09/12/2019 Portsmouth, Hampshire, UK A Fairchild channel F Grandstand games console, a vintage games console released in 1976. Developed by Jerry Lawson.

Happy Black History Month! This is the 6th blog of a series of blogs called “Black History Month Heroes You Should Know”. Each blog focuses on the life and career of a Black American whose life has shaped American history.

The focus of today’s blog is Jerry Lawson, the video game engineer behind Fairchild Channel F systems, the first home video game system with interchangeable games.

Inspired by George Washington Carver

Born in 1940, Gerald Anderson Lawson grew up in New York City. As a kid, Lawson found inspiration in learning about the life and work of George Washington Carver. This kickstarted his interest in science and engineering. As a teen, he spent his time earning money fixing televisions until he enrolled at Queens College in New York.

Life In Silicon Valley

After graduating, Lawson landed a job in Silicon Valley at Fairchild Semiconductor. He joined the Homebrew Computer Club, of which he was the only Black member at the time. During his time with the club, Lawson met Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, aka the brains behind Apple. Lawson said he was “not impressed with them“, but called Jobs a “sparkplug“.

Developer of First Cartridge Game Console

While working as the Director of Engineering and Marketing at Fairchild, he helped develop the first home game console with interchangeable cartridge games. This revolutionized the gaming industry and paved the way for game consoles like Atari and Magnavox. According to Museum of Play, several employees who left Atari to start up Activision hired Lawson to re-engineer the Atari console and create game cartridges for it. Atari had sued Activision for stealing their intellectual property. But, with Lawson’s help, Atari and Activision settled the lawsuit between them.

Video Soft

Later on, Lawson created his own game development company called Video Soft. It is most likely the first Black-owned game development company (Museum of Play). The first game he created was called Atom Smasher, which was the first of over a dozen his company created for the Atari 2600 game console. Lawson passed away from diabetes complications in 2011 (Biography).

In an interview with Vintage Computing and Gaming, the interviewer asked Lawson what he would say to other Black people considering engineering or a career in science. Lawson said, “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.”

Sources: Biography.com, Museum of Play, Vintage Computing

READ NEXT: Black History Month Heroes You Should Know: Eliza Allen

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