This is the twenty-ninth entry in the series Honoring Black History.
One of my fondest childhood memories was getting a Nintendo Entertainment System for my birthday. It wasn’t the expensive set with the robot and the gun (we were poor), but my mom somehow managed to scrape together the $199 (over $470 in today’s dollars) for the system. It opened up a whole new world for me.
I only recently discovered that this fixture of my childhood was made possible by a black engineer named Jerry Lawson.
Jerry Lawson was born in 1940 in Brooklyn, NY to a longshoreman and a municipal employee. Both of his parents were interested in science and his grandfather was educated as a physicist—though he struggled to build a career in physics (ahem, white supremacy) and ended up becoming a postmaster. Suffice to say, his family valued education and encouraged him to pursue scientific hobbies. At 13, he was a licensed amateur ham radio operator who build a radio station in his bedroom. In high school he repaired TVs for money.
Lawson never earned a degree, but he joined Fairchild Semiconductor in 1970 as an applications engineering consultant. While working there, he built a game called Demolition Derby in his garage. That game was one of the earliest microprocessor-driven games, using Fairchild’s F8 microprocessor. It put him on the map at Fairchild and he was promoted to Chief Hardware Engineer in the mid-’70s. He also became the director of engineering and marketing for their video game division.
In this new role, Lawson led the development of the Fairchild Channel F, the first system to feature interchangeable game cartridges that enabled a single system to play multiple titles. Prior to that, a game’s ROM had been soldered to the game hardware. This move was a game changer (pardon the pun) for the burgeoning industry, creating a whole new revenue stream for console manufacturers. While the Channel F didn’t achieve much commercial success, its novel approach to game integration was quickly copied by the Atari 2600, released in 1977. And the rest, as they say, is history.
It’s also worth noting that Lawson was one of only two members of the influential Homebrew Computer Club (alongside Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak). According to Lawson, he even interviewed “Woz” for a position at Fairchild, but declined to hire him.
Lawson died of complications from diabetes in 2011, just one month after being recognized by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) for his role in the development of the cartridge-based game console.
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