Engineers of History: Jerry Lawson, Video Game Pioneer (1940-2011)
Jerry Lawson is most well known for his work as Chief Engineer of Fairchild’s Video Game division, playing a vital role during the dawn of video game consoles. He’s an overview of his decorated career
Learn about Jerry Lawson, the engineer primarily credited with developing ROM video game cartridges—a feat that required overcoming mechanical and electrical engineering challenges that helped make portable ROM (and video games) accessible.
Born on December 1st, 1940, Gerald “Jerry” Lawson was the archetypical electronics nerd, tinkering in his free time and saving up for electrical components for projects.
One of the things that made Lawson different, however, was that he was an African-American in a predominantly white field. Lawson received his formal education and started his career through the tail-end of the civil rights movement.
However, Lawson never let perceived differences derail him from eventually becoming Chief Engineer of Fairchild’s Video Game division, playing a vital role during the dawn of video game consoles—he focused solely on the value of his passion and work. He’s an overview of his decorated career.
Image courtesy of the National Museum of Play.
Curiosity and Ingenuity
Like many engineers, Lawson grew up interested in science and took great joy in learning. His parents would encourage his interests and ingrained in him the value of education. While neither of his parents were scientists or engineers themselves, Lawson’s grandfather was educated as a physicist—although he was never able to work as a scientist and instead worked as a postmaster.
Lawson’s first interest was chemistry, but at the age of 13, he wrote and passed his test to become an amateur radio operator. After receiving his license, he would save his money to buy parts from local electronic stores to build his own station in his room. He would later receive his first-class commercial license, which would lead to job opportunities as an engineer at radio stations.
During high school, Lawson used his electronics knowledge to repair television sets for money, working in television shops and making house calls. For college, Lawson attended both Queens College and Community College of New York, studying electronics, but did not complete his degree at either.
Equal Parts Technical Guru and Savvy Businessman
Before eventually winding up at Fairchild, Lawson’s opportunities would take him to both the East and West coasts of the continental USA. On the East coast, he left New York City to work at PRD Electronics, where he would become a 1218 UNIVAC programmer.
Lawson’s interests were not in programming, however, and did not particularly enjoy the endeavor. After being with PRD for a few years, he headed to Paulo Alto to work with Kaiser Electronics, focusing on head’s up displays for military aircraft.
Image courtesy of the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station.
Lawson recognized that, while military grade electronics were designed with endurance in mind, consumer electronics had to be more impervious to untrained users.
In the military, personnel was given training and specific instructions on how devices are supposed to be used, where laymen bringing devices home could easily make quick, uninformed decisions that could damage the delicate electronics. This hurdle would play a role in Lawson’s work later in his career when determining how swappable ROM could be used in video game consoles.
After Kaiser electronics, Lawson eventually wound up at Fairchild, where he was offered a freelance engineering job. Here, Lawson would be able to apply his business acumen, focusing on providing better service to customers. One of his first major undertakings would be to build Fairchild’s reputation with customers by creating a mobile laboratory in a 28-foot van. Here, demos, repairs, and other marketing activities could be conducted. The idea was to take Fairchild to the customer and the project was considered a success.
During this time, Lawson was also a member of the famous Homebrew Computer Club—a gathering of computer enthusiasts that included Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, founders of Apple computers. Lawson was the only African-American member of the club at the time. In interviews, Lawson recounts that he did not have a particularly good impression of the Steves, and even turned Steven Wozniak down to instead take an engineering position at Fairchild.
Legacy in the Video Game Industry
Video games were just a budding concept in the 70s, but Lawson would become the Chief Engineer of Fairchild’s Video Game division, starting with a clandestine project to port an Alpex game from the Intel 8080 to the Fairchild F8.
In this position, Lawson had a significant amount of freedom, and the partnership would lead to the Alpex video game cartridge idea to be licensed by Fairchild. History often cites Lawson as being the sole inventor of the cartridge, but he is more appropriately the person who lead the commercialization of a polished version of it.
The challenge at the time was that video game systems did not have swappable ROM, where games were stored, so only one game could ever be played. Video game cartridges were a solution that could allow swapping out games from a library, but a tricky one that had to overcome the potential mechanical and electrical failures of removing, inserting, removing a portable ROM device repeatedly. And by untrained, everyday consumers.
On top of that, a swappable ROM cartridge was so novel that the FCC required every cartridge developed to undergo testing and review.
Image courtesy of the Video Game Console Library.
However, the Fairchild Channel F would be released in 1976, retailing for $169.95 (approximately $748.34 in 2018), with 26 different game cartridges available. It’s credited as the first video game console to use swappable ROM cartridges, as well as the first console to use a microprocessor. Between 1976 and 1983, the company would sell 250,000 units.
While the Channel F would be overtaken by the Atari VCS in popularity not long after, the video game cartridge would be a complete game changer (pun intended). Video game consoles over the next decade would use the concept, up until the CD-ROM.
And there you have it. Next time you break out your vintage Super Nintendo console, you can thank Fairchild and Jerry Lawson for paving the way for video games.