked all Jewish students out of school, including Baer, who was forced to go to work typing, taking shorthand, and collecting money from local bars. By 1938, things had become unbearable and in August, Baer's family fled the country, just three months before the Kristallnacht of “Night or Broken Glass” when Jewish businesses throughout the country were destroyed. The Baer's had relatives in New York. They went to Stuttgart and met with the American consul, who got them on the short list of people allowed to leave the country (there was a tight quota). The Baer's (Leo, Charlotte, Ralph, and Isle) sailed from Rotterdam on the SS Nieuw Amsterdam and arrived in New York on 12 August 1938. The SS Nieuw Amsterdam was the pride of the Holland America Line. It had its maiden voyage earlier in 1938 and dubbed by some the “ship of tomorrow” with features like a first-class restaurant with a Moroccan leather ceiling and ivory walls. While Leo managed to escape Germany, his siblings weren't so lucky. Three of his sisters died in concentration camps: Louise, Augusta (who die in Kaiserwald), and Eugenie (who died in Jungfernhof).

Passenger list for the Nieuw Amsteram, showing the Baer family (note that Ralph is listed as Rudolf Heinrich)

The SS Nieuw Amsterdam

After arriving, the Baers settled in the Bronx, where Ralph worked in a factory attaching buttons to cosmetics cases for $12 a week. On the 1940 census, the family was living on Marmion Avenue in the Bronx where Leo was listed as a manufacturer in the leather goods industry while Ralph was working as a shipping clerk in the leather novelties industry. Leo died in January, 1967 in Flushing and it looks Charlotte died 4 March 1899 in Manchester, New Hampshire (if true, she would have been 99).
The Baers on the 1940 Census
Leo's Certificate of Naturalization
Ralph's Pre-Video Game Career

The event that led Ralph to a career in electronics occurred one day when he was riding the subway and noticed someone across the aisle reading a magazine with an ad on the back reading “Make Big Money in Radio and Television Servicing” .The ad was for a mail-order course in radio repair by the National Radio Institute in Washington DC.  Intrigued, Baer paid about $1.25 a week out of his meager salary to take the course and followed up by taking the advanced course. He then quit his factory job and went to work servicing radios at a store on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. In 1943, Baer was drafted into the Army and sent to Fort Dix to train as a combat engineer. After two months, he was reassigned to Camp Ritchie, Maryland, where he learned how to interrogate prisoners of war. Before long, Baer was shipped overseas where he served in England and France, training American troops in subjects like weapons handling and recognizing enemy uniforms. In his spare time, Baer taught himself algebra and also collected foreign weapons and turned them into a makeshift museum (Baer's collection later served as the basis for the official military small arms exhibit in Fort Riley, Kansas). He even wrote a book on the history of machine guns.

            Baer left the Army in March, 1946 and took a job with Emerson Radio in Queens, but quickly grew bored and quit after about three months. Realizing he needed more training, he moved to Chicago (the New York schools were full of veterans) and attended the American Television Institute of Technology[1] on the G.I. Bill, where, in 1949, he received what he claims was the first ever degree in Television engineering[2].  He then returned to New York where he landed a job as chief (and only – the company had just four employees) engineer for Wappler, Inc. – a manufacturer of electro-medical equipment. After about a year and a half, he moved on to Loral Electronics, where he worked on an early attempt at a projection screen TV, a ground position indicator for a radar system, and tone paging equipment used by IBM to synchronize the clocks in its factories. He then spent about four years at Transitron Electronics, a high tech firm in New York City that built test equipment for the Army and Navy. In 1958, Baer took a job at Sanders Associates, (another defense contractor) in Nashua, New Hampshire, starting out as a staff engineer working on electronic counter measure equipment like the AN/ALQ-51 “Shoehorn” radar jammer used in the F-4 Phantom. It was the start of a 30 year career at Sanders, where Baer worked until 1988. In 1980, he received the New York Patent Law Association’s Inventor of the Year award and during his life was awarded over 150 patents.








[1] Baer refers to it as the "American Television Lab of Technology" but I found no record of it under that name.  I did find several ads referring to it as the "American Television Institute", a division of "American Television Laboratories, Inc." or as the "American Institute of Technology."
[2] Baer does not mean that he was the first person to receive a television engineering degree, but rather that the Institute was the first to offer such a degree.

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