Jerry Lawson: The Black Engineer Who Created Gaming As We Know It

For many readers, your first memory of a gaming console will be roughly the same. You have your console and you have your gaming library, either as separate physical discs or cartridges or as digital downloads. In the advent of home gaming, this was not the case, you had a console and you had a game installed on it. Pong. 

Many, many different systems were released with just pong installed. More than 800, in fact. The entire first generation of gaming consoles was basically just Pong in a different shell.

Eventually, the tech advanced enough to allow room for more than just pong but the game library was still very much installed in the hardware and that was your limit.

That all changed thanks to a man called Jerry Lawson.

This is a piece of gaming history often forgotten. It was a detail that I had essentially forgotten because history is written by the people with the biggest bank balance, not the innovators. It took some fifty years after his death before people recognised Nikola Tesla’s innovations in electrical engineering. Before then it was all about Thomas Edison. The same is true here. Atari emphatically won the console war of the pre-crash gaming market with the Atari 2600, every other system released at the time was relegated to the scrap heap of history. Including the Fairchild Channel F.

Thanks to Netflix’s tremendous new documentary series, High Score, the story of the Fairchild Channel F and Jerry Lawson has been re-told so a new generation can learn the true pioneer of home gaming.

Jerry Lawson was a Brooklyn born black man from a family of scientifically-curious men, his father had a keen interest in the subject and his grandfather was educated as a physicist although struggled to find work in the field. Lawson loved to work with electronics.

While Lawson did not complete a single degree during his time in college, he was hired at Fairchild Semiconductor in 1970 as an engineering consultant. Making him part of Silicon Valley before it had a name. He was one of the only black men there, he stood out immediately, so if people were going to notice him then he endeavoured to make sure it was for the quality of his work and not the colour of his skin. 

It is fair to say that Lawson would go on to make himself undeniable.

In his spare time, Lawson was a member of the local hobby group known as The Homebrew Computer Club. Fun fact: Two of the members of this group were Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, when they created the Apple I it was the Homebrew Computer Club that first got to see the new hardware, not the media. Funnily enough, Lawson declined to hire Wozniak at Fairchild, citing “I was not impressed with them – either one of them, actually.”

Jerry Lawson’s first arcade game

As part of his hobby, Lawson had been working on an arcade game in his garage. Some five years later, Demolition Derby was created. The game was eventually released by Chicago Coin Machine Manufacturing in 1977, by that time Lawson had been promoted to Chief Hardware Engineer and director of engineering and marketing for Fairchild’s video game division.

It was here that Lawson developed the Fairchild Channel F, which saw release in 1976 and changed everything. The console introduced major innovations that we take for granted today. Interchangeable cartridges, making it possible for developers to produce endless new games for home markets, as well as more sophisticated control layouts including a pause button. The pause button did not exist in gaming until Lawson thought it up.

At this point, every other console began copying the Fairchild Channel F. Most notably Atari, who had dominated the arcade industry and originally pioneered the home console with their original Pong system. The Atari 2600 followed and dominated the industry completely. In the first two years of its release, the Channel F had sold 250,000 units. The Atari‘s sales eclipsed that in a single year. Atari’s console would go on to sell 30 million copies over the span of its fifteen-year lifespan while the Fairchild Channel F was discontinued in 1983, just seven years after launch.

Sadly, the monolithic success of Atari’s system all but wiped Lawson’s creation out of the history books and Lawson’s name with it. A bitter irony that his greatest innovations would ultimately create the thing that would ensure he was always ignored by history. Sadly, Jerry Lawson died in 2011 due to complications involving diabetes at the age of 70. He is survived by his two children, Karen and Anderson, who continue to tell his story so he won’t be forgotten.

Anderson & Karen Lawson, as seen in Netflix’s High Score

Jerry Lawson should never be forgotten. He is truly undeniable. Without the vision and innovations of Jerry Lawson, there would be no Atari 2600. There would be no Nintendo Entertainment System to save the industry after the great ET crash nearly wiped it out. The move into disc media would not happen, there would be no Mega CD, or PlayStation, no Xbox. Could gaming have even sustained itself to this extent, that we’re still playing games in 2020, without Jerry Lawson and the Fairchild Channel F? 

Gaming as we know it owes an immense debt of gratitude to Jerry Lawson. This is our small bid to ensure someone else will know his name and offer some thanks to all he did.

andrewshaw andrewshaw

Updated: Aug 20, 2020

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