You wouldn't be able to pause your video games today without Jerry Lawson

The Strong Museum of Play

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.

—Jerry Lawson, from an interview with Vintage Computing and Gaming in 2009

Though you may not know his name, Jerry Lawson helped lay the groundwork for all modern gaming consoles. As chief hardware engineer for Fairchild Semiconductor’s game division in the 1970s, Lawson was largely responsible for the Fairchild Channel F—the first console to include its own microchip and the first to use cartridges.

Lawson was also black. And as this Black History Month winds down, it’s worth reflecting on his achievements because Lawson succeeded in Silicon Valley at a time when opportunities for black engineers and inventors were severely limited (even more so than today). As The New York Times once put it, “He was among only a handful of black engineers in the world of electronics in general and electronic gaming in particular.”

Early days

Jerry Lawson was born on December 1, 1940 and grew up in the Jamaica, Queens area of New York City. His father was a longshoreman who loved to read science books; his mother was passionately committed to ensuring her son received a good public school education. She went so far as to visit schools to interview the principal and teachers. If she didn’t like what she heard, her son was going to a different school.

In that Vintage Computing and Gaming (VCG) interview, Lawson said that his mother invented school busing well before the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 decision outlawing school segregation. You see when she finally found a primary school that satisfied her high demands, there was only only problem—her family didn’t live in the school district. Her solution? She gave the school a phony address, gave young Jerry a bus ticket, and sent him on his way. NYT wrote that the school was almost all-white, but Lawson’s mother was soon elected the president of their PTA.

When Lawson was about 12 years old he wanted an Atomic Energy Lab science kit for Christmas. But his parents couldn’t afford the $100 price tag, so they got him an entry-level Hallcrafters Model 38 short-wave radio receiver instead. Lawson loved it and built the converters and antenna he needed to turn it into his own radio station.

“I built it and it worked,” he told the San Jose Mercury News in 2011. “I think the greatest joy I ever had in my life was when I put that thing together by myself with nobody helping me.”

Lawson eventually needed a license to broadcast, but the management of the public housing project his family lived in wouldn’t approve it. At first disappointed, he discovered that the short-wave licensing regulations stipulated that residents of public housing projects didn’t need management approval. He bypassed the housing manager, passed the licensing test, hung his home-made antenna out his bedroom window, and began to broadcast.

Lawson spent his teenage years making and selling walkie-talkies, fixing TVs, and learning all he could about electronics, according to VCG. He enrolled for courses at Queen’s College and the City College of New York. He worked as an electrical engineer for a variety of companies on the East Coast before moving to California when he took a job with Kaiser Electronics. And sometime around 1970, he signed on with Fairchild Semiconductor in San Jose.

Fairchild Semiconductor

Fairchild was founded in 1957 by a group of men that included Gordon Moore (who would give his name to Moore’s Law) and Robert Noyce (who is often credited as a co-inventor of the integrated circuit). Moore and Noyce left Fairchild to found Intel in 1968, however, barely missing Lawson

When Lawson joined Fairchild, there were very few black engineers working in the valley according to the Mercury News. (Again, numbers today aren’t great either.) The idea of focusing on gaming at the time may have been equally rare. “The whole reason I did games was because people said, ‘You can’t do it,’” Lawson told the paper. “I’m one of the guys, if you tell me I can’t do something, I’ll turn around and do it.”

When he started, however, gaming wasn’t even Lawson’s main objective. Fairchild gave him a DEC PDP-8 that he took home and set up in his garage. DEC told him it was the only PDP-8 west of the Mississippi and wondered if he would be willing to train people on the West Coast to use it. Lawson was willing but his PDP-8 needed about $10,000 worth of upgrades and he didn’t want to fork out that much money. Lawson told VCG that DEC ended up providing the upgrades for free in return if he’d do the training. Lawson liked that solution and began running training classes in his garage.

That wasn’t all he was doing in the garage, of course. In between classes he built an arcade video game called Demolition Derby that used Fairchild’s F8 microprocessor. This was only months after Pong debuted, so after Lawson put his game in a local pizza joint it was a quick success. At first, Fairchild wasn’t happy about this unsanctioned use of the F8. But after a lot of loud objections, they quietly came to Lawson and asked if he would make video games for them. Lawson liked the idea, and Fairchild soon made him the chief engineer of their video game division. The result was the revolutionary Fairchild Channel F gaming console.

Enlarge / The Fairchild Channel F with hard-wired controllers, released in 1976.
Evan Amos / Wikimedia

The Fairchild Channel F

Steve Wozniak, who would go on to found Apple with Steve Jobs, applied for an engineering job in Lawson’s gaming division at Fairchild while they were working on the Channel F. Lawson already knew Wozniak and Jobs because they were all members of the Homebrew Computer Club, which met biweekly from 1975 to 1986. Lawson would later tell VCG that he wasn’t very impressed with either Jobs or Wozniak when he knew them in the 1970s. He thought Jobs was OK as a business guy (which may have been a case of damning with faint praise in a club made up of hardware and software engineers). Wozniak didn’t impress enough to get the job.

