Atari. Magnavox. Intellivision. Each evokes memories of the golden age of video games, which brought the first wave of consoles people could connect to their home television. But there is an oft-forgotten person from that era whose contributions to the industry still resonate today: a black engineer named Jerry Lawson.
Lawson oversaw the creation of the Channel F, the first video game console with interchangeable game cartridges – something the first Atari and Magnavox Odyssey systems did not use.
Those initial consoles had a selection of games hard-wired into the console itself. (The Magnavox Odyssey, released in 1972, also used game “cards” that were printed circuit boards, but did not contain game data as the subsequent cartridges did.)
But Lawson, an engineer and designer at Fairchild Camera and Instrument, led a team at the Silicon Valley semiconductor maker charged with creating a game system using Fairchild’s F8 microprocessor and storing games on cartridges.
“A lot of people in the industry swore that a microprocessor couldn’t be used in video games and I knew better,” Lawson said during a speech at the 2005 Classic Gaming Expo in San Francisco.
The Fairchild Video Entertainment System, later named the Channel F (for “fun”), which began selling in 1976, had games such as hockey, tennis, blackjack and a maze game that foreshadowed Pac-Man.
The console beat the Atari 2600 to market by one year, but Atari’s name recognition and marketing heft essentially pushed the Channel F into video game history obscurity. The system would sell about 250,000 units while the Atari 2600, which would get hits such as Space Invaders and Asteroids, would go on to sell about 30 million units.
Regardless, the Channel F established the concept of a console that could play an unlimited number of games, the foundation for today’s global video game market, which is projected to surpass US$160 billion in 2020, according to research firm Newzoo.
Lawson, who died in 2011 at the age of 70 because of complications of diabetes, “literally created an industry that is bigger than the movie industry”, said John William Templeton, executive producer of curriculum and content for Reunion: Education-Arts-Heritage, which creates programming for schools.
A groundbreaker as one of the few black engineers in the industry at the time, Lawson grew up in Queens, New York in the United States. He was a lifelong inventor who attended university but did not earn a degree, according to his obituary in The New York Times. As a teen, he made money by repairing televisions.
After he moved to the Bay Area and was working at Fairchild, Lawson belonged to a home inventors club that included Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the pair that would go on to found Apple. Lawson also built his own coin-operated arcade game called Demolition Derby in his garage, which led Fairchild to ask him to focus on games, according to an interview in 2009 with Vintage Computing and Gaming.
When he left Fairchild, Lawson founded his own video game company, Videosoft, which created games for the Atari 2600 and made some of the first 3D games. He closed the company during the video game crash of the mid-1980s.
Lawson got some recognition before he died – he was included in the 2009 documentary, Freedom Riders of the Cutting Edge, produced by Templeton.
Soon after that, Templeton mentioned Lawson to Joseph Saulter, chairman of the diversity advisory board of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA).
“I just said to him, ‘Well, you know the person who did the first video game console was black.’ He just literally stopped in his tracks,” Templeton said. “[I said] I just interviewed him, I can bring him over and have him speak to folks.”
As a result, Lawson was invited to a Blacks in Gaming gathering at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco in 2011.
“The most important part of it was that there were maybe 70 or so black developers there listening to him,” Templeton said. “It was just extremely emotional for them because for their entire lives, their professional lives, they had been feeling like outsiders, and then they [could say], ‘Hey, wait a minute, somebody who looks like me started the whole thing.’”
Gordon Bellamy, who at the time was the IGDA’s executive director, recalled how the event helped younger black Americans working in video games embrace “our reality, to learn and value and celebrate the very history of how our careers were built on [Lawson’s legacy]”, he said.
An exhibit of Lawson’s handiwork is on permanent display at The World Video Game Hall of Fame at The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. There, you can see the Channel F game system and some of Videosoft’s games. The museum has Lawson’s papers in its archive, too.
Lawson and the Channel F game system are also included in A History of Video Games in 64 Objects, a book published by the museum in 2018.
Among the museum’s missions is bringing to light the contributions of minorities and women in the video game industry. Lawson’s contributions counter a lack of representation of black game developers in the industry, said Jeremy Saucier, an assistant vice-president for interpretation and electronic games at the museum.
“The major figures often tend to be white men,” Saucier said. “We really want to get the history right and tell a more inclusive history than the meta-narrative that we have stuck with in the past.”
As he aged, Lawson became upset with how video games glorified violence.
“Most of the games that are out now – I’m appalled by them,” he told Vintage Computing and Gaming. “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.”
The ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones that do.