Jerry Lawson: Brooklyn’s Godfather of Modern Gaming
Although I took an almost 15 year hiatus from seriously playing video games, I’ve been playing since I was old enough to hold the controller, and still remember those days fairly well. I remember the excitement my siblings and I felt, when a family friend brought over the Atari 2600 for the first time, and we played Smurfs: Rescue In Gargamel’s Castles, Pitfall, Space Invaders, among other games. I also recall playing Coleco Vision, and we eventually got the original NES. People were also playing a new version of the Magnavox Odyssey around that time, from what I recall.
However, not until a few years ago, did I learn about a console that was released a little before my time called the “Fairchild Channel F“. It was released one year before the Atari 2600, in 1976, and is the first gaming console that featured interchangeable cartridges. This technology is still used today, particularly by one of the best selling systems of this generation, the “Nintendo Switch“. It also features the 8 way joystick, that was later popularized by the Atari 2600. The FCF was also the first system to have a “pause” button.
This revolutionary console was invented by an African-American man, by the name of Jerry Lawson. I found this to be an incredible fact especially since black Americans seem to be left out of the picture as far as the history of video game development is concerned, among other areas in the industry. Black Enterprise magazine coined him “the father of the video game cartridge” in 1982.
Lawson mastered a technology developed by “Alpex” that allowed games to be stored on a ROM cartridge, and as the Chief Hardware Engineer and Director of Engineering at Fairchild, completed the Fairchild Channel F. Due to poor promotions on behalf of Fairchild and a high price point, particularly per video game, the FCF wasn’t a commercial success. But remains a groundbreaking achievement in the evolution of video games.
Jerry Lawson, full name Gerald A. Lawson, was born in Brooklyn, NY on December 1st, 1940. He also grew up in Queens as a teenager. His father earned a living as a dock worker, and his mother worked for the city, and was on the board of the Parent Teacher Association. His scientific interests were encouraged by his parents, and when he was only 13, he built and started his own Radio Station. He also studied chemistry in his teenage years.
One of Jerry’s early influences was also his grandfather who was an educated physicist. However due to the racist policies still in place in America at the time, he wasn’t able to pursue his passion professionally, and began work as a postmaster.
Jerry himself, attended both the City College of New York and Queens college. However, he didn’t graduate from either university. He certainly knew his computer science, but perhaps he preferred learning in the field itself.
This quote from a 2006 Q & A session at an event at the “Computer History Museum”, in Mountainview, CA, might say something about Jerry’s attitude towards education. It seems he was an advocate for alternate forms of learning and teaching.
“The only thing I don’t like about todays games is that they don’t teach the youth anything. There should be some kind of goal and objective, but you learn something, I’d like to see them more towards scientific endeavors. Not to come out and say “I shot down 50 Martians today”. I’d like to see something that makes them think about the next generation. Cause I think we owe that to them, we need to have them develop that.“
Jerry Lawson was also a fan of George Washington Carver, one of the greatest minds of our time. Jerry had a picture of him on the wall by his desk at school, and his 1st grade teacher encouraged him to become someone influential like Carver.
In some esoteric spiritual communities such as The Art of Ninzuwu, Mr. Carver is acknowledged for both his technical and psychic abilities. As someone interested in the links between spirituality and technology, that being one of the central themes of this blog, I find it interesting and worth mentioning that he had such a profound influence on Jerry. Carver wasn’t only a brilliant scientist and agriculturist, but from a Ninzuwu perspective, had the uncanny ability to communicate with plant life on a metaphysical level.
Before eventually starting work for “Fairchild”, Jerry worked for “PRD Electronics” as a 1218 UNIVAC programmer. He didn’t particularly enjoy it, so he gained employment at “Kaiser” in Palo Alto, CA working on HUDs for military aircrafts. One interesting thing about the video games industry, is that never in it’s history can you separate it’s development from military technology.
Corey Mead, author of “War Play : Video Games and The Future of Armed Conflict.” reported the following during an interview with Vice Magazine, in 2021.