Under Lawson’s leadership, Fairchild released the Fairchild Channel F in November 1976. It was a game changer. Lawson engineered the console using the same F8 microprocessor he had used for Demolition Derby . The Channel F was the first gaming console with its own microprocessor. The F8 gave the system enough computing power to implement AI subroutines, which made the Channel F the first console system that allowed players to play against the computer. Before that, video games required a human opponent.

“He’s absolutely a pioneer,” said Al Alcorn, the Atari co-founder and Pong developer who competed with Lawson, when talking about his peer to the Mercury News. “When you do something for the first time, there is nothing to copy.”

The Channel F was also revolutionary because it was the first console system that could play programmable game cartridges. Before the Channel F, consoles could only play games that were coded on the system when the unit shipped. Designing a system for the consumer market that accommodated a plugin memory device was no easy task. The engineers had to devise a method that allowed the cartridge to communicate with the microprocessor without disrupting the processor’s static charge. Moreover, the system had to be robust enough to hold up through repeated insertions and removals of the cartridge.

And on top of introducing an onboard microprocessor, programmable game cartridges, and player versus computer gaming, the Channel F was the first console that allowed players to pause the game. The controller had a Hold button that could be used to stop the game and change parameters like game speed.

Lawson engineered a revolutionary console that introduced features that have been central to console gaming ever since. But was the Channel F successful? Well, not very.

Atari was working on their own cartridge-based system when Fairchild released the Channel F. Realizing they had to rush production or fall far behind, they released the Atari VCS in September 1977. The Channel F had a more powerful processor (1.79 MHz vs 1.19 MHz for the VCS), but Atari’s machine had twice as much RAM (128 vs 64 bytes) along with better graphics and sound. The Atari VCS outsold the Channel F, which led Fairchild to give up on the gaming industry. They sold the Channel F to Zircon International in 1979. Atari eventually rebranded the VCS as the Atari 2600 in 1982, and it is recognized today as one of the most successful and influential systems in the history of console gaming.

The end game

With Fairchild out of the gaming business and Atari on the rise, Lawson left Fairchild in 1980 and founded Videosoft, a company that made games for the Atari 2600. After Videosoft, he did some consulting and continued to do what he’d always done—tinkered, innovated, and invented in his workshop at home.

But over time as other gaming and Silicon Valley pioneers were recognized and honored, Lawson was largely forgotten. In 2011, Joseph Saulter, then leader of the Game Developers Association diversity committee, was asked when the group was going to get around to honoring Lawson. Saulter had never heard of him. When he was told about what Lawson had accomplished, Saulter, himself a black professional in the modern gaming industry, couldn’t believe that a man of Lawson’s stature had been ignored.

“I was really very emotional about it,” Saulter told the Mercury News. “As a matter of fact, I started crying—just for somebody like him to be left out.”

Saulter immediately made arrangements to remedy the situation. Three weeks later, Lawson was introduced and honored at the 2011 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.

[embedded content]
Some footage of Lawson at the events honoring him in 2011.
Joseph Saulter

This professional recognition came in the nick of time. Lawson suffered from diabetes, and by 2011 he was blind in one eye and confined to a wheelchair after having had a leg amputated. Lawson passed away on April 9, 2011, one month after he was honored at the Game Developers Conference. He was 70 years old.

That overdue honor may have come at the last possible moment for Lawson, but luckily meaningful recognition for the inventor came earlier. Lawson told VCG a story about an encounter a few years earlier that he never forgot. He was walking down the Strip in Las Vegas one day when a young black kid came up to him on the street. “Are you Jerry Lawson?” the boy asked. Lawson said he was. “Thanks,” the kid replied. The boy simply shook Lawson’s hand and walked away.

For all of us who love console games today, be sure to also remember that kid every once and awhile—thanks, Mr. Lawson.

Further reading:

The extensive Jerry Lawson interview at Vintage Computing and Gaming by Benj Edwards. The piece is quoted by all the other stories referenced here.

Gaming industry finally recognizes the work of a pioneer” by Mike Cassidy, from The San Jose Mercury News the week Lawson was recognized by the Game Developers Association.

Jerry Lawson, a self-taught engineer, gave us video game cartridges” by Devindra Hardawar, for Engadget’s Black History Month profile series.

A Jerry Lawson 2006 interview at the Computer History Museum (part one of four).

Jerry Lawson obituaries from Wired and The New York Times.

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