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Jerry Lawson Is One of the Most Important Silicon Valley Pioneers You've Never Heard of — Here's Why

Source: Businesswire

Video games are a nearly $180 billion industry. And if you've ever played one before, you might not realize the debt you owe to a man named Jerry Lawson.

Gerald "Jerry" Lawson, who died 10 years ago at the age of 70, isn't a household name — but he was a gaming pioneer, and one of the few Black engineers working in the tech industry in the 1970s. In 1976, Lawson led a team of engineers that developed and released the first removable video game cartridges.

At the time, gaming consoles came pre-loaded with a set number of games, like Atari's "Pong." The console Lawson's team built for the cartridges, called the Fairchild Channel F and released by a San Francisco-based semiconductor company, mostly flopped — but Lawson's game-changing idea was later adopted by popular gaming brands like Atari and Nintendo.

And while the average gamer might not know Lawson's name, he's earned recognition from the video game industry in recent years, including a spot in the World Video Game Hall of Fame.

"He's absolutely a pioneer," Allan Alcorn, the creator of "Pong," said about his friend in 2011, when the International Game Developers Association honored Lawson's career.

The origins of a Silicon Valley pioneer

Lawson was raised in Queens, New York City and never graduated from college. As one of the few Black engineers in Silicon Valley in the 1970s, Lawson told Vintage Computing & Gaming in 2009, his skin color "could be both a plus and minus."

Being an anomaly in tech helped him stand out — in both productive and uncomfortable ways. "If you did good, you did twice as good, [because] you got instant notoriety about it," Lawson said.

Lawson ran in similar circles as some of Silicon Valley's more well-known giants. Once, he said, he met Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak at the Homebrew Computer Club, a local hobbyist group — and "was not impressed with them — either one, in fact."

But Alcorn impressed him. After Fairchild sent Lawson to meet with Alcorn, to discuss electronic parts for "Pong," a switch flipped in Lawson's brain: He began a side project building his own coin-operated video game in his garage.

And when Fairchild found out about the game, called "Demolition Derby," the company convinced him to build a much fancier gaming console at work.

Building the Channel F, for 'fun'

Lawson's console would be a first: Fairchild had never built one before. Lawson said he felt "like a secret agent" quietly developing his platform without tipping off any competitors, he said in a 2005 keynote address at the Classic Gaming Expo in Burlingame, California.

After just six months of development, Lawson's team emerged in 1976 with the Channel F, which stood for "fun."

The Channel F included the gaming world's first digital, at-home joystick, and even featured the first-ever "pause" button for a gaming console. But, mostly it stood out because players could swap out different video game cartridges.

Lawson's team had to build a special mechanism that allowed you to insert and remove cartridges over and over again "without destroying the semiconductors" or even causing a small explosion from static electricity.

"Nobody had the capability of plugging in memory devices in mass quantity like [that] in a consumer product," Lawson said in 2009. "Nobody."

A lasting legacy — especially for Black engineers

When the Channel F hit the market in 1976, Lawson said, Fairchild's competitors "were so afraid of the cartridge concept, that it was going to put them out of business."

But Fairchild only sold about 350,000 units before selling its gaming technology to electronics company Zircon in 1979. Zircon canceled the Channel F a few years later.

Atari was "close on our heels," Lawson admitted. The gaming company released its own console with interchangeable cartridges and a joystick just a year later, in 1977 — and the Atari 2600 went on to sell more than 30 million units in its lifetime.

In 2015, Fast Company noted that Atari defeated the Channel F primarily because it had a brand name gamers already knew and an existing catalog of popular games, like "Pac-Man."

Lawson left Fairchild in 1980 and founded Videosoft, which made gaming software for the Atari 2600 and other developers. It was "likely the earliest Black-owned game development company," according to the National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York.

The company only lasted a few years, but Lawson spent the rest of his career consulting for gaming and tech companies, and mentoring Stanford University engineering students, according to his 2011 obituary in The Los Angeles Times.

Lawson said in his 2009 interview that he hoped his career could inspire other Black students to get into engineering and the gaming industry. The industry still struggles with diversity today: A 2020 report from the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) found that only 2% of developers in the industry identified as Black.

Still, Lawson's influence lives on through an annual IGDA award meant to highlight the work of minority developers in the industry, as well as a University of Southern California endowment fund in his name supported by Microsoft and video game company Take-Two Interactive.

Announcing the fund, which is for Black and Indigenous students studying video game design, USC described Lawson in May as "one of the fathers of modern gaming."

That, it seems, is also how Lawson saw himself.

"You had to be a maverick to get things done," Lawson remarked in his 2005 speech. "To break new horizons, you had to break some rules."

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