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Video Games - Jerry Lawson

If you've got fond memories of video game cartridges, you've got Gerald "Jerry" Lawson to thank. He was the first major African-American figure in the game industry. For his first five years at Fairchild, the company and its executives actually thought he was Indian. 

Born in1940, Lawson grew up in a Queens, New York, housing project, where his predilection for engineering was on display early on. His father was a longshoreman with a fondness for science. His mother arranged it so that he could attend a well-regarded elementary school in another part of the city (i.e., one that was predominantly white), and she stayed actively involved in his education throughout his childhood (so much so that she became the president of the PTA). 

Lawson credits his first grade teacher as a major inspiration. "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."

George Washington Carver

Jerry Lawson (JL) - I had an amateur radio station in the housing project in Jamaica, New York. What happened was, I tried to get my license, and the management wouldn't sign for it. And it was really hard for me as a kid to research literature and the public things I could find, but I found that it said if you lived in a federal housing project, you didn't need their permission. Hot diggity! So I got my license, passed the test, and I built a station in my room. I had an antenna hanging out the window.


I also made walkie-talkies; I used to sell those. I did a bunch of things as a kid. My first love started out as chemistry, and then I ended up switching over to electronics, and I continued on and even got a first class commercial license — in fact, I worked a little while in a radio station as chief engineer.

After attending Queens College and CCNY, Lawson worked with defense industry firms.


JL: [In the 1960s military computers were low-volume]…not, shall we say, consumer-type stuff. But yet, we were on the leading edge of pushing the state of the art so that things would become more practical…when the computer and consumer industries [developed] it became higher volume, and it became a reality to use. The semiconductor content got cheaper and cheaper because of volume. The military components were not that high volume, but they were very stressful, they were high-reliability parts. But however, you take that same part and use it over and over again in a consumer product — you know, one of the things I used to always say, I said, "Military was good training for consumer, because consumer products actually have to be stronger than military." Everybody said, "Get out of here!" I said, "Nah. Just think about it for a second." I said, "If I did a military product, I can train the individual how to use it. If he decides to tamper, destroy, or mal-use it, I can bring him up to charges, can't I? I can insist that he reads the manual, that he's trained in how to turn and turn it off, right?" They said, "Yeah." "Try that with a consumer."




He headed west to work for Kaiser Electronics in Palo Alto, CA. He eventually made his way to Fairchild Semiconductor, who hired one of its first "field application engineers" - engineers who would work with customers in the field to help out with their designs.


Fairchild Semiconductor


Fairchild Semiconductor International, Inc. was an American semiconductor company based in San Jose, California. It became a pioneer in the manufacturing of transistors and developed the first practical integrated circuit. For most intents and purposes, its life as an independent firm ended in 1979.


In 1957, the Fairchild Semiconductor division was started with plans to make silicon (Si) transistors at a time when germanium (GE) was the most common material for semiconductor use. Fairchild's innovative use of silicon (Si) made most other transistor processes obsolete.


By 1960 Fairchild had managed to build a circuit with four transistors on a single wafer of silicon, thereby creating the first silicon integrated circuit. The company grew from twelve to twelve thousand employees, and was soon making $130 million a year.

By 1965 Fairchild's process improvements had brought low-cost manufacturing to the semiconductor industry – making Fairchild nearly the only profitable semiconductor manufacturer in the United States.


Internal trouble at Fairchild began to surface and earnings in slipped in 1967. There was increasing competition from newer start-ups.


In 1972, Intel introduced the 8008 8-bit microprocessor, Fairchild developed the Fairchild F8 8-bit microprocessor, which had an unusual architecture and was not a great market success.


By the end of the 1970s they had few new products in the pipeline. In 1979, Fairchild Camera and Instrument was purchased by Schlumberger Limited, an oil field services company.


JL: [Fairchild] had everything: memories, linear devices. They had LED devices. They were a full-line semiconductor place. They even had a microprocessor they brought out called the F8, which is the one I incorporated into the game… I made a game in my garage called Demolition Derby in oh, '73? '72? (Note: Dating was recalled by Lawson’s human memory in a 2006 interview. I can’t confirm that this is related to the Bally game of same name popular in the 1980s).


