If you want a video game, just pick out a title and download it. Not so long ago, though, you had to buy a system with games built into it. That was before Jerry Lawson, a self-taught engineer and pioneer in video entertainment equipment, created the first home console with interchangeable cartridges, revolutionizing the gaming industry.
Lawson, who is black, built his engineering and computer career during the ’60s, a time marked by civil rights marches and the remnants of Jim Crow laws that still legalized discrimination nationwide. In later years, his race caused some issues, particularly in an industry that didn’t then, and still doesn’t, attract many black people, but he never let his color hold him back.
And all the while, he was a respected contemporary in Silicon Valley, and the sole black member of the Homebrew Computer Club, a group of early computer hobbyists like Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Lawson, secure in his own talents, famously told Vintage Computing in an interview that he wasn’t impressed with either Jobs or Wozniak — even turning down Wozniak for a job at one point — even though they eventually became much larger industry legends.
Regardless, he had incredible skills as an engineering, not only with video game components, but also in computers, radar, visual displays and more — talents with just about anything electronic. Those skills took him across the country from the housing projects of New York City to booming businesses of the West Coast, where he found fame bringing gaming out of the Stone Ages.
“He’s absolutely a pioneer,” Al Alcorn, Atari co-founder and Pong developer who competed with him, told the Mercury News. “When you do something for the first time, there is nothing to copy.”
Growing Up as a Scientist
Lawson was born the son of a longshoreman who loved to read science books and a city employee in Brooklyn, New York, in 1940, but grew up mostly in Queens, according to his obituary in the New York Times. His parents were blue-collar workers, but they valued education greatly and instilled in him a belief that he could accomplish anything he set his mind on. Lawson told the Mercury News that his mother sent him to a nearly all-white school after interviewing principals across New York City, which made all the difference.
According Vintage Computing, his first grade teach, for example, conspicuously hung a picture of George Washington Carver, a black slave who famously became an accomplished inventor, on the classroom wall next to his desk.
“This could be you,” she told him.
“This kind of influence led me to feel ‘I want to be a scientist. I want to be something’,” he added. “I’ll never forget that woman for that. It was that kind of thing that made a difference.”
With his father’s support of everything scientific, he began to tinker with electronics, even though society’s rules at the time disapproved. In the ’40s, while still a young child, he had an amateur radio station in the housing project in Jamaica, New York.
“I tried to get my license, and the management wouldn’t sign for it,” he said in the interview. “It was really hard for me as a kid to research literature and the public things I could find, but I found that it said if you lived in a federal housing project, you didn’t need their permission. So I got my license, passed the test, and I built a station in my room. I had an antenna hanging out the window.”
As a child, he also made and sold walkie-talkies. He said his first love was chemistry, but then he switched to electronics and became a chief engineer at a radio station.
Moving Up In the Industry
While the video game industry was where Lawson would eventually stake his claim to fame, he held several tech jobs, particularly in early computing. Early jobs included military work at ITT, Grumman Aircraft, Federal Electric and PRD Electronics. After working for PRD for five years, he transferred to Palo Alto, Calif., to work for a company called Kaiser Electronics. Kaiser built electronic displays for military aircraft. But job prospects for a black engineer were different from those for a white person.
“It could be both a plus and a minus,” he told Vintage Computing. “Where it could be a plus is that, in some regard, you got a lot of, shall we say, eyes watching you. And as a result, if you did good, you did twice as good, ’cause you got instant notoriety about it.”
His size also made him stand out, standing at a massive 6-foot-6 and weighing 280 pounds.
Working with military applications crossed over to making consumer electronics. Both needed to be better built, he noted, and many of the items used in computing actually got their start in the military. It was actually easier, since there aren’t dire consequences if components break in the consumer world.
By the ’70, Lawson made his way around to Fairchild, where he worked as a freelance engineer to help customers with designs. The company had its hand in a lot of tech fields, including LED devices and semiconductors. After a couple of years, he created a coin-operated video arcade game, called “Demolition Derby,” which achieved moderate success, so Fairchild put him in charge of its video games division. He created games on his own time, and the company wanted him to do similar work for them.
In the mid-70s, gaming was a primitive and bulky affair. If you were lucky, systems featured games like the slow, steady blips and beeps of Pong. But there wasn’t a lot of variation. Systems all built their own version of paddle games into consoles. But Lawson and his team at Fairchild changed that when they brought out the “Channel F” console that let you to play different games in removable cartridges.
The Magnavox Odyssey was actually the first consumer video game, but he didn’t want to create a similar system. He considered the Odyssey “a joke” with no complexity or challenge. Instead, he wanted his system to have cartridges. The main concern, though, was the ability to plug and unplug a cartridge without causing problems with the system’s semiconductor device.
“We didn’t have statistics on multiple insertion and what it would do, and how we would do it, because it wasn’t done,” he told Wired. “I mean, think about it: nobody had the capability of plugging in memory devices in mass quantity like in a consumer product. Nobody.”
Lawrence always had the idea to make cartridge games, but there were other companies, such as RCA, who released a cartridge system about six months later. The biggest hurdle for him and the Channel F, was passing FCC testing, which kept many rivals from releasing their own systems to market. Eventually, Fairchild worked out the issues, as did other, more famous rivals like Atari. Some early games included “Shooting Gallery,” “Video Blackjack” and “Alien Invasion.”
His Later Years
Lawson left Fairchild in 1980, and founded a company, “Videosoft,” which continued to develop video games. He worked for several years as a consultant and even spent time mentoring students at Stanford. Even though, he went back to gaming and was instrumental in making it the industry it is today, but he didn’t like the direction it took.
“I don’t play video games that often; I really don’t,” he told Vintage Computing. “First of all, most of the games that are out now — I’m appalled by them.” Most are concerned with “shooting somebody and killing somebody. To me, a game should be something like a skill you should develop — if you play this game, you walk away with something of value.”
Such video games take away from a child’s experience, he noted, and as a result, children are growing up without using their imaginations.
“Video games today — they don’t even want to see anything unless the graphics are completely high-toned, right? It used to be, “Oh, well that looks like a car,” he added. “Now, they want to see a car, they want to see wheel spinners on it, and all the detail — infinite detail.”
But to be fair, times change and he never predicted the lengths to which video gaming would go, even though he had an instrumental part in their development. After all, Lawson was born at a time before people even had televisions in their homes, let alone sophisticated gaming systems like the Wii U or Xbox. In addition, he came up through the technology ranks as a black man from New York City with a fierce intellect that cut through discrimination and entered a profession that valued smarts and talent over everything else. But in a field where plenty of people have both, he had the drive to use it to the fullest extent possible.
As Lawson himself said, “The point of anything by yourself is that you have to be brave to go by yourself.” Apt words from a true pioneer who stood out by himself at the start of one of the biggest entertainment industries of our time. ♦