The video game industry is worth nearly $180 billion. And if you’ve played one before, you might not realize the debt you owe to a guy named Jerry Lawson.
Gerald “Jerry” Lawson, who died 10 years ago at the age of 70, isn’t a household name — but he was a gaming pioneer, and one of the few black engineers to work in the tech industry in the 1970s. In 1976, Lawson led a team of engineers that developed and released the first removable video game cartridges.
At the time, game consoles were preloaded with a set number of games, such as Atari’s “Pong”. The Lawson console team was designed for cartridges, called Fairchild Channel F and released by the San Francisco semiconductor company, but Lawson’s game-changing idea was later adopted by popular game brands such as Atari and Nintendo.
And while the average gamer might not know Lawson’s name, he has earned recognition from the video game industry in recent years, including a place in the World Video Game Hall of Fame.
“He’s definitely a pioneer,” Pong creator Alan Alcorn said of his friend in 2011, when Lawson’s career was honored by the International Game Developers Association.
A pioneer origins in Silicon Valley
Lawson grew up in Queens, New York City and never graduated from college. As one of the few black engineers in Silicon Valley in the 1970s, Lawson told Vintage Computing & Gaming in 2009, his skin tone “can be both a plus and a minus.”
Being gay in technology helped him stand out—in productive and uncomfortable ways. “If I do well, I do poorly, [because] “I immediately got a bad reputation about it,” Lawson said.
Lawson ran in similar circles to some of Silicon Valley’s most famous giants. He said he once met Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak at the Homebrew Computer Club, a local hobbyist group—and “wasn’t impressed with them—actually.”
But Alcorn liked it. After Fairchild sends Lawson to meet with Alcorn, to discuss Pong’s electronic parts, a switch is flipped in Lawson’s brain: he starts a side project to build his own coin-operated video game in his garage.
And when Fairchild learned about the game, called “Demolition Derby,” the company convinced him to build a more luxurious gaming console in the works.
Building the F channel for “fun”
Lawson’s console will be the first: Fairchild hasn’t built one before. Lawson said in a 2005 keynote speech at the Classic Games Show in Burlingame, California, that he felt like a “secret agent” quietly developing his platform without seeing any competitors.
After only six months of development, Team Lawson debuted in 1976 with Channel F, which stands for “fun”.
Channel F included the world’s first digital home joystick for gaming, and also included the game’s first “pause” button. But mostly it figured out because gamers can swap out different video game cartridges.
Lawson’s team had to build a special mechanism that would allow you to repeatedly insert and remove cartridges “without destroying the semiconductors” or even causing a small explosion of static electricity.
“No one has ever had the ability to connect memory devices in such large quantities as [that] into a consumer product,” Lawson said in 2009. Nobody “.
A Lasting Legacy – Especially for Black Engineers
When the F-channel hit the market in 1976, Lawson said, Fairchild’s competitors were “so afraid of the cartridge concept, that it would put them out of business.”
But Fairchild only sold about 350,000 units before selling its gaming technology to the electronics company Zircon in 1979. Zircon canceled the F-channel a few years later.
Lawson admitted that Atari was “close to us”. The gaming company released its console with interchangeable cartridges and a joystick just a year later, in 1977 – and the Atari 2600 went on to sell more than 30 million units in its lifetime.
In 2015, The Fast Company noted that Atari defeated Channel F primarily because it had a brand name players already knew and an existing catalog of popular games, such as “Pac-Man”.
Lawson left Fairchild in 1980 and founded Videosoft, which made game software for the Atari 2600 and other developers. It was “probably the first game development company owned by Black,” according to the National Toy Museum in Rochester, New York.
The company only lasted a few years, but Lawson spent the rest of his career consulting for game and technology companies, and mentoring engineering students at Stanford University, according to his 2011 obituary in The Los Angeles Times.
Lawson said in his 2009 interview that he hopes his career will inspire other black students to enter engineering and the games industry. The industry is still struggling with diversity today: A 2020 report from the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) found that only 2% of developers in the industry identified as black.
However, Lawson’s impact continues with the annual IGDA Award intended to highlight the work of minority developers in the industry, as well as the University of Southern California Endowment Fund in his name with support from Microsoft and video game company Take-Two Interactive.
Announcing the fund, which is intended for black and Indigenous students studying video game design, University of Southern California described Lawson in May as “one of the fathers of modern gaming.”
This also seems to be how Lawson saw himself.
“You had to be a rebel to get things done,” Lawson commented in his 2005 speech. “To break new heights, you had to break some rules.”
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