He sold the game to Major Manufacturers - a small manufacturer in San Mateo, California. Major tested the game at a Campbell, California pizza parlor but went out of business a short time later. Apparently only one copy of the game ever built, as Lawson was unable to secure additional funding to build more

JL: [My first personal computers were]…an Altair. And before that, I also had — Fairchild gave me a DEC PDP-8. I put the PDP-8 back into work…in my garage. With the PDP-8, I had two tape units, the tape controller, a high speed tape reader, and all the maintenance boards and backup spares for it. My garage became a service depot.

Jerry Lawson’s garage (circa early-mid 1970s)

JL: [The first video game I saw] was Nolan's game called Computer Space. It looked like a big phone. 

JL: 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.

JL: When they started to work on Pong, there was a gentleman — I went in to see him one time, and he worked at a company called "Syzygy." The guy's name was Alan Alcorn. The names of the two other guys were Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney. It was the beginning of Atari. (Note: “Pong” the first video game that achieved widespread popularity was field tested in August, 1972).


JL: The first Pong machine was put into a beer joint. And Alan told me the first week that thing was in, coins were flopping out on the floor. One of the things the [Atari] guys were telling me was that kids were coming in with piezoelectric shockers and shocking the machine to give them free games. Or they would take in a wire and jiggle it down in the coin slot. So he said he would love to have a way where that wouldn't happen anymore…What we did was take coins — it goes through the coin device and it hits a microswitch. It stays on the microswitch for a certain period of time before it drops down, right? We'd time that point of time that it would go through the microswitch, so the microprocessor on board would know whether it was a coin or somebody jiggling the switch. That was the way we had a coin defeat for it.


Along with other Silicon Valley innovators, he belonged to a hobbyists’ group known as the Homebrew Computer Club. Two of its other members were Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, later the founders of Apple. “I was not impressed with them either one of them, actually”, Mr. Lawson said. He declined to hire Mr. Wozniak for a job at Fairchild.



Homebrew Computer Club


The Homebrew Computer Club was an early computer hobbyist group in Silicon Valley which met from March 5, 1975 to December 1986. Several very high-profile hackers and computer entrepreneurs emerged from its ranks, including the founders of Apple Inc. The open exchange of ideas that went on at its biweekly meetings, and the club newsletter, helped launch the personal computer revolution. The Homebrew Computer Club has been called "the crucible for an entire industry."


The Club was an informal group of electronic enthusiasts and technically minded hobbyists who gathered to trade parts, circuits, and information pertaining to DIY (do it yourself), construction of computing devices. It was started by Gordon French and Fred Moore. They both were interested in maintaining a regular, open forum for people to get together to work on making computers more accessible.


The first meeting was held on the occasion of the arrival in the area of the first MITS Altair microcomputer, a unit sent for review by People's Computer Company. Steve Wozniak credits that first meeting with inspiring him to design the Apple I.


The Homebrew Computer Club's newsletter was one of the most influential forces in the formation of the culture of Silicon Valley. Created by its members, it initiated the idea of the personal computer, and helped its members build the original kit computers, like the Altair. One such influential event was the publication of Bill Gates's Open Letter to Hobbyists, which lambasted the early hackers of the time for violating the copyrights of commercial software programs.


Lawson was either the only or one of the two black members (accounts vary) of the club.




In 1975, Fairchild released its microprocessor, the F8, and Lawson was convinced it could be used to make a video game. Fairchild’s management found out about Lawson’s interests. Very quietly, they asked him if he wanted to do it for them.


Lawson was put in charge of Fairchild’s video game division. He and his team developed cartridges that could be loaded with different game programs and then inserted into the console one at a time. This allowed the company to sell individual games separately from the console itself, a business model that remains the cornerstone of the video game industry. Until then, home video game systems could play only games that were built into the machines themselves. At the time, few believed that you could even give a console a microprocessor of its own.


Removable game cartridges were an incredibly new concept in the '70s. Lawson and his team at Fairchild had no clue how the cartridges would fare after being plugged in and out multiple times.


