Photo credits: The Estate of Jerry Lawson (Jerry Lawson)
Before Xbox, PlayStation or even Atari, you had to buy a machine for each game, but Jerry Lawson changed that and was one of the founders of the video game industry.
Born December 1, 1940, Lawson grew up in the projects of Queens in New York City. His father was a longshoreman who encouraged science, while his mother was actively involved with Lawson’s education. She arranged it for him to attend a prestigious school outside their area which was predominantly white. During his teenage years, he broadcasted his own radio show from his apartment and he made money by selling homemade walk-in talkies and fixing his neighbor’s televisions. He attended Queens College and the City College of New York before taking his talents to places like Grumman Electric and Federal Aircraft. Manufacture of one of the largest computer companies in the 1970s’ DEC PDP-8 hosted a class in Lawson’s garage. He programmed for many companies and developed program languages including H.U.D (Head-up Display) systems for aircraft.
He became a design consultant in Silicon Valley and one of two black members of the Home Brew Computer Club which started in 1975. This club met to talk about the Altair 8800 and to exchange schematics and programming tips. The members were computer programmers and electric engineers including Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. This was featured in the movie “Pirates of Silicone Valley”.
He worked for Fairchild as head of engineering and marketing in 1976 for their gaming division. He designed one of the first coin games, Demolition Derby. Lawson set it up so kids couldn’t trigger the microswitch and get free plays which were an issue with another coin-op game before Demolition Derby. For the first five years at Fairchild, the company and the executives thought he was Indian.
His most significant contribution was when he created the hardware for the very first video game console that used interchangeable cartridges, called the Fairfield Channel F. This was the first time a game could be stored externally to allow the storage of multiple games played in one system. It was the first programmable ROM cartridge-based video game console. Every cartridge that Lawson produced (26) were all approved by the FCC.
He founded Videosoft, the first black-owned video game development company. This company produced several games within the first 5 years. Since then he had taken on consulting roles in the 1980s. Stevie Wonder had asked him to help create a clock called the Wonder Clock that would wake a child in the morning with the sound of his or her mother’s voice, but it never made it to production.
“The whole reason I did games was because people said, ‘You can’t do it.’ I’m one of the guys, if you tell me I can’t do something, I’ll turn around and do it,” once told Lawson San Jose Mercury News reporters.
According to a study by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), only 2 percent of game developers in 2005 were Black or African-American. Today IGDA suggests that only 3% of game developers are African-American, a figure that has risen by only 0.5 percent in the past decade. Here are their top 10 in the industry now.
According to engadget.com, Lawson told Vintage Computing that his advice for black males and females interested in science and engineering is to… “First of all, get them to consider it [technical careers] in the first place. That’s key. Even considering the thing. They need to understand that they’re in the 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.”
(Next time you are playing your DS or other gaming devices where you swipe out a game, remember Jerry Lawson.
Clark, Kevin. “Black History Month: 12 Facts about Jerry Lawson, Creator of the Video Game Cartridge.” The Philadelphia Sunday Sun, 11 Feb. 2017, www.philasun.com/color-of-money/black-history-month-12-facts-jerry-lawson-creator-video-game-cartridge/.
Devindra, Hardawar. “Jerry Lawson, a Self-Taught Engineer, Gave Us Video Game Cartridges.” Engadget, 14 July 2016, www.engadget.com/2015/02/20/jerry-lawson-game-pioneer/.
“Jerry Lawson: Inventor of the Video Game Cartridge.” Kentake Page, 15 Apr. 2018, kentakepage.com/jerry-lawson-inventor-of-the-video-game-cartridge/.