Gaming

Black Names in Video Games #2: Jerry Lawson

It was a Black engineer who gave us the video games cartridge. Here’s the short story of Jerry Lawson’s life in games.

Jerry Lawson

Without Jerry Lawson, we wouldn’t have blown into our cartridges to get them to work when they told us not to. Why? Because he invented them.

Lawson was one of a handful of African American electronic engineers in the video game industry during the 70s and his pioneering work designing the Fairchild Channel F console paved the way for video games cartridges. In 1970, he joined Fairchild Semiconductor initially as an engineering consultant before becoming Chief Hardware Engineer and director of engineering and marketing for Fairchild’s video game division.

“A lot of people in the industry swore that a microprocessor couldn’t be used in video games and I knew better.”

Jerry Lawson, during a speech at the 2005 Classic Gaming Expo.

It was there that he managed the project that became the Fairchild Channel F. The Channel F was the first console to use transferrable game cartridges. Cartridges were so unique that the FCC had to approve them before they could become a saleable product. The Channel F did perform well on the commercial market but the idea of cartridges did and later, Atari used them for its classic 2600 console.

Here are some cool facts I learnt about Jerry Lawson while I researched this piece:

  1. At the age of 13, he earned an amateur ham radio license.
  2. While at Fairchild, Lawson was one of two black members of the Homebrew Computer Club, a computer hobbyist group that featured Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. (Vintage Computing and Gaming)
  3. He once interviewed Steve Wozniak for a position at Fairchild but didn’t hire him. (New York Times)
  4. He worked with Stevie Wonder to produce a “Wonder Clock” that would wake a child with the sound of their parent’s voice, but it was never made. (San Jose Mercury News)

Besides his history-making feats in the video games industry, he was also an inspiration to Black people wanting to get in. He featured in a documentary called “Freedom Riders of the Cutting Edge”, produced by John William Templeton, former editor of the San Jose Business Journal.

Soon after that, Templeton mentioned Lawson to Joseph Saulter, chairman of the International Game Developers Association’s diversity advisory board. “I just said to him, ‘Well, you know the person who did the first video game console was black.’ He just literally stopped in his tracks,” Templeton said. “I just interviewed him I can bring him over and have him speak to folks.”

As a result, Lawson was invited to a Blacks in Gaming gathering at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco in 2011. “The most important part of it was that there were maybe 70 or so black developers there listening to him,” Templeton said. “It was just extremely emotional for them because for their entire lives, their professional lives, they had been feeling like outsiders and, then they (could say), ‘Hey, wait a minute, somebody who looks like me started the whole thing’.”

Excerpt from USA Today

Lawson sadly passed away in 2011 due to complications from diabetes. So the next time you insert a cartridge into your video games console of choice, remember Jerry Lawson and his pioneering career.

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