JL: What was paramount to our system was to have cartridges. There was a mechanism that allowed you to put the cartridges in without destroying the semiconductors. The mechanical guys that worked on that did a very good job. [Plugging and unplugging a cartridge might]…cause an explosion on the semiconductor device — break down static charge, that kind of thing. 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…We had no idea what was going to happen. 

JL: [The first video game I saw] was Nolan's game called Computer Space. It looked like a big phone. 

JL: I was directly reporting to a vice president at Fairchild, with a budget...and finally, we decided, "Hey, the prototype looks like it's going to be worth something. Let's go do something." I had to bring it from this proof of performance to reality — something that you could manufacture…the biggest part of getting the Channel F released was getting through the FCC (Federal Communications Commission). That was a job in itself. It was the first microprocessor device of any nature to go through FCC testing. Each time we made a cartridge, the FCC wanted to see it and it had to be tested…Every single cartridge


JL: Al Alcorn [designer of “Pong’] came down and said, "Lawson! It's cool, except the only thing we dig is the hand controllers."…Our hand controllers were special. They were analog equivalent, but they were digital. And somebody asked how we did that. Well, we would drive the objects. In other words, when the [switch] closed in a direction, we would send the object in that direction. We'd send it fast, then we'd slow it down, so that it would have a kind of a hysteresis (the phenomenon in which the value of a physical property lags behind changes in the effect causing it) curve. We needed to do that for the human factors of using the hand controllers…The hand controller had eight positions: up, down, left, right, forward and backward left and right…you had to get used to that operation, knowing how to operate it…I designed the prototype. The original controller was designed by a guy named Ron Smith. Mechanical guy. The case of the controller was designed by a guy named Nicholas Talesfore, an industrial designer.


Although similar machines were in development at Atari and RCA at the time, the console Lawson’s team built for Fairchild was the first cartridge-based gaming system that came to market. The system never saw the heights of popularity of consoles from Atari, Nintendo and Sega, but it was a significant step forward for the entire gaming industry. When Atari released its cartridge-based system, Fairchild was no longer competitive.


JL: I don’t play video games that often; I really don’t. First of all, most of the games that are out now, I’m appalled by them… [Most are concerned with] shooting somebody and killing somebody. To me, a game should be something like a skill you should develop. If you play this game, you walk away with something of value.


JL: [Being black] could be both a plus and a minus…First of all, I'm a big guy. So not too many people confronted me face to face. But I've had instances where I've walked into places where they didn't know I was black…I'll give you an example…In about, oh, 1996 or 7, a law firm in Texas hired me as a consultant. And they were going to sue Nintendo. And they told me they want to bring John Ellis in too, 'cause he's from Atari, and I go, "Oh, fine." They said, "You know John Ellis?" I said, "I know John — very well…So the next day, John comes in the room, sees me, and says, "Hi Jerry." And he looked kind of strange. I said, "What's the matter with you, John?" He said, "I've always known you as Jerry Lawson. I didn't know you were the same video game guy Jerry Lawson — I didn't know you were black!" And I said, "Huh?" He said, "Al Alcorn [creator of Pong], Nolan Bushnell [founder of Atari], talked about you — all of them talked about you — Joe Keenan [President of Atari]. But they never said you were black…Well I don't go around telling everybody I'm black." I just do my job, you know?


