Dubbed “the father of modern gaming,” Gerald ‘Jerry’ Lawson pioneered the first video game console with interchangeable game cartridges.
Born in 1940 and raised in Queens, New York, Lawson was the first major African American figure in the game industry and left an impressive legacy before passing away in 2011.
Growing up in federal housing with a science-loving father and a mother who kept a keen eye on his education, he kept a picture of Black inventor George Washington Carver at his desk. At 13, he gained an amateur ham radio license and built his own station at home. He also spent his teenage years earning money fixing neighbours televisions.
A largely self-taught engineer, he moved to Silicon Valley and was one of two Black members of the Homebrew Computer Club, a group of young hackers that famously included Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak among other leading computing pioneers.
In San Francisco, Lawson was employed by Fairchild Semiconductor as an electrical engineer. Then, the electronics company learned that he had built a coin operated arcade version of its Demolition Derby game — one of the earliest microprocessor-driven games — in his garage.
“Fairchild found out about it. In fact, it was a big controversy that I had done that. And then, very quietly, they asked me if I wanted to do it for them,” Lawson said in an interview with Vintage Computing.
The firm promoted him to head of engineering and marketing for the firm’s gaming division, which was exploring the budding home video game market. At the time, popular games such as Atari’s Pong and Magnavox Odyssey had games built into the hardware.
After a year in the role, he was approached by two Alpex Computer Corporation employees, Wallace Kirschner and Lawrence Haskel, with a prototype for a video game console with interchangeable software.
They had mounted the delicate ROM chip to a circuit board, connecting the chip’s 25 pins to a more durable connector that could withstand repeated insertion and removal. Although it was all contained within the decidedly consumer-unfriendly 40x40x13 cm metal box filled with circuit boards.
Lawson saw the promise in their idea. He used Fairchild’s expertise in consumer electronics, such as pocket calculators and digital watches, to develop consumer-friendly removable cartridges for consoles — individual games that could be stored as software on removable ROM cartridges, which would be inserted and removed repeatedly without causing electric shocks.
The resulting product was the Fairchild Channel F, the first video game machine that used interchangeable game cartridges, setting the standard for future gaming consoles.
The consumer gaming revolution
The technology may seem rudimentary now, but back then it was revolutionary.
“There was a mechanism that allowed you to put the cartridges in without destroying the semiconductors,” Lawson later said.
“We were afraid — we didn’t have statