Black Silicon Valley pioneer changed video games forever

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Video games are almost $ 180 billion industry. And if you’ve played one before, you might not realize the debt you owe a man named Jerry Lawson.

Gerald “Jerry” Lawson, who died 10 years ago at the age of 70, is not a household name – but he was a pioneer in the game and one of the few black engineers to work in the tech industry. in the 1970s. In 1976, Lawson led a team of engineers who developed and released the first removable video game cartridges.

Back then, game consoles came preloaded with a set number of games, like Atari’s “Pong”. The console that Lawson’s team built for cartridges, called Fairchild Channel F and released by a San Francisco-based manufacturer semiconductor company, mostly a flop – but Lawson’s groundbreaking idea was later adopted by popular gaming brands like Atari and Nintendo.

And while the average gamer may not be familiar with Lawson’s name, he has gained recognition in the video game industry in recent years, including a place in the World Video Game Hall of Fame.

“He is absolutely a pioneer”, Allan Alcorn, the creator of “Pong,” said of his friend in 2011, when the International Game Developers Association honored Lawson’s career.

The origins of a Silicon Valley pioneer

Lawson grew up in Queens, New York and never graduated from college. As one of the few black engineers in Silicon Valley in the 1970s, Lawson told Vintage Computing & Gaming in 2009, her skin color “could be both a plus and a minus.”

Being a technological anomaly has helped him stand out, both productively and uncomfortably. “If you’ve done good, you’ve done twice as good, [because] you have instant notoriety about it, ”Lawson said.

Lawson has run in the same circles as some of Silicon Valley’s best-known giants. Once, he said, he met Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak at the Homebrew Computer Club, a local hobbyist group – and “wasn’t impressed with them – nor neither, in fact ”.

But Alcorn impressed him. After Fairchild sent Lawson to meet Alcorn, to discuss electronic parts for “Pong,” a switch flipped in Lawson’s brain: he began a side project by building his own coin-operated video game in his garage.

And when Fairchild discovered the game, called “Demolition Derby,” the company convinced him to build a much more sophisticated gaming console at work.

Building Channel F, for “fun”

Lawson’s console would be a first: Fairchild had never built one before. Lawson said he felt “like a secret agent” quietly developing his platform without notifying any competitor, he said in a statement. 2005 opening speech at the Classic Gaming Expo in Burlingame, California.

After only six months of development, Lawson’s team emerged in 1976 with Channel F, which stood for “fun.”

The Channel F included the gaming world’s first home digital joystick, and even featured the very first “break” button for a game console. But, above all, it stood out because gamers could swap out different video game cartridges.

Lawson’s team had to build a special mechanism that allowed you to insert and remove cartridges over and over again “without destroying the semiconductors” or even causing a small explosion of static electricity.

“No one had the capacity to plug in large quantities of memory devices like [that] in a consumer product, ”Lawson said in 2009.“ Nobody.

A lasting legacy, especially for black engineers

When Channel F hit the market in 1976, Lawson said, Fairchild’s competitors “were so scared of the cartridge concept it was going to bankrupt them.”

But Fairchild only sold about 350,000 units before selling its gaming technology to electronics company Zircon in 1979. Zircon canceled Channel F a few years later.

Atari was “on our heels,” Lawson admitted. The games company released its own console with interchangeable cartridges and a joystick just a year later, in 1977 – and the Atari 2600 continued to sell. more than 30 million units in his life.

In 2015, Fast Company noted that Atari defeated Channel F primarily because it had a brand gamers were already familiar with and an existing catalog of popular games, like “Pac-Man.”

Lawson left Fairchild in 1980 and founded Videosoft, which created gaming software for the Atari 2600 and other developers. It was “probably the first black-owned game development company”, according to at the National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York.

The business only lasted a few years, but Lawson spent the rest of his career advising games and tech companies and mentoring engineering students at Stanford University, according to his 2011 obituary in The Los Angeles Times.

Lawson said in his 2009 interview that he hoped his career might inspire other black students to embark on engineering and the gaming industry. The industry still grapples with diversity today: a 2020 report from the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) revealed that only 2% of developers in the industry identify as black.

Yet Lawson’s influence endures through an annual IGDA award intended to highlight the work of minority developers in the industry, as well as a University of Southern California endowment fund on its behalf supported by Microsoft and the video game company Take-Two Interactive.

Fund announcement, which targets black and native students studying video game design, USC described Lawson in May as “one of the fathers of modern gaming.”

This is also, it seems, how Lawson saw himself.

“You had to be a maverick to get things done,” Lawson remarked in his 2005 speech. “To open up new horizons, you had to break certain rules.”

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