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Not sure if this exactly fits here, but I’m interested in the history of word “console” in game consoles and in computing in general.

I can see at least two usages for the term, which at least superficially seem rather unrelated:

  • game consoles
  • console as in “main terminal” for a computing system

When, how and why game consoles are called consoles?

PS not native English speaker, so forgive me if I miss some implicit semantics of this word

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  • 6
    Before computers, a console was a piece of furniture: "a stand-alone cabinet designed to stand on the floor". Probably the control panel / terminal or whatever originally took its name from that.
    – JeremyP
    Jul 18, 2019 at 9:08
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    There is the related question of what machines were games consoles, and which were computers, given that both could play "computer games". See retrocomputing.stackexchange.com/questions/11708/…
    – Kaz
    Jul 18, 2019 at 9:34
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    @Raffzahn I’m native Finnish speaker - so not expecting a lot of progress with that :) will update my profile, seems like I can’t do it with the mobile app tho..
    – tuomas
    Jul 18, 2019 at 10:58
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    Drats :)) it had to be the most exotic group within Europe, didn't it?
    – Raffzahn
    Jul 18, 2019 at 11:01
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    Console, as in pipe-organ console, might be relevant: it's where you control the organ from.
    – dave
    Jul 19, 2019 at 0:00

4 Answers 4

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The use of the term "console" in reference to home video game systems arose because of the association of these systems with TV's in the U.S.

At the time these systems were gaining popular acceptance in the 1980s, most U.S. homes had a single main/larger TV that existed as a piece of furniture in the Living Room or Family Room. These were commonly referred to as "console TV's", and were usually 25 inch diagonal CRT's surrounded by a wooden cabinet and including speakers. It served as a traditional piece of console furniture by virtue of its large, flat, top surface. Photos, vases, and other decorative items were typically found atop these TV's, before gradually being replaced by video components, such as VCR's and video game systems as such technologies were popularized.

The whole apparatus was commonly called the console, and this gradually led to terms like "video game system", or "video game module" being replaced with the more casual reference to a "game console".

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    Good point about these TV monstrosities :)
    – Raffzahn
    Jul 18, 2019 at 14:43
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    FWIW: The movie/show on the TV is Power Rangers - Time Force. With Daniel Southworth playing the role of Eric Myers. (No idea why I had to figure it out. Lack of self-control i guess.)
    – sbecker
    Jul 19, 2019 at 10:25
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    Prior to console TVs, there were console radios.
    – dave
    Dec 5, 2022 at 1:31
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    Do you have a reference for this point of view? It's not clear to me how a "console tv" lead to a "game console". In English (AmE, at least), the adjective comes first, which makes the "game console" a console, not a game. The association with TV (and other) consoles doesn't hold water for me. Dec 5, 2022 at 17:57
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    Btw, yes, those are drawers (at least the center one is, the other two might be decorative false fronts on this unit). You can put manuals, remotes, maybe a few tapes in there.
    – hobbs
    Dec 5, 2022 at 20:16
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A console is a piece of furniture. Originally only meant to describe a kind of writing desk to stand up to, usually with a tilted surface.

  • In technology it got used to describe control boards, which often looked alike in the early days.

  • In general usage it describes today a self supported furniture (standing on the floor), meant to hold other items on top and/or serve as work table. More actual general it became a synonym for a low height shelf.

  • For game consoles this was taken as they are as well consoles like with 'large machinery' as well as meant as a piece of furniture to accompany the TV.

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    In addition, "console" as "main terminal" (OP's words, kinda misleading) is either the same thing (the point of physical access) or a metaphor for that (like "desktop"). Jul 18, 2019 at 19:49
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    Not necessary. The early consoles weren't just terminals. They were huge specialized machinery in itself and part of the CPU. They were large consoles in sense of the first point.
    – Raffzahn
    Jul 18, 2019 at 20:32
  • That's basically what I said... Jul 18, 2019 at 23:12
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    I'm thinking that organ console is an appropriate semantic ancestor for computer console.
    – dave
    Jul 19, 2019 at 0:01
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I've recently done some research on the Magnavox Odyssey, the world's first video game console, and it appears that the term "console" was never used for it during development or when it was brought to market in 1972.

