Pioneering giant Gerald Lawson helped pave the way for a pop-culture mainstay.
“For Honor.” “Halo Wars.” “Call of Duty.”
No, these aren’t the latest war movies; they’re among the hottest titles in video gaming—an industry that amassed $91 billion in revenue in 2016, according to research group Superdata. Video games are so torrid in the marketplace that the Entertainment Software Association has been preparing for the possibility that President Trump could impose trade tariffs with other countries.
Gerald Lawson (Jerry) would likely be watching these developments with amazement. The first major African-American figure in video games, the self-taught engineer is credited with inventing the first home gaming console that used interchangeable cartridges.
Lawson oversaw the development of the Fairchild Channel F console in 1976 while he was the director of engineering and marketing for Fairchild Semiconductor’s gaming division. Both his career as an electrical engineer and his management position were major rarities for an African-American.
Up to that point, video games were built directly into their hardware, so you couldn’t swap them out to play something else. He enabled this by developing a console with its own microprocessor—a feat so unlikely at the time that the Federal Communications Commission took notice.
“The whole reason I did games was because people said, ‘You can’t do it,'” Lawson told the San Jose Mercury News one month before his death in 2011 at 70. “I’m one of the guys (that) if you tell me I can’t do something, I’ll turn around and do it.”
‘This could be you’
His determination bubbled at an early age while growing up mostly in Queens, with the encouragement of his parents and a special first-grade teacher. Lawson’s father urged him to pursue anything scientific, and his mother arranged for him to attend a quality (mostly white) school after interviewing principals all over New York City.
Lawson told the website Vintage Computing and Gaming in 2009 that his first-grade teacher hung a picture of George Washington Carver, the famous black inventor who was born into slavery, on a wall near his desk. “This could be you,” he remembers her saying.
“I’ll never forget that woman for that,” he said. “It was that kind of thing that made a difference.”
Lawson attended Queens College and City College of New York during the 1960s but did not receive a degree. By his late 20s, his love of science had spawned an interest in computing. In the early 1970s he moved to Silicon Valley and joined its Homebrew Computer Club, which included tech wizards such as Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. (Lawson said in the 2009 interview that he was not impressed with either of them and that he later chose not to hire Wozniak at Fairchild Semiconductor.)
Standing 6 feet 6 inches tall and one of only two black members in the club, Gerald Lawson continued a lifetime of standing out. He invented one of the earliest coin-operated arcade games, Demolition Derby, and had his career breakthrough with the interchangeable game cartridges after joining Fairchild in 1976.
Leading the way
The Fairchild Channel F, rolled out a year before Atari’s famous video computer system, released 26 cartridges that featured sci-fi, sports and cards titles. Game machines, including the Atari and the Magnavox Odyssey, had their games built into the hardware.
The Channel F had its own microprocessor, something the FCC had been trying to accomplish. Lawson said the agency imposed strict requirements on all Channel F cartridges. Among them: The console motherboard had to be encased in aluminum, and there had to be a metal chute over the cartridge adapter to keep in radiation.
Gerald Lawson left Fairchild in 1980 to form his own company, Videosoft, a video game development firm that was to produce software for the Atari 2600. By then, the processing power and speed of games were rapidly escalating—but to his chagrin, so was their emphasis on violence. Videosoft released only one cartridge, and that was a technician’s tool for adjusting color, vertical and horizontal hold on television sets.
He never officially retired, always working on projects even though his diabetes resulted in the loss of vision in one eye and having a leg amputated below the knee. A month before he died, Lawson was honored by the International Game Developers Association’s Minority Special Interest Group at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.
Joseph Saulter, chairman of the association’s Diversity Advisory Board, told the Los Angeles Times: “The minute I found out about him, I was so excited that I had to honor him in some way.” According to the association, only 2 percent of game developers were African-American as recently as 2005.
“I felt that his contribution to the industry was so immense, it brought tears to my eyes that he was never really recognized for his contribution to the industry.”