Video Game Pioneer Jerry Lawson (1940 – 2011) | Matt Reicher

Video Game Pioneer Jerry LawsonCNBC

“Jerry Lawson was undoubtedly 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,” ~ Renee Gittins, executive director, IGDA

Jerry Lawson was an early pioneer of home video gaming and helped to introduce interchangeable game cartridges. As a black man, he flourished in an industry dominated by white men. His gaming system, the Fairfield Channel F, is considered a precursor to modern gaming systems.

On December 1, 1940, Lawson was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Blanton and Mannings Lawson. He was inspired to follow intellectual pursuits at an early age, but understood that it had to be a passion — not just for money. As a young man, Lawson fell in love with electronics.

He learned the old-fashioned way, taking stuff apart and putting it back together again. Lawson was a tinkerer who started with walkie-talkies and HAM radios before moving on to repair televisions in his teenage years. After high school, he went to Queens and CCNY colleges to study electronics but didn’t receive a formal college degree.

In 1970 he moved west to join Sunnyvale, California’s Fairchild Semi-Conductor. The company was a significant player in the engineering space, having worked on Apollo Space Missions, co-inventing the integrated circuit and silicon conductors were among its successes.

Now on the west coast, he found fellow fanatics in the developing world of home computing. Lawson became part of the Homebrew Computer Club, meeting monthly at Stanford’s Linear Accelerator auditorium in Menlo Park.

He scratched his itch to learn and create alongside legendary home-computing hobbyists, including Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Learning and creating alongside such incredible minds motivated him to try something new.

Syzygy Co. (later merged into Atari) was beginning to make waves with arcade games. Lawson created an arcade game called ‘Demolition Derby’ for the company. It is credited as one of the country’s first-ever coin-operated arcade games. Fairchild, recognizing his talent, asked Lawson to create a portable video game console that would work with removable media.

This feature would allow users to buy a library of games for a single console.

At Alpex, a company partnering with Fairchild on this project, engineers had developed an idea of removable game cartridges. Lawson refined their vision and created the Fairchild Video Entertainment System (later re-branded the Fairchild Channel F — for “fun”). Games had previously been hard-wired into gaming systems; this was the first to use changeable ROM cartridges.

Few believed anyone could develop a console around its microprocessor, which Lawson did. “The whole reason I did games was because people said, ‘You can’t do it,’ Lawson said. “I’m one of the guys, if you tell me I can’t do something, I’ll turn around and do it.”

The system was released in North America in November 1976. It was revolutionary — but it was also expensive and therefore doomed to fail. The first console with AI enemies and a pause button cost $169.95 (nearly $800 today), with individual games costing an additional $19.95 each. The September 11, 1977 release of the Atari 2600 was the system’s final blow. Zircon International bought the technology from Fairchild in 1979.

Lawson left the company and started Video Soft, a video game development company that developed software for the Atari 2600 and Milton Bradley in 1980. He incorporated the company on May 7, 1982. Of the games he created for Atari, only one was released. Called “Color Bar Generator,” it helped the user adjust the screen color of their television.

Around 1984 Lawson became disenchanted with video games’ fixation with violence and closed Video Soft. The industry, over-saturated with hordes of poorly designed titles, was in a financial free fall. Lawson, who’d pioneered portable gaming only a handful of years prior, fell into anonymity. He was quickly forgotten by the industry he’d helped to create.

After sheltering Video Soft, Lawson took part in some consulting projects. In his older years, he became a mentor to engineering students at Stanford. He wanted to support the next generation of black engineers as they made their journeys into the profession.

In 2009, a meeting at an expo helped reintroduce Jerry Lawson to the gaming industry. Twenty-seven years after he had faded into obscurity, Lawson would finally be recognized as a pioneer in portable gaming.

On March 4, 2011, the International Game Developers Association honored Lawson for his contributions to an industry worth (at the time) sixteen billion dollars.

Unfortunately, he’d have precious little time to enjoy the renewed appreciation for his ground-breaking work. Lawson had diabetes for years, and on April 9, 2011, he succumbed to complications from the disease.

His legacy continues after his death. An exhibit of Lawson’s work is on permanent display at The World Video Game Hall of Fame in Rochester, New York.

Today, video gaming is an over 150 billion dollar industry. Jerry Lawson, a self-described tinkerer, was an electronics genius. Using incredible intelligence and a passion for his work, the black self-taught engineer and inventor literally changed the game.

Sources

  • Das Biswas, Shuvrajit. “Who is Jerry Lawson From High Score? Is Jerry Lawson Dead or Alive?” The Cinemaholic. Last modified August 20, 2020. https://thecinemaholic.com/jerry-lawson-high-score/.
  • Edwards, Benj. “The Untold Story Of The Invention Of The Game Cartridge.” Fast Company. Last modified March 27, 2017. https://www.fastcompany.com/3040889/the-untold-story-of-the-invention-of-the-game-cartridge.
  • Edwards, Benj. “VC&G | » VC&G Interview: Jerry Lawson, Black Video Game Pioneer.” Vintage Computing and Gaming | The Retrogaming and Retrocomputing Blogazine. Last modified February 24, 2009. https://www.vintagecomputing.com/index.php/archives/545.
  • Kohler, Chris. “Jerry Lawson, Inventor of Modern Game Console, Dies at 70.” Wired. Last modified April 11, 2011. https://www.wired.com/2011/04/jerry-lawson-dies/.
  • Snider, Mike. “Before Nintendo and Atari: How a Black Engineer Changed the Video Game Industry Forever.” USA TODAY. Last modified February 27, 2020. https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2020/02/27/how-black-engineer-forever-changed-video-game-consoles/4752682002/.
  • Sobers-Outlaw, Gill. “Gerald “Jerry” Anderson Lawson (1940–2011) •.” Welcome to Blackpast •. Last modified December 24, 2020. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/lawson-gerald-jerry-anderson-1940-2011/.

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