Black History Month: Gerald Lawson

Gerald Lawson

(December 1, 1940 – April 7, 2011)

15th - Gerald Lawson

[su_note note_color=”#40cd11″ radius=”5″]Noteworthy Accomplishments & Historical Facts [su_list icon_color=”#191f17″]

  • First Black video game designer
  • One of the few self-taught, Black Engineers
  • The only Black member of the Silicon Valley’s Homebrew Computer Club (while he was a member)
  • Designed one of the first coin-operated arcade games
  • A video game pioneer; created the 1st cartridge-based home video game console system
  • His work paved the way for future gaming systems like the Atari 2600, Nintendo, Playstation, and Xbox
  • The 1st African-American in the industry to achieve such accomplishments
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Inspired at a Young Age

Gerald Anderson “Jerry” Lawson was born in Brooklyn, NY on Dec. 1, 1940, and grew up mostly in Jamaica Queens, NY. He had a love for electronics from a very early age. His parents encouraged his intellectual pursuits. His father, Blanton, was a longshoreman by profession and an avid reader of science books by inclination; his mother, Mannings, was a city employee who was also president of the PTA at the nearly all-white school Jerry attended. There he had a first-grade teacher who changed his life.

At school, by his desk, was a picture of George Washington Carver, and his teacher walked over to him and said, that could be you. When she said that, he was inspired. He began thinking of becoming a scientist, he wanted to become something special.

When he was thirteen he was an amateur radio guy. He also enjoyed tinkering around with other electronic gear. To earn money as a young teen, he would repair television sets, and made walkie-talkies to sell. As a kid, he did a lot of things, and his parents were very encouraging. Though he got into electronics, his first love was chemistry.

“I also had an amateur radio station in the housing project in Jamaica, New York. What happened was, I tried to get my license, and the management wouldn’t sign for it. And 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. Hot diggity! So I got my license, passed the test, and I built a station in my room. I had an antenna hanging out the window.”

Getting His Feet Wet In the Electronics Field

Jerry attended both Queens College and City College of New York, but he never earned a degree. Instead, he dived right into the workforce. He began an engineering career, working in emerging technologies with companies such as Federal Electric, Grumman Aircraft, and PRD Electronics. In the early 1970s, he started at Fairchild in Silicon Valley (CA) as a roving design consultant, working with their full-line semiconductors and microprocessors. During his first few years with Fairchild, Jerry started getting involved with more computer technology, as his interests grew he joined the Homebrew Computer Club and befriended the founders of Atari, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, as well as the engineer behind Pong, Alan Alcorn.

Nolan and Ted had shown Jerry their creation, Computer Space, the first commercially available coin-op arcade game. When Jerry got home started tinkering around, what he ended up with was his own coin-op arcade machine, Demolition Derby, using microprocessors from Fairchild. 

When the execs at Fairchild learned of his arcade creation they put him in charge of their home video game console project, which would eventually become the Fairchild Channel F, the first ROM cartridge video game console.

The Video Game Revolution Has Begun

Jerry and his team came up with a business model that would allow Fairchild to make more money. They were able to achieve this by creating different games that could be loaded onto cartridges and inserted into the gaming console one at a time. (This business model is the cornerstone of the current gaming industry). 15th - Gerald Lawson channel fA crucial element of the invention was the use of a new processor, the Fairchild 8; another was a mechanism that allowed for repeated insertion and removal of cartridges without damaging the machine’s semiconductors. 

The Fairchild F was released in 1976, and gave birth to a new way to enjoy game play at home. Only 26 cartridges were ever released for Channel F, all simple games like Blackjack, Space War, and Bowling. When Atari released its cartridge-based system, Channel F was quickly rendered obsolete.

Years later, after leaving Fairchild, Lawson started his own company, Videosoft, with intentions to create games and tech tools for the Atari 2600. Videosoft ended up creating only one cartridge, “Color Bar Generator“, which was designed to calibrate your televisions color, and adjust the vertical and horizontal picture hold.

Gerald Anderson “Jerry” Lawson, passed away on April 7th, 2011, in Mountain View, CA, from complications due to his diabetes. He left behind a wife, and two children.

Inspired a Future

The creation of the Fairchild F changed the way people played games. Before the Fairchild F, Atari had a home gaming console; however, the games were built into the system – so, that’s one game per console! What Jerry did was take the home gaming system to a new level with the option of interchangeable games. With interchangeable games, users had the convenience of playing at home, but with the option to play a variety games as though they were in an arcade. All a person had to do was purchase a new title!

Essentially, the Fairchild F, gave birth to the home gaming system as we know it today. So to all of you Call of Duty (COD) lovers, or whatever your game of pleasure may be, should tip your hats to this man. 

15th - Gerald Lawson game

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Sources:

NY Times

Vintage Computing

Wired