Looking at the early marketing materials, it appears to have first been seen by the public on the TV show What's my Line in a programme recorded on August 24th, 1972, where the main unit is referred to as a "master control unit." This terminology is also used in the 1972 8 mm promotional film used in dealer showrooms. The first 1972 commercial doesn't even go this far, calling it just an "electronic game simulator." This 1973 print advertisement includes a section on the Odyssey where they not only don't refer to it as a "console," but use "color TV consoles" to refer to, clearly, televisions (and also stereo systems).

In the 2005 book Videogames: In the Beginning by Ralph Bear (the inventor of the Odyssey) he refers to the Odyssey and other early systems (such as the Coleco Telestar) as "consoles," but this appears to be an achronistic use. P. 60 of the book reproduces a memo he wrote on 3/30/71 about a meeting with Magnavox where the main unit is referred to as an "electronics box."

The memo also says one of the people attending the meeting was "Gerry Martin VP, Console Product Dev't," who was basically the one responsible for licensing the original "brown box" from Sanders Associates for Magnavox to redesign and market. On p. 59 Bear writes (in 2005):

For Magnavox, there was Gerald G. Martin. As the V.P. for Console Products Planning, it was he who had taken the lead to bring TV games into his product line.

I don't know if that has anything to do with the "electronics unit" eventually and retroactively being termed a "console," though.

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In the 80s, the Atari 2600 was marketed as a "Video Computer System", Intellivision was marketed as "Intelligent Television" but internally defined as a "video game system" (https://web.archive.org/web/20220117031217/www.intellivision.us/faq.htm) and ColecoVision was a "video game system".

Nintendo used the term "Entertainment System". Interestingly, around 1983, there was an extremely small spike (almost unnoticeable) in the use of the term "game console" and then, around 1995, its use started to grow and grow and grow.

https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=game+console&year_start=1800&year_end=2019&corpus=26

https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=video+game+console&year_start=1800&year_end=2019&corpus=26

The Atari 2600 was released in North America in 1977 and, progressively, in the rest of the world. Japan had to wait until 1983 to get it in the form of the Atari 2800. The ColecoVision was released in 1982. The Mattel Intellivision was released in 1983. The Coleco Gemini was released in 1983. The Sega SG-1000 was released in 1983. The Intellivision II was released in 1983.

The Nintendo Famicom was released in 1983 in Japan. Two years later was released in North America as a redesigned version (which I do not like as it lacked the controller holders), the Nintendo Entertainment System.

The first version of the Sony PlayStation was released at the end of 1994.

So, in my opinion the first spike probably was caused by the Nintendo products despite the firm itself did not use the term. And, the second and continual increment in its use has to do with the Sony PlayStation line.

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  • I think it's interesting to note that while Nintendo FamilyComputer (Famicom) certainly had an association with home computers in Japan, and in at least in the US the term "home computer" often meant, essentially, "advanced game machine that could be programmed from the keyboard, and could with an added printer be used as a word processor, and is marketed toward the latter uses", the NES is the first game machine I can think of that was based on something that called itself a home computer but distanced itself from any tasks other than playing games.
    – supercat
    Dec 5, 2022 at 17:00
  • This fits my memory. I didn't know the term "console" when we had our black&white TV game for Pong type games or when we got a generic crappy cartridge TV game or my neighbours who had Ataris and Colecovisions. I'm sure I remember hearing it first sometime during the rising popularity of Nintendo and Sega cartridge based TV games. I'm not sure whether I heard it first before or after I'd moved from my Speccy to my Amiga 1000 but I remember it sounding odd that a new term for TV games was appearing. Maybe it was in an article on Ultimate becoming Rare moving from Speccy to Japanese "consoles". Dec 7, 2022 at 15:37

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