The African American engineer Jerry Lawson (1940–2011) played a key role in developing the first home video-game console, with software contained on interchangeable cartridges—the configuration that nearly a half-century later remained common in the video-game industry. He was a pioneer in another way as well: he was one of a very few African Americans active in the video-game industry in its early years.
Gerald Anderson Lawson, generally known by the nickname of Jerry, was born in Brooklyn, New York, on December 1, 1940. Lawson's grandfather had been trained as a physicist, but because he was African American he could find no work in a related profession and spent his life employed by the U.S. Post Office. His interest in science was shared by Lawson's father, Blanton, who worked as a longshoreman but enjoyed reading science books in his spare time. Lawson's mother, Mannings, was a municipal employee, and he grew up in the Jamaica neighborhood in the New York borough of Queens. He enjoyed complex toys and engineering challenges from an early age: he had an intricate toy car called the Irish Mail that he could leave outside without fear of theft because neighborhooding children could not master its operation.
Mannings Lawson took an unusually strong interest in her son” s education. “When she went to a school, she would interview the teachers, the principal, and if they didn” t pass her test, I didn't go to that school,” her son recalled to Benji Edwards of the Vintage Computing and Gaming website. Lawson was enrolled under a falsified address in Queens P.S. (Public School) 50, where future New York governor Mario Cuomo was also a student. Although the school was 99 percent white, Mannings Lawson was chosen as head of its Parent-Teacher Association (PTA). A first-grade teacher named Ms. Guble inspired the young Lawson by pointing to a picture of African American inventor George Washington Carver and telling him that he could reach the same level.
Lawson shunned the sports-oriented activities favored by many boys in his neighborhood. One holiday season, he had his heart set on an atomic energy kit that his parents could not afford. They bought him an amateur (“ham”) radio kit instead, and the gift proved invaluable in terms of developing Lawson's hands-on engineering skills. He built, was licensed for, and operated a ham-radio transmitter of his own, hanging an antenna from his bedroom window. “I built it and it worked,” he recalled, as quoted by the London Daily Telegraph. “I think the greatest joy I ever had in my life was when I put that thing together by myself with no one helping me.” Lawson also built walkietalkies, which he sold to friends and classmates.
This experience made Lawson employable as he made his way through high school and enrolled at Queens College and the City College of New York (CCNY). He did television repairs after school, making house calls and working as a freelance technician for television dealers. For a time he worked as a radio station engineer. Lawson worked at a large Queens store called Lafayette Radio, where he spent much of both his salary and his allowance on “tube testers, capacitors, resistors—you name it, they had it,” as he recalled to Edwards.
In the early 1970s, Lawson was hired by the Fairchild Semiconductor firm as a roving design consultant. Life in the corporate world did not diminish his enthusiasm for homebased tinkering, however. Video games at the time were in their infancy, with the Atari corporation's table tennis game Pong one of the few examples. Working in his garage, Lawson created the coin-operated video game Demolition Derby, a model of which was installed in a Campbell, California, pizza parlor. He also devised an improved coin-slot mechanism that could not be fooled by an electric shock device into giving out free games. When Fairchild executives learned of what Lawson had done, they made him director of engineering and marketing at Fairchild's new video-game division.
Lawson's penchant for experimenting on the side Homebrew Computer Club, a hobbyists’ group that met once a month at the auditorium of the Stanford Linear Accelerator. The group was a hothouse for the growth of innovative computer ideas, and in the mid-1970s its membership included Apple Computer co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Lawson, however, was unimpressed with the pair and turned down the job application of Wozniak after interviewing him at Fairchild. When asked about these encounters later in life, he never specified the reason for his negative impressions.
The reason could have been that his efforts, and those of his engineering team, were devoted toward the creation of a new kind of computer gaming device, an enterprise that held little interest for Jobs and Wozniak. Lawson's efforts culminated in the 1976 release of the Fairchild Channel F, a home game system that could run different games on removable cartridges. It was the first machine of its kind; earlier home video game systems had been able to run only games built into the machine, but for decades to come, game hardware and software would be physically separate entities. The Channel F featured 64 bytes of main RAM (random access memory) and two kilobytes of video RAM. Lawson headed the engineering team that created the Channel F and designed the prototype of its controller, but he was assisted by engineers Ron Smith and Nicholas Talesfore.
Unfortunately for Lawson, Fairchild had a formidable competitor in Atari and its game designer Allan Alcorn, who had created Pong. Alcorn also spearheaded the development of the joystick, an improvement over the Channel F” s hand controller, for which, Lawson admitted to Edwards, “you had to get used to that operation, knowing how to operate it.” The more intuitive joystick quickly propelled Atari to a years-long dominant position in the home-video market, with the result that Lawson” s pioneering contributions were largely forgotten in histories of the industry.
The loss of Lawson's ideas was particulary unfortunate in view of his status as the first African American professional in the industry. Most engineers were white, so his position in the gaming industry could inspire younger generations of mathematically inclined African Americans. Edwards himself knew few blacks in his field; “There was a guy who was around that time,” he told Edwards, “and he's dead now. His name was Ron Jones. He ended up pushing all kinds of side things. He was around. He was not in the industry, per se.” Lawson did not speak with a strong African American vernacular accent, and many visitors to his office, upon meeting him in person, were surprised to discover that he was black. As Lawson explained to Edwards, he responded to this surprise by saying, “Well I don't go around telling everybody I'm black. I just do my job, you know?” His six-foot-six-inch, 250-pound frame added to his authority with strangers.
In 1980, Lawson left Fairchild and founded a firm of his own, Videosoft. The company supplied video-game cartridges for the Atari system as well as for toymaker Milton Bradley. He was also active as a consultant. Ironically, the video-game pioneer rarely played video games during his later years, disillusioned by the increasing violence included in them. “I'm appalled by them,” Lawson told Edwards. “They're all scenario games considered 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.
That's what a game is to me.” Toward the end of his life, Lawson began to receive recognition for his innovations. In March of 2011, he was honored by the International Game Developers Association. He accepted the honor from a wheelchair, which he used because of complications of diabetes. The disease killed him on April 9, 2011, in Mountain View, California. Lawson was, as Alcorn told Bruce Weber in the New York Times, “absolutely a pioneer. When you do something for the first time, there is nothing to copy.”
Daily Telegraph (London, England), June 22, 2011, p. 27. New York Times, April 13, 2011, p. A24.