Jerry Lawson - First Black Video Game Professional

The Fairchild Channel F with hard-wired controllers. A second-generation video game console released in 1976.
The Fairchild Channel F with hard-wired controllers. A second-generation video game console released in 1976.

Evan-Amos (CC BY-SA 3.0)/Wikimedia Commons

At a time when the computer and video game industry was primarily filled with Caucasian males, Jerry Lawson was an innovator. He created one of the first cartridge-based video game consoles (the Fairchild Channel F), designed of one of the first coin-op arcade games (Demolition Derby), was the head of Videosoft, an early independent developer for the Atari 2600, and the first African American in the video game industry to achieve such accomplishments.

Name: Jerry Lawson
Birth: 1940
Mark In Gaming History: First Black Video Game Engineer and Designer, Spearheaded the Fairchild Channel F video game console, designed and produced the Demolition Derby arcade game, head of Videosoft game developer.

Jerry Lawson's Early Life

Growing up the son of a low-income family from a housing project in Jamaica, New York never held back a young Jerry Lawson. His mother, was determined to make sure her son went to the top schools available and received the very best education, even serving as the head of the PTA. His father, a longshoreman, had a ravenous apatite for science and technology, which he passed onto his son.

As a youth Jerry was already an incurable tech-head and tinkerer, obtaining a ham radio license and using it to build his own amateur radio station from his room, as well as make and sell walkie-talkies.

Engineering His Way to Fairchild

After attending Queens College and The City College of New York, Lawson began an engineering career, working in emerging technologies with companies such as Federal Electric, Grumman Aircraft, and PRD Electronics. Eventually, he landed at Fairchild Semiconductor in 1970 working with their full-line semiconductors and microprocessors.

During his first few years with Fairchild, Jerry started getting involved with more computer technology, as his interests grew he joined the Homebrew Computer Club and befriended the founders of Atari, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, as well as the engineer behind "Pong," Alan Alcorn.

Fairchild Channel F: Origin of a Video Game Trailblazer

Nolan and Ted had shown Jerry their creation, "Computer Space," the first commercially available coin-op arcade game, after which Jerry started tinkering around at home, designing and building his own coin-op arcade machine, Demolition Derby, using microprocessors from Fairchild.

When the execs at Fairchild learned of his arcade creation they put him in charge of their home video game console project, which would eventually become the Fairchild Channel F, the first ROM cartridge video game console.

Jerry Lawson and TV POW

In addition to being head of the Fairchild Channel F project and designing many of its prototyped components, Lawson, and his team also worked on expanding the system's capabilities beyond just cartridge gaming.

One of the more unique variations of the Channel F technology that Lawson and his team put together was "TV Pow," the first, and only video game played via broadcast television.

As feature on local children's shows between cartoons, the host would have players call in to participate in TV Pow, which featured a space shooting game running of the Channel F, with a big target scope in the middle. When enemy ships flew in front of the scope, the player would yell "POW" to fire and hit their target.

After the Fairchild Channel F

After leaving Fairchild, Lawson started his own video game developer, Videosoft, with intentions to create games and tech tools for the Atari 2600. Videosoft ended up creating only one cartridge, "Color Bar Generator", which was designed to calibrate your television's color and adjust the vertical and horizontal picture hold.

Today Lawson is enjoying a well-deserved retirement and attends retro gaming expos and conventions as a guest speaker. From the beginnings of his career to today, he is amused when he meets so many folks who have heard of him, but upon meeting him in person are shocked by the fact that he is Black. As he stated in a 2009 interview with Benj Edwards for the website Vintage Computing and Gaming, "Well I don't go around telling everybody I'm Black. I just do my job, you know?"

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