Jerry Lawson: Home video game pioneer
Ever used a video game cartridge? We have Gerald "Jerry" Lawson to thank for that technology. In honor of Black History Month, we're sharing his story.
Throughout Black History Month in February, we’re sharing a few stories of Black tech pioneers that had an outsized impact on technology and the world as we know it today.
If you’ve watched the excellent Netflix series High Score that digs into the history of the video game (if you haven’t, we’d highly recommend it), you’ve already heard this name. Most of us think the original Atari 2600 was the first gaming console with swappable cartridges. In fact, that honor goes to the Fairchild Channel F console. An even lesser-known fact is the individual who led the development of the groundbreaking console was a Black man — the brilliant Jerry Lawson.
An electronics prodigy
Born in Queens, New York, Gerald "Jerry" Lawson showed an interest in technology from an early age. Interestingly, science could be said to have been in Lawson’s blood. His grandfather studied to be a physicist but eventually took a career as a postman. His father, while a longshoreman by trade, had always shown an interest in science. Both parents encouraged his burgeoning interest in electronics, which included ham radio operation, building and selling walkie-talkies, and television repair. While Lawson eventually attended two New York colleges, he did not complete degrees at either, opting instead to take his talents directly to the electronics industry. After a few posts on the East Coast, he headed out to Silicon Valley.
There, he was one of a handful of Black engineers. In a 2009 interview, he mused that this was “both a plus and a minus.” He recalled that “if you did good, you did twice as good, ’cause you got instant notoriety about it.” And after excelling in positions focussed on both consumer and military applications, it was likely this notoriety that saw him land a position at the well-regarded Fairchild Semiconductor in San Francisco as an applications engineering consultant. Things took a fortuitous turn when he was mesmerized by the original Pong machine. Ever the DIY guy, Lawson proceeded to build his own arcade game called Demolition Derby in his garage. While this initially caused some controversy at Fairchild, Lawson says the company then “very quietly” asked him if he wanted to help them develop a different type of game.
Fairchild Channel F
It turned out that Fairchild had licensed technology that included the concept of a cartridge-based home gaming system from a company named Alpex. However, the technology still needed to be refined and developed into a real-word product. That’s where Lawson — now Director of Engineering and Marketing for Fairchild’s video game division — and his team came in.
Creating video game cartridges effectively from scratch would be no easy task. They would need to solve new problems, such as ensuring cartridges could be plugged in and unplugged repeatedly without destroying the semiconductors and integrated processor chips. According to Lawson, one of the biggest challenges was getting FCC regulation. However, through hard work and ingenuity, the Fairchild Channel F was completed and released in November 1976.
Alas, like many first-to-market releases, the Channel F saw limited success, selling just 350,000 units over three years. By comparison, the Atari VCS (later renamed the Atari 2600), sold a comparable amount in its first year alone. This could be attributed to a number of factors, but the most impactful is almost certainly a matter of game titles. Remember, Atari was offering versions of their wildly popular arcade games you could now play in your bedroom. With the exception of a few titles, the Channel F’s games were rated as below average. With both consoles being wildly expensive at the time, this advantage made the decision of which console to buy an easy one for many. The technology was sold to Zircon International in 1979, and after an update to the design failed to boost sales, the console was discontinued in 1983. The Channel F then faded into obscurity for decades. Lawson went on to consult for gaming and tech companies before mentoring Stanford engineering students. Today, though Lawson passed away in 2011 at the age of 70, he and his team are finally getting the recognition they deserve as gaming industry innovators.
Lawson’s thoughts on being Black in his profession
While Lawson said he didn’t experience overt racism during his time in the industry, it was a regular occurrence for people that had heard of him to openly express shock that he was African American on meeting him. In one such situation, the individual mused that he didn’t know whether his co-workers did Lawson “a favor or not” by not informing him that Lawson was Black. Lawson replied, “Well I don’t go around telling everybody I’m Black … I just do my job!”
It’s important to remember that Lawson was a teen in the 1950s. He explained that there were so few African Americans in electronics and gaming in the decades following because very few Black children were exposed to the sciences, much less encouraged to pursue a career therein. His was an incredibly unique position. His mother would go to schools and interview the teachers before deciding which one her son would attend. Using a false address, she eventually enrolled him in a school that was 99% white and counted future New York mayor Mario Cuomo among its attendees. Only partly tongue in cheek, Lawson posits that his mother invented busing. Eventually, she became president of the school’s PTA. In short, Jerry Lawson’s mother was awesome and instrumental in his success.
While times have certainly changed, there are still many Black children for whom a career in the sciences may not seem like, or be presented as, an option. For them and their parents, he had this advice:
First of all, to get them to consider it in the first place. That’s key. Even considering the thing. They need to understand that they’re in a land by themselves. Don’t look for your buddies to be helpful, because they won’t be. You’ve gotta step away from the crowd and go do your own thing. You find a ground, cover it, it’s brand new, you’re on your own — you’re an explorer. That’s about what it’s going to be like. Explore new vistas, new avenues, new ways — not relying on everyone else’s way to tell you which way to go, and how to go, and what you should be doing.Gerald "Jerry" Lawson