Gerald Lawson

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Jerry Lawson
Biographical Information
Computer engineer

Gerald Anderson "Jerry" Lawson (December 1, 1940 – April 9, 2011)[1][2] was an American electronic engineer known for his work in designing the Fairchild Channel F video game console.[3]

Overview[edit | edit source]

During development of the Channel F in the early-mid 1970s, Lawson was Chief Hardware Engineer[4] and director of engineering and marketing for Fairchild Semiconductor's video game division.[5] He also founded and ran Videosoft, a video game development company which made software for the Atari 2600 in the early 1980s, as the 2600 had displaced the Channel F as the top system in the market.[3]

Lawson along with Ron Jones were the sole black members of the Homebrew Computer Club, a group of early computer hobbyists which would produce a number of industry legends, including Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.[5] Lawson also produced one of the earliest arcade games, Demolition Derby,[6] which debuted in a southern California pizzeria shortly after Pong. Lawson later worked with the Stanford mentor program and was preparing to write a book on his career.[5]

In March 2011, Lawson was honored as an industry pioneer by the International Game Developers Association.[7] One month later, he died of complications from diabetes.[8] At the time of his death, he resided in Santa Clara, California.

Early life and career[edit | edit source]

The son of a longshoreman, Gerald A. Lawson was born in Queens, New York, in December 1940. His grandfather had been a physicist, but as an African American, the only job he could get was at the post office. His father had a keen interest in science and that interest rubbed off on Jerry. As a youth, Jerry dabbled in chemistry, ran an amateur radio station, repaired TVs, and built walkie-talkies. He had a love for electronics. He always wanted to know how technological devices worked. So he taught himself how circuitry worked and soon began fixing television sets for family and friends to earn spending money. Realizing this was his life passion, Lawson invested his eduction in the technical field.

After attending Queens College and CCNY, Lawson worked for ITT, Grumman, and PRD Electronics before heading west to work for Kaiser Electronics in Palo Alto. He eventually made his way to Fairchild, who hired one of its first "field application engineers" - engineers who would work with customers in the field to help out with their designs.

He was involved in the development of the Fairchild F8 microprocessor. As soon as it had been developed in 1975, Lawson was convinced it could be used for video games. He had previously been working on a top-down arcade racing game called Demolition Derby, and soon got to work converting its discrete logic hardware to the F8 microprocessor. However, the game never went past the field testing stage, and Gun Fight instead became the first microprocessor-based arcade video game later that year. Lawson then turned his attention towards designing what would become the first microprocessor-based video game console with interchangeable cartridges.

As an adult in the 70's Lawson worked for Silicon Valley. He also joined the Homebrew Computer Group, which included Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak among other pioneers. Lawson created one of the first arcade video game machines called Demolition Derby. He created the game in his garage and once word got out, it became a huge issue that gained lots of attention. He was approached by Fairchild Semiconductor and asked if he could provide the blueprint for making the game, and if he could make other games like it. Lawson agreed and this was how the first cartridge video game console came into existence.

Fairchild Channel F console[edit | edit source]

Gerald Jerry Lawson created the Channel F for Fairchild Semiconductor. Released in 1976, the Channel F was the first cartridge-based video game console ever invented, which allowed you to play different games. This was considered revolutionary at the time, compared to previous consoles like the Magnavox Odyssey and Home Pong which were restricted to playing built-in games.

The Channel F was also the first home system to use microprocessors, using the in-house Fairchild F8, an CPU in the same 8-bit class as the Zilog Z80 and Motorola 6800 CPU chips; microprocessors would become standard for video game consoles, arcade cabinets and personal computers over the following decades. The Channel F used many other components now standard for video game consoles today, such as detachable controllers, power adapters, video connector cables, etc. It was even the first console to allow games to be paused. Atari used many of the innovations used for Channel F to create its own console, the Atari 2600, which became the better known and more popular product.

Channel F contained 26 games in total, before the Atari 2600 was released. After the Atari 2600 was made and released to market, Channel F was pretty much forgotten about, even though the Atari 2600 used many of the innovations from the Channel F. After the Atari 2600 became the mainstream console in millions of homes across America, Gerald Lawson started his own video game company called Video Soft. However, he would only make and release one game for the popular console. It was a technical test cartridge called Color Bar Generator. The cartridge was used to test early color television sets.

Afterwards, the pioneer faded into the background. Gerald Jerry Lawson passed away on April 9, 2011. He was 70 years old. Today, he is honored as the creator of the modern video game console.

Footnotes[edit | edit source]

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