Jerry Lawson, innovator, inventor, inspirer – Race Equality Week9 minute read

Every so often certain industries receive their innovators. The world is aware of certain innovators, such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. We are all aware of what they produced and how popular their industries have become. But sometimes certain inventions have a lesser known inventor.

Ajay Bhatt is the name responsible for the invention of the Universal Serial Bus (USB) which I would highly doubt that anyone has not used. Jaap Haartsen is the creator of a small thing known as Bluetooth. Again this is something in nearly every phone, computer and games console.

Ajay Bhatt is a rock star in his field for the creation of the USB

We also have the creator of the LCD display – George H. Heilmeier. These people are the hidden genius amongst the technological wave of invention the world now possesses.

The games industry also has their own innovator who goes by the name Gerald Anderson “Jerry” Lawson – the inventor of the video game cartridge.

Early Life

It was December 1st 1940 when Jerry Lawson was born in Brooklyn, New York City. Lawson was born into a exceptionally knowledgeable family, with a father who had an interest in science. His grandfather was also educated as a physicist but was unable to pursue a career in the field and instead became a postmaster.

Lawsons interests in ham radio and chemistry was fully encouraged by his parents. He also had encouragement from his first-grade teacher who encouraged him to follow his dreams of becoming an influencer.

Lawson began earning money in high School by repairing peoples’ television sets and in 1953, at the age of 13, he received an amateur ham radio license. He soon started to build his own station in his room. Later in life he attended both Queens College and City College of New York.

The Fairchild years

Lawson was employed in 1970 by Fairchild Semiconductor in San Francisco. He worked as an applications engineering consultant in the sales division of the company. Fairchild was the pioneer behind the manufacturing process of transistors and integrated circuits at the time. It was during these years that Lawson created the game Demolition Derby in his garage.

The Fairchild Eight (photo credit: unknown)

Destruction Derby was the original title of the game and was released in 1975 by Exidy. It was soon licensed to Chicago Coin who sold it as Demolition Derby. After the name change Exidy soon stopped producing the original titled variant and started development on another driving game with mechanics similar to the original. The new game would the the controversial Death Race. Lawsons version was created using new F8 processors from Fairchild and it made it one of the earliest microprocessor-driven games in existence.

Channel F

Lawson soon made Chief Hardware Engineer as well as becoming the director of engineering and marketing for the video game division in Fairchild. It was under these job titles that he led the development of the Fairchild Channel F console.

The Fairchild Channel F (short for “Channel Fun”) was released in 1976. It was the world’s first programable ROM cartridge-based video game console. The design was specifically made to use swappable game cartridges that could be removed and inserted by the user without electric shock.

At the time a company named Alpex had developed their own video game console prototype. The console utilised the popular Intel 8080 microprocessor and used interchangeable circuit boards for the games to be executed from. These ROM chips, as they were known, could be swapped around to mimic what is known as the cartridge system today. Unfortunately the employees Wallace Kirschner and Lawrence Haskel had attemped to gain a manufacturing interest from the industry with no success. Fairchild decided to send Lawson to investigate and he was impressed by Alpex’s technology and suggested Fairchild licensed it themselves.

Upgrades and improvements

Lawson started work with an industrial designer named Nick Talesforce and a mechanical engineer by the name of Ron Smith. Lawson and his team worked on refining and improving the technology which had been developed at Alpex. The design process took the ROM circuit boards and encapsulated them into plastic cases that were similar in design to 8-track tapes. The encapsulation would mean that the user was protected from the electrical connectors of the boards themselves.

Other changes that Lawson made was changing the Intel 8080 to the F8 CPU from Fairchild’s inventory and also placing keyboard controls into a “8-way control stick” for the user to facilitate. He also included a “pause” button which was a first for the home video game console market.

The Fairchild Channel F home video game console

After the tweaks and amendments the Channel F went on sale and was commercially unsuccessful. However the cartridge technology was an approach which took the industry by storm. The Atari 2600, released one year later, adopted the same approach and received commercial success and global popularity.

Homebrew Computer Club

Whilst Lawson worked at Fairchild, himself and Ron Jones were the only two black members of the Homebrew Computer Club. This club was situated in California between 1975 and 1986. It became a critical influencer of the development of what is dubbed the microcomputer revolution and Silicon Valley‘s microcomputer complex.

Paul Allen and Bill Gates were members of The Homebrew Computer Club

Various entrepreneurs have come out of The Homebrew Computer Club, such as Steve jobs and Steve Wozniak who were the founders of Apple Computer. Lawson had in fact interviewed Steve Wozniak for a position at Fairchild but admitted that he did not employ him.

Videosoft

Four years after the release of the Fairchild Channel F Lawson left the company. He founded Videosoft in the same year of 1980. The company would go on to produce video game software for the Atari 2600 – the console which had taken the top spot for consoles from the Channel F.

In 1985 Videosoft ceased production and closed, and Jerry Lawson began to undertake consultation work for various companies. At one point he even worked alongside Stevie Wonder to produce a Wonder Clock, but this never reached production.

Race segregation

Jerry Lawson’s career had spanned several decades in a market dominated by decades of racial tension. The struggles of being black in the 1940’s to 1970’s cannot be fully understood by people who were not there. It is important to remember that much of America actually employed some form of segregation in the 1940’s, with “Whites Only” signs still in existence.

Public school’s that were segregated would only see this ruling struck down in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education. This didn’t stop racism as in 1957 President Dwight D. Eisenhower had to deploy federal troops to ensure that nine black students could enter a high School in Arkansas. This came after the Governor called in the National Guard to block them.

The Little Rock Nine with federal troopers protection in 1957

The Civil Rights Act was eventually signed in 1964 after the efforts of people such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and statements made by people like Rosa Parks. Even though this was signed there was still much tension in the country. In 1974 violence broke out in Boston after courts mandated a busing system to transport black students. The state had passed the Elimination of Racial Balance Law in 1965 but it had been opposed by Irish Catholics. White crowds ended up greeting these buses with violence and insults and resulted in State troopers being facilitated to stop the violence.

Jerry Lawson had not only created some of the most innovative inventions in the gaming industry, but he had worked in a country which was still coming to terms with the removal of race segregation. This was a country which was also not fully content with this removal as the 1960’s and 1970’s suggest.

Lawson’s Legacy

The International Game Developers Association awarded Jerry Lawson with honours as a pioneer in the industry for his work on the game cartridge concept. He was also awarded the ID@Xbox Gaming Heroes award in 2019 at the 21st Independent Games Festival for the same innovations.

One of the few pictures of Jerry Lawson – the Father of Video Games

Unfortunately Jerry Lawson started to have complications from Diabetes in 2003 and died in 2011 as a result – a month after the IGDA had announced his award. In honour of this legendary man there is a display honouring his contributions to the gaming industry at The World Video Game Hall of Fame at The Strong National Museum of Play in New York.

People like Jerry seriously deserve more recognition than they receive. It baffles me to this day as to why Jerry Lawson’s name is not as well known as it should be, and Race Equality Week can hopefully can extend the recognition he deserves.