“The video game industry actually emerged out of military contexts and military funding. The video game industry is built on technologies that were funded for military research. Things like advanced computing graphics or the internet or 3D environments…when the military funding started to dry up in the late ‘90s, partly because of reduced defense budgets, a lot of the technology companies and simulation makers turned to the video game industry to sell their products.”
In 1970 Jerry Lawson moved on to work for “Fairchild Semiconductor” in San Francisco, where aside from the FCF he created a coin operated arcade game, called “Demolition Derby”. The game was completed in Jerrys garage, in 1975. It was the first game to incorporate Fairchild’s cutting edge “F8 microprocessors”, and among the first microprocessor-driven video games. While he was with Fairchild he was also a member of the “Home Brew Computer Club“, a hobbyist group that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the founders of “Apple” were also a part of.
Lawson went on to create his own company “Videosoft“, which developed games for the Atari 2600, as well as for Amiga, Parker Brothers, Mattel, and Milton Bradley. Amiga was praised for being significantly more advanced than any other home computer. This is probably why Jerry decided to develop software for it, although other options were available. The Amiga featured: 4096 colors, 4 channels of digital audio, and multitasking. This has garnered it a cult following to this day, despite it’s lack of commercial success.
Videosoft also developed a series of prototype 3D Amiga games to be played with normal 3D glasses, that includes games like “Atom Smasher” and “3D Ghost Attack”, among several others. These products were never released, but are worth mentioning. Videosoft lasted for about five years, before Jerry began doing consulting work and was planning on writing a book about his life.
Lawson has gained prestige from the gaming industry. He was honored with The International Game Developers Award (2011), and ID@Xbox Gaming Heroes Award at the 21st Independent Games Festival (2019) for developing the first cartridge based console. He has also been honored by various museums, documentaries, educational institutions, and television shows.
Around 2003 due to complications with diabetes Jerry lost the use of an arm and sight in one eye. He later died in his resident town of Santa Carla, CA on April 9th 2011, about a month after he was given The International Game Developers Award. Jerry is survived by his wife Catherine, 2 children and a brother. His wife and daughter also spoke for him in the Netflix documentary “High Score“.
Jerry changed the way we play video games with The FCF. It’s also very likely that he formed the fist black-owned video game development company. Although I acknowledge that many people in the industry showed Jerry love and respect, I think it would be disingenuous of me to not acknowledge the racial discrimination Jerry faced in his field, as well as the lack of appreciation he has been shown on behalf of video game historians who never analyzed his full body of work.
One thing I didn’t mention before is that Fairchild was eventually sold to a parent company, and after the rights to the Fairchild Channel F were sold, Jerry weighed his options and decided to form his own company due to racist activity within Fairchild. Jerry told Business Week in February 1984.
“As a black man I was not going to get anywhere in the corporation.”
During this same Business Week interview, in regards to Videosoft, Lawson mentioned that he underestimated how difficult it could be for a black-owned technology company to gain access to the capital needed to thrive, as potential investors would tighten their wallets as they learned more about the company.
It’s possible that white racism had an effect on Videosoft’s lifespan, and that it could’ve been a company still around today, if things were different. I also acknowledge the gaming crash of 1983-85 as one of the factors that lead to Videosoft’s closing, as noted by Jerry himself.
However, there is a racist historic trend in America of investors not supporting black-owned business, especially ones that can potentially outperform white-owned businesses of the same type, just as there exists a trend of giving remarkable black men awards and commendation when they are practically on their death beds. These instances seemingly show up in Jerry’s life. And I think they’re worth taking into consideration.
This article goes out to the legend Jerry Lawson, born Gerald A. Lawson, and his family with great gratitude and respect. I realize that over the past few years, a substantial number of articles have been written about Jerry that might not be too different from what I’ve presented here. However, I hope that this helps spread knowledge of him, and perhaps adds in whatever small way, a useful new perspective to the discussion pertaining to his legacy.
Peace everyone. Thanks for reading Spirit Game by Howl Blake. I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts concerning “Brooklyn’s Godfather of Modern Gaming”, Jerry Lawson. Have you heard of him? What do you think about his accomplishments if you have?