Black History Month: How Jerry Lawson Revolutionized Gaming

Black History Month is for raising awareness about issues affecting the black community and celebrating the achievements of black people. Martin Luther King, Jr., Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Nelson Mandela, and Morgan Freeman, among others, are universally known in their fields. Video games also have a black man to thank for revolutionizing the gaming industry: Jerry Lawson. While not as well known as the people mentioned before, Lawson has had an impact on gaming that continues to the present.

Jerry Lawson was born in 1940 in New York City, and his own teachers encouraged him to be someone like George Washington Carver (a black scientist and inventor who people mistakenly believe invented peanut butter, although he did make numerous contributions to the advancement of agriculture). Lawson got an early start to his career, earning an amateur ham radio license at the age of 13. Lawson also showed his aptitude for technology, earning money by repairing television sets. Lawson also created his own radio station in his room.

Lawson joined Fairchild Semiconductor in San Francisco in 1970 and created the arcade game Demolition Derby in his own garage in 1975, possibly also making him the first black man to develop his own video game. He also recalled interviewing (but not hiring) Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak for a position at Fairchild. Along with Ron Jones, he was only one of two black members of the Homebrew Computer Club, a computer hobbyist group located in Menlo Park, California that met from 1975 to 1986. The group’s membership also included Wozniak and Steve Jobs.

Lawson was eventually promoted to Chief Hardware Engineer at Fairchild, as well as the director of engineering and marketing for the company’s video game division. Lawson led the development of the Fairchild Channel F, which was also the first video game console to feature swappable video game cartridges. Previously, games were built into the hardware. This also made Lawson the inventor of the video game cartridge. The Fairchild Channel F also had other revolutionary features: a pause button and an 8-way joystick. While it was not commercially successful, it would lay the foundation for the wildly popular Atari 2600.

Lawson left Fairchild in 1980 and founded Videosoft to produce games for the Atari 2600, but the company was one of the many casualties of the video game crash of 1983, folding in 1985. Lawson eventually went into consulting work until his death in 2011. So whenever you play a video game, just remember Jerry Lawson helped make it all possible.