JL: I think what has happened is that engineering is a thing that has never really appealed to black people directly, because they've never had…You see, I grew up in a different environment. My mother…When she went to a school, she would interview the teachers, the principal, and if they didn't pass her test, I didn't go to that school…But one of the things she had long since said was that the black kids were put under an aroma of "you can't do something." It was something that she felt would not help them with any kind of inspiration to go anywhere…Now, the point I'm getting at is, this kind of influence is what led me to feel, "I want to be a scientist. I want to be something." Now, I went to another black school and talked to kids who were in the neighborhood, and they did nothing like this. They never went out anywhere, they never knew anything. The kids I worked with, and went around with, and played with — they did different things, right? They were looking through microscopes. They'd go outside in a field — do something, right? These would not do that. All they did was play baseball or football…They need to understand that they're in a land by themselves. Don't look for your buddies to be helpful, because they won't be. You've gotta step away from the crowd and go do your own thing. You find a ground, cover it, it's brand new, you're on your own — you're an explorer. That's about what it's going to be like. Explore new vistas, new avenues, new ways — not relying on everyone else's way to tell you which way to go, and how to go, and what you should be doing….You'll find some people out there that will help you. And they're not always black, of course. They're white. 'Cause when you start to get involved in certain practices and certain things you want to do, you're colorless…The point of anything by yourself is that you have to be brave to go by yourself, don't you? You're not going to get reinforcement from peers, right? Except for the new peers you find as a result of going through this. I mean, normally, the guys on the corner that go play basketball are not gonna be your buddies in that. And that's how they mark things too. It's unfortunate that they all think they're gonna be members of the NBA…I remember one time I was in Las Vegas, walking down the strip. A black kid came up to me and said, "Are you Jerry Lawson?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "Thanks." And shook my hand and walked on past me. My son actually nominated me as a fellow at the Computer Museum. Whether or not it goes anywhere, I don't know… I'm writing my story because I think that when kids go there — black kids — and they see somebody black, it will make a big difference on them.





  1. - The initial idea for a video game cartridge actually came from two men, Wallace Kirschner and Lawrence Haskel, who worked for Alpex Computer Corporation and licensed the technology to Fairchild. After Fairchild licensed Alpex's technology, a team that included Ron Smith, Nick Talesfore, and Jerry Lawson refined the technology and turned it into a practical, commercial product.


 2. Note: The article from vintage         computing is the major source for the information contained herein. Below are some of the readers’ responses to the original interview.

32.       Steven Glowinski Says:  I worked with Jerry Lawson at Fairchild in 1977 (in the Exetron Division run by Don Brown under Greg Reyes) and think the world of Jerry as did his group. The details of this article are accurate and the article portrays his down home management style. The early industry was fun because of people like Jerry Lawson. After 30 plus years in the industry I'm amazed at how many important contributors are never fully recognized.

P.S. - I was on the IC design team that later integrated and cost reduced the original channel F with the 9101/9102 chip set.


36.       Joseph Saulter Says:  The moment I found this article I began to cry. I was overwhelmed with a gratitude and respect. Yet, dismayed by the unjustified omission of Jerry Lawson from the History of our incredible Industry. I am ashamed of myself the chairman of the International Game Developers Association's Diversity advisory board as well I sit on the steering committee for the Microsoft Blacks In Gaming Group seven years in the position and not once did I hear about Jerry.


38.       young man Says:  As a black youth, everything he said about going your own path I have experienced myself. Unfortunately, the media has affected our self-perceptions for the worst. It is sad that in 2011, I go to my classes at university and find myself the only black male in the room/lecture hall. It would be great for his amazing life to get more exposure, his story is really touching.


48.       Nick Talesfore Says: I was the industrial designer responsible for the styling and ergonomics for the Channel F System of hand-controllers, game console as well as the inserted video cartridges. Ron Smith the ME on the team did all the mechanical engineering for the hand controllers, internal switches and zero force cartridge connector system. I also had responsibility for all the graphics and labeling and instruction manuals so I worked closely with Jerry from the very beginning with Gene Landrum even before Fairchild decided to started this division. Jerry was a great guy to work with and especially travel with. He was truly a unique individual who always had a quick story or two punctuated with his infectious laugh. I was very lucky to be associated with Jerry and the Channel F team to contribute to the beginnings of the Video Game industry.


57.       James Says: …He was a genius who made the first cartridge videogame machine, the first home 3-D games, and unique controllers for the Channel F. He was very knowledgeable in electronics. And he was cool. “Take that Turkey”, as he might say.


64.       Dee Says: My 8 year son is required to a Black History Report on an African American Inventor. He was given Jerry Lawson. I am so pleasantly surprised to learn about this man who passed away on my 38th birthday. My son LOVES video games and seems to be technically inclined, but insists he will be in the NBA and doesn't need a "Plan B". I hope this will be the spark to get him interested in technology and engineering. Thanks for this interview and information!

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