Jerry Lawson- The Video Game Legend
If you're an older player, you probably remember slipping in a new cartridge before sitting down for a rollicking session of your favorite game, whether it was Super Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog - and you can thank Gerald Lawson for that small cartridge. Lawson, an engineer and game designer, contributed to the development of the Fairchild Channel F, the first cartridge-based video game console released for commercial sale – ever. And, by assisting with the development of the Fairchild Channel F, Lawson helped to change the whole gaming business.
In an email, Jeremy Saucier says, "Jerry Lawson played a vital role in helping to establish the foundations for today's $150 billion video gaming business." Saucier is the Strong Museum of Play's associate vice president for electronic games and interpretation in Rochester, New York. Lawson's personal documents and professional artifacts have been stored at the Strong's International Center for the History of Electronic Games since 2013, with some of them on display in the museum's eGameRevolution exhibit. Lawson is also praised by Benj Edwards. Edwards is a journalist and the editor-in-chief of Vintage Computing and Gaming; he interviewed Lawson in 2009 after coming upon an image of the engineer in a 1983 computer magazine.
"Jerry was a major name in Silicon Valley in the 1970s because people came to him for Fairchild semiconductor chips," writes Edwards in an email. "It's nice to know there was a Black man in that position at the time, and you know his story must have been amazing to bring him there."
Queens, New York- The Birthplace of Video Game Innovation
And he did had an incredible story. Lawson was born in Queens, New York, in December 1940, according to Edwards' interview. He grew up with a strong mother who made sure her son obtained the greatest education possible and a longshoreman father who was fascinated by science. Lawson was able to explore his innate interest in engineering by dabbling with various devices and even starting his own amateur radio station at the age of 13. Lawson attended Queens College and City College of New York, but his engineering talents were mostly self-taught, and he eventually moved to California's developing Silicon Valley.
In 1970, he secured a job as a field engineer at Fairchild, a semiconductor manufacturer, where he was one of the few Black men in the sector at the time. In the Homebrew Computing Club, Lawson also met people who would go on to become even more influential in the technology business, such as Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs. But it was at Fairchild that he met engineer Allan "Al" Alcorn, dubbed the "Father of Pong" by Lawson during a 2005 keynote event. As "employee No. 3," Alcorn conceived and built the two-dimensional tennis game Pong for Atari, Inc., a business founded by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney that swiftly became a pioneer in arcade games and the home gaming market. Pong, one of the first video games released in 1972, became a major sensation and ignited the commercial video game business. While looking for electronic parts for Pong, Alcorn encountered Lawson.
"I had a query about a Fairchild part, and they sent out a field engineer to explain how their parts worked, and that was Jerry Lawson. Jerry helped me out, and we became friends at that time," Alcorn recounts. In some ways, Lawson and Alcorn were both friends and competitors in the same place, or "frenemies," as Alcorn jokingly recounts. Lawson recalled hearing about a coin-operated Pong game being placed in a beer hall or pizza restaurant in Sunnyvale, California, which local kids would shock with a wire, causing the game to drop all of its coins for the youngsters to take, according to a story he related at the keynote event. This coin-stealing inspired Lawson's own coin-operated video game, Demolition Derby, which included a "coin defeat" mode to dissuade local youngsters from taking coins from the game.
Although Alcorn does not recall this particular event, he does remembers Lawson inexplicably disappearing inside his work before reappearing with the Fairchild Channel F. "He disappeared after working with me as a sales engineer for Fairchild, and the next thing I know, Fairchild is releasing a home video game player," Alcorn adds. What actually happened was that Lawson's supervisors at Fairchild discovered his side work on games and decided to discreetly hire him for their semiconductor company, which wanted to enter the game industry. "In early 1976, his employer, Fairchild, licensed prototype video game technology from Alpex Computer Corporation and charged Lawson, one of the few Black engineers working in Silicon Valley at the time, with converting it into a commercial product," Saucier writes.
Lawson Contributed to the Development of the First Cartridge-Based Video Game Console
The corporation needed Lawson and the other Fairchild team members to create a console rapidly utilizing their F8 CPU. The Fairchild Channel F, which debuted at the Chicago Consumer Electronics Show in June 1976, was the first commercial cartridge-based home video game console. Lawson made a significant contribution to the project by creating a prototype for the console's controller, which allowed users to play games. "Jerry Lawson did not invent Channel F, but he was essential in its development," Edwards explains. "He was a type of project leader, putting it together and championing its development; he was part of a team of engineers that designed it." He worked on the electronic circuit design and was heavily involved in the hand controller mechanics."
Lawson used his quick-thinking abilities to avoid serious engineering challenges during the development of the Fairchild Channel F. During a public speaking engagement, Lawson described having an epiphany in the middle of the night regarding a radiation signal issue they were attempting to resolve. Lawson summoned a team member in the early morning hours, and they returned to the office to work on a calculation. This estimate led to them decreasing the length of the gaming controllers, which solved the radiation signal problem and allowed them to sidestep the FCC, which had been preventing their device from being approved. Lawson was also tenacious; he sat in the FCC lobby for three days before someone eventually approved his invention.
"He was very practical at problem solving, and he impressed me; he was quite brilliant," Alcorn adds. Although the Channel F sparked some interest when it first appeared on the consumer market in the fall of 1976, it wasn't exactly a smashing success, especially since the Atari Video Computer System (also known as the Atari 2600) console — developed by Alcorn and others at Atari — quickly dominated the industry the following year. According to Alcorn, the Fairchild Channel F's lack of commercial success was due largely to the semiconductor company's inexperience with video games, whereas Atari's bread-and-butter was games, therefore they were better positioned to attack the home gaming industry.
Alcorn, on the other hand, is all praise for Lawson's efforts on the Fairchild Channel F. "The Fairchild Channel F was created the way a video game should be designed," explains Alcorn. According to Saucier, the Fairchild Channel F's "innovative eight-way digital joystick" "would get a second life when a third party manufacturer rereleased the joystick for Atari's console." The game also introduced, for the first time, the "pause" mechanism in the video game world, which any player will know is useful when you need to take a bathroom break.
"However, its most notable accomplishment was the use of interchangeable cartridges, which proved innovative," Saucier notes. "The ability to play dozens, if not hundreds, of individual games on a platform unlocked the possibility of selling tens of millions of games." After leaving Fairchild, Lawson continued to work as an engineer, occasionally collaborating with Alcorn. Lawson also maintained a firm hand in the rapidly evolving video game industry. "In fact, after leaving Fairchild, Lawson went on to start Videosoft, Inc., the first Black-owned video game production firm," Saucier says.
Lawson also advocated for the next generation of Black engineers. Lawson tells Edwards of a touching incident in which a child recognized him on the Las Vegas Strip, shook his hand, and thanked him. "Jerry taught engineering students at Stanford in his later years, even when he was in quite poor health," adds Edwards. "I think he wanted to inspire the next generation to be excellent engineers." Lawson has gotten increased attention in the last decade as a result of Edwards, John Templeton, and others drawing attention to his seminal work.
"Jerry Lawson was undeniably one of the influential forces within our industry from the time he developed Demolition Derby onward, including his leadership of the Fairchild Channel F's development," says Renee Gittins, executive director of the International Game Developers Association, in an email statement. Lawson died in April 2011 at the age of 70 due to diabetes problems, not long after being honored by the IGDA. His impact, though, lives on in the memories of those who knew him — as well as in the thriving gaming industry.