Jerry Lawson, is sometimes called the father of modern gaming for creating the first video game console to use removable cartridges, the Fairchild Channel F. In recent years, he has gained increased recognition for his foundational role in the development of the modern video game industry. He has a permanent display in the World Video Game Hall of Fame and was recognized by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) shortly before his death. After posthumously awarding Lawson the ID@Xbox Gaming Heroes Award at the Game Developer’s Choice Awards, IGDA established the Jerry A. Lawson Award for Achievement in Game Development, which recognizes the accomplishments of under-represented minorities in the game development community. The Gerald A. Lawson Academy of the Arts, Mathematics and Science, a public school in Los Angeles, and the Gerald A. Lawson Endowment Fund for Black and Indigenous Students at the University of Souther California, established in 2021 to fund the training of more Black and Indigenous game developers, have also been named in his honor.
Born in 1940, Lawson grew up in a federal housing project in Queens, New York. Passionate as a teenager about engineering, Lawson repaired televisions and constructed radio transmitters in his spare time. He attended Queens College and City College in New York, but left before graduating to work in tech.
A lot of people in the industry swore that a microprocessor couldn’t be used in video games and I knew better.
Building a Trusted Future
While working at Fairchild Semiconductor, Lawson started collaborating on a side project building a coin-operated video game machine in his garage with Allan Alcorn, the creator of Pong and a fellow member of Silicon Valley’s famous Homebrew Computer Club. After finding out about the project, Fairchild tapped Lawson to lead a secret effort at the company to develop a video game console, which was uncharted territory for the semiconductor focused firm.
As the first system to use cartridges, and also the first to introduce a “pause” feature, the Channel F was truly revolutionary. As the first consumer device with its own microprocessor, the Channel F was also subjected to intensive scrutiny by the Federal Communications Commission. Lawson successfully navigated the FCC’s review, which included submitting every cartridge to the FCC for inspection to verify that users would not be at risk for shock when switching cartridges.
The introduction of cartridges with different games meant that consumers were no longer limited to games pre-installed on the console—opening up new possibilities for developers and an entire billion-dollar industry. While the Fairchild F was ultimately not commercially successful, Lawson’s contemporaries agreed that Lawson’s system changed the gaming landscape forever.
In 1980, Lawson launched Video Soft, the first black-owned video game development company, to build games for the Atari 2600 and other video game systems. In the mid-1980s, Lawson transitioned to consulting, working with various gaming and tech companies and developing a reputation for mentoring engineering students at nearby Stanford University.
We were afraid — we didn’t have statistics on multiple insertion and what it would do, and how we would do it, because it wasn’t done. I mean, think about it: nobody had the capability of plugging in memory devices in mass quantity like in a consumer product. Nobody.