Feb 7

Jerry Lawson – A Pioneering Tech Innovator

Back in the mid-’70s and early ’80s, many members of Generation X were more than happy to play Pong or Super Mario Bros for hours (or days) at a time. But they inevitably wanted to expand their repertoire to additional games — without buying an entirely new system. 

It may seem unfathomable today, but when home game systems first became commercially available, they offered only one game. Pong, for example, was originally a one-trick pony, available only on the Atari Home Pong Console, released during the 1975 holiday season.

During his tenure at Fairchild Semiconductor, a pioneering Silicon Valley company, Gerald “Jerry” Lawson made his mark in a variety of areas. But he’s best known as the leader of the team that developed the first home video gaming system that could utilize interchangeable game cartridges. 

This innovation led to Lawson, one of the few Black engineers in the industry at the time, earning him the impressive moniker of “father of the video game cartridge.” He was also one of only two Black members of the Homebrew Computing Club, alongside Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

Lawson once told Vintage Computing that as a first grader, he was inspired by something his teacher told him. “I had a picture of George Washington Carver [a Black inventor who was born into slavery] on the wall next to my desk. And she said, ‘This could be you.’ I mean, I can still remember that picture, still remember where it was.”

As a child in Brooklyn, New York, Lawson enjoyed tinkering with electronics with the encouragement of his father, repairing his neighbors’ TVs, making walkie-talkies for his friends, and even building his own ham radio station at one point. He later attended Queens College and City College of New York, and in 1970, he moved to California to join Fairchild Semiconductor as an applications engineering consultant in the sales department.

In just a few short years, Lawson was promoted to director of engineering and marketing for the company’s video game department. It was during this time when he led the team developing a console that could use interchangeable cartridges, the Fairchild Channel F (the “f” stood for “fun”). Other innovative features of the console included a pause button and an eight-way joystick, designed by Lawson.

“The whole reason I did games was because people said, ‘You can’t do it.’ I’m one of the guys, if you tell me I can’t do something, I’ll turn around and do it,” he said.

Lawson finally received recognition for his impact on the gaming industry in 2011, when the International Game Developers Association honored him as an industry pioneer. Sadly, he passed away just a month later. 

In a statement, his children, Anderson and Karen Lawson, said of their father, “He loved what he did and did what he loved. Considering the obvious challenges for African-Americans at the time, his professional achievements were quite remarkable … may his story continue to inspire numerous young people around the globe to achieve something remarkable.”

About Kikoda – Kikoda is a client-focused software company providing comprehensive IT services including custom software development, team scaling, cloud and platform solutions (IaaS, PaaS), data analytics, and business intelligence services … just to name a few.