Jerry Lawson: The Genius Behind the Game Console
If you want a video game, just pick out the title and bring it home. But not so long ago, you had to buy a system with games built into it. That was before Jerry Lawson, a self-taught engineer and pioneer in video entertainment equipment, created the first home video game system with interchangeable game cartridges, revolutionizing the gaming industry.
Lawson, who was black, built his engineering and computer career during the '60s, a time marked by civil rights marches and the remnants of Jim Crow laws that still legalized discrimination nationwide. In later years, he said being black caused some issues, particularly in an industry that did not then -- and still does not -- attract many black people. But he never let his race, or much else, hold him back. He had incredible engineering skills with not only video game components, but with computers, radar, visual displays and more, and talents with just about anything electronic. His skills took him across the country from the housing projects of New York City to booming businesses of Silicon Valley, where he found fame bringing gaming out of the Stone Ages of video games.
And all the while, he was a respected contemporary of people like Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, and the sole black member of the Homebrew Computer Club, a group of early computer hobbyists that included the Apple co-founders. But Lawson, secure in his own talents, has famously said he was not impressed with either Jobs or Wozniak -- even turning down Wozniak for a job at one point -- even though the Apple co-founders eventually became much larger industry legends.
Growing Up as a Scientist
Lawson was born the son of a longshoreman and a city employee in Brooklyn, New York, in 1940, but grew up mostly in Queens, according to his obituary in the New York Times, written when he died in April 2011. His parents were blue-collar workers, but they valued their son's education greatly. His father, Blanton, loved to read science books, and his mother, Mannings, was president of the PTA at a nearly all-white school he attended, having chosen the school after interviewing principals across New York City before deciding where to send her son.
Even in his early days, he wanted to be in science. He told the publication Vintage Computing and Gaming, in a 2009 interview, that there was a picture of the famous black inventor George Washington Carver on the wall by his desk in his first-grade class.
The teacher told him "this could be you," he said. "This kind of influence led me to feel 'I want to be a scientist. I want to be something.'"
With his father's support of everything scientific, it's not surprising that the he liked to tinker around with electronics, even though society's rules at the time disapproved. In the '40s, while still a young child, he had an amateur radio station in the housing project in Jamaica, New York.
"I tried to get my license, and the management wouldn't sign for it," he said. "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. So I got my license, passed the test, and I built a station in my room. I had an antenna hanging out the window."
He also made and sold walkie-talkies as a child. His first love was chemistry, but then he switched to electronics and became a chief engineer at a radio station.
Moving Up In the Industry
While the video game industry was where Lawson would eventually stake his claim to fame, he held several tech jobs, particularly in early computing. Early jobs -- including military work -- included time at ITT, Grumman Aircraft, Federal Electric, and PRD Electronics. After working for PRD for five years, he transferred to Palo Alto, Calif., to work for a company called Kaiser Electronics. Kaiser built electronic displays for military aircraft. The job prospects for a black engineer were different from those for a white person, he recalled.
"It could be both a plus and a minus," he said. "Where it could be a plus is that, in some regard, you got a lot of, shall we say, eyes watching you. And as a result, if you did good, you did twice as good, 'cause you got instant notoriety about it."
His size also made him stand out in a crowd. He clocked in at a massive 6 foot, 6 inches and 280 pounds, which in itself was enough to attract attention. Working with military applications crossed over well to making consumer electronics, he said, noting that consumer applications needed to be better built. The military gave its staff training on equipment, and there are consequences if something is broken or ruined that don't exist in the consumer world, he added. Furthermore, many of the items now used in computing actually got their start in the military.
By the '70, Lawson made his way around to Fairchild, where he worked as a freelance engineer who helped customers with designs. The company had its hand in a lot of tech fields, including LED devices and semiconductors. After a couple of years, he created a coin-operated video arcade game, "Demolition Derby," which achieved some success, and Fairchild put him in charge of its video games division. He created the game on his own time, and the company wanted him to do similar work again.
In the mid-70s, gaming was a primitive and bulky affair. If you were lucky, systems featured games like the slow, steady blips and beeps of Pong. But there wasn't a lot of variation, and systems all built their own version of paddle games into the consoles. But Lawson and his team at Fairchild changed that when they brought out the "Channel F" console that allowed people to play different games in removable cartridges.
Video Games: No Child's Play
The Magnavox Odyssey was actually the first consumer video game, but he didn't want to create a similar system. He considered the Odyssey "a joke" with no complexity or challenge. Instead, he wanted his system to have cartridges. The main concern, though, was the ability to plug and unplug a cartridge without causing problems with the system's semiconductor device.
"We didn't have statistics on multiple insertion and what it would do, and how we would do it, because it wasn't done," he said. "I mean, think about it: nobody had the capability of plugging in memory devices in mass quantity like in a consumer product. Nobody."
Lawrence said he always had the idea to make cartridge games, but there were other companies, such as RCA, who released a cartridge system about six months later. The biggest hurdle for him and the Channel F, was passing FCC testing, which kept many rivals from releasing their own systems to market. Eventually, Fairchild worked out the issues, as did other, more famous rivals like Atari. Some early games included Shooting Gallery, Video Blackjack and Alien Invasion.
His Later Years
Lawson left Fairchild in 1980, and founded a company, Videosoft, which developed video games. He worked for several years as a consultant and even spent time mentoring students at Stanford. Even though he stayed in gaming -- and was instrumental in making it the industry it is today -- eventually, he didn't like what he'd helped create.
"I don't play video games that often; I really don't," he said. "First of all, most of the games that are out now -- I'm appalled by them." Most are concerned 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."
Such video games take away from a child's experience, he said, and as a result, children are growing up without using their imaginations.
"Video games today -- they don't even want to see anything unless the graphics are completely high-toned, right? It used to be, "Oh, well that looks like a car," he said. "Now, they want to see a car, they want to see wheel spinners on it, and all the detail -- infinite detail."
But to be fair, times change and he never predicted the lengths to which video gaming would go, even though he had an instrumental part in their development. After all, Lawson was born at a time before people even had televisions in their homes, let alone sophisticated gaming systems like the Wii U or Xbox. In addition, he came up through the technology ranks as a black man from New York City with a fierce intellect that cut through discrimination and entered a profession that valued smarts and talent over everything else. But in a field where plenty of people have both, he had the drive to use it to the fullest extent possible.
As Lawson himself said, "The point of anything by yourself is that you have to be brave to go by yourself." Apt words from a true pioneer who stood out by himself at the start of one of the biggest entertainment industries of our time. ♦
Categories: Tech Pioneers