Gerald “Jerry” Lawson died 10 years ago at the age of 70. While not a household name, he was a pioneer in the field of video games and was one of the few black engineers working in the tech industry in the 70s.
In 1976, Lawson and his team members successfully developed and released the world’s first detachable video game cartridge. During that time, games often came preloaded, such as Atari’s “Pong”. So the Fairchild Channel F console, built by his team using the mechanism of a video game cartridge, was released by a semiconductor company based in San Francisco. Unfortunately, the product failed, but Lawson’s groundbreaking idea has been adopted by famous game brands such as Atari and Nintendo.
While not many gamers know Jerry Lawson, in recent years the video game industry has recognized his name in the World Video Game Hall of Fame.
“He was really a pioneer,” Allan Alcorn, creator of the game “Pong,” said of his friend.
Jerry Lawson – The man who laid the foundations for the modern game console system.Photo: Business Wire
Silicon Valley Herald
Born and raised in Queens, New York, never graduated from college. But he was one of the few black engineers in Silicon Valley in the 1970s. According to what he shared with Vintage Computing & Gaming in 2009, his skin color has both advantages and disadvantages. With this complexion, he has to do twice as much as usual, and if you’re bad, you’re immediately notorious for it.
Larry’s circle is also closed, similar to many well-known figures in Silicon Valley. He shared that he met two of Apple’s co-founders, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, at the Homebrew Computer Club, but no one had any recollection of them.
However, Alcorn impressed him. After Fairchild sent Lawson to meet with Alcorn to discuss the “Pong” electronics, something popped into Lawson’s mind. He started a small project, making a coin-operated video game in his garage.
When Fairchild discovered the game, called “Demolition Derby,” the company persuaded Larry to embark on developing a video game console as an official company project.
Create channel F “for fun”
Lawson’s console is a completely unique product never seen before by Fairchild. According to what he shared at the 2005 Classic Gaming Expo event in Burlingame, California, he felt like a secret agent quietly developing his platform without hindering any competitors.
After six months of development, Lawson’s team caused a stir when it launched Channel F in 1976.
So Channel F created the world’s first digital home joystick, which even had the first “pause” button to appear on a video game console. The biggest reason it stood out, however, was that Lawson’s machine allowed players to swap tapes of different video games.
With a special mechanism, even a small explosion caused by static electricity will not damage the semiconductor chip when the player disassembles the cassette many times.
In the current market, Lawson asserts, no one has the capability to create a consumer product that can plug into many storage devices at such a high frequency. Absolutely no one.
legacy is forever
When the Channel F entered the market in 1976, Fairchild’s competitors “were concerned that this new product would drive them out of the market,” Lawson said.
But Fairchild only sold about 350,000 of them before selling its gaming technology to electronics company Zircon in 1979. A few years later Zircon canceled Channel F.
Lawson acknowledged that Atari “was a close second.” Just a year later, the gaming company released its own video game console—the Atari 2600—with a joystick and interchangeable cartridges. Until the discontinuation of production, more than 30 million Atari 2600 products have been sold on the market.
In 2015, Fast Company noted that Atari beat Channel F largely because it had brands familiar to gamers and a catalog of popular titles like Pac-Man.
Lawson left Fairchild in 1980 to found Videosoft, which made game software for the Atari 2600 and other developers. According to the National Toy Museum in Rochester, New York, Videosoft “may be the first black-owned game development company in the industry.”
According to the Los Angeles Times’ 2011 annual obituary, the company only existed for a few years, but Lawson spent the remainder of his career advising technology and gaming companies and mentoring engineering students at Stanford University.
Lawson said in a 2009 interview that he hoped his career would inspire other students of color to enter the engineering and gaming industries.
To this day, the gaming industry still seems to acknowledge racism. A 2020 report from the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) revealed that only 2% of developers in the industry are people of color.
However, Lawson’s influence lives on through the annual IGDA Awards, which honor the work of a group of industry minority developers, and a USC endowment funded by Microsoft and corporate video game company Take-Two Interactive.
In announcing a scholarship fund for students of color and Indigenous people to study video game design, USC described Lawson as “one of the founders of modern gaming.”
This also seems to be how Lawson sees himself.
In a 2005 speech, Lawson asserted: “You have to be rule-free to get work done. To explore new horizons, you have to break boundaries. Rules number”.