a lot of younger gamers are too young to remember the days when video games weren’t released on a cd or dvd or blu-ray, or more importantly remember a time when those technologies didn’t even exist. i’m sure those a little longer in the tooth would say the same thing about me – that i’m too young to remember consoles that only allowed you to play the games that were pre-loaded onto it. see in my heyday it was cartridges. my gaming life was kicked off with the NES as my first console when i was 7 years old, so the first game i got my tiny little hands on was the super mario brothers / duck hunt double cartridge. jerry lawson, a pioneer in games and that technology that led the way for cartridge based systems and gaming en masse, passed away this past weekend at the age of 70. so it’s only fitting that we pay him some well-deserved homage. he was an engineer, tinkerer, unsung genius and one of the original gaming geeks.
in the late 70’s there were a number of video game consoles that were available to the public. the problem was that the only games you could play on them were games that were pre-loaded, with no room for change and expansion. … well, that and most of the games were basic variations on PONG. this included units from coleco, RCA and tandy. but in 1976 the game quite literally changed. that’s when jerry lawson and fairchild semiconductor produced the first console that could take interchangeable game cartridges – the fairchild channel F. a lot of folks still think atari were the OG’s of cartridge games, but they wouldn’t introduce their 2600 system until a year later in 1977. this was a pretty big deal for gaming as well as a technological breakthrough, and lawson celebrated a series of firsts for the industry. in addition to being the first console that could use interchangeable games, it was the first console that allowed you to play against AI, thanks to lawson’s F8 processor that operated a a blazing 1.79MHz. other consoles at the time lacked the power for this feature, and required users to have a player 1 and a player 2 to do anything. i doubt anyone would argue that this man paved the way for every console game developer and designer from then to now and into the future. he didn’t stop at console though – lawson produced the arcade game demolition derby as well.
lawson was also part of the homebrew computer club (the only black member at that), an organization of computer nerds, engineers and hobbyists in the 70’s and early 80’s out in silicon valley. from discussions in this club came today’s great minds of personal computing – and as such jerry lawson can be put on the same list as people like steve jobs, steve wozniak and george morrow. his work was finally recognized at this year’s GDC by the international game developers association – recognition that was too long overdue. it was one that might not have even come without the suggestion from john templeton, a publisher who has highlighted achievements and breakthroughs made possible by black technologists. joseph saulter, leader of the association’s diversity committe, wholeheartedly agreed, even though until that day he had never heard of him. “I was really very emotional about it,” says saulter, who is himself black. “As a matter of fact, I started crying — just for somebody like him to be left out.” he further went on to say that lawson’s story is inspirational, especially to the small percentage of people in the industry that are black. templeton added that lawson’s recognition can inspire today’s young black engineers and tinkerers who might otherwise have been discouraged to try to get into the gaming industry.
family friend david erhart recounted events before lawson was admitted to el camino mountain view hospital: “He continued building devices to control telescopes, lasers, tools, etc. up until the day he went to the hospital,” he said. “His workbench had more tools than most people would even know what to do with. He taught me quite a bit and I’ll miss him sorely.”
so the next time you fire up your ps3 or xbox 360, think about jerry lawson as the reason you’re even able to do it in the first place. “The whole reason I did games was because people said, ‘You can’t do it,’ ” he recently said. “I’m one of the guys, if you tell me I can’t do something, I’ll turn around and do it.” from growing up in a federal housing project in queens to an industry legend, we can all learn a lot from him.
you can see more about lawson in a 2009 interview with vintage computing and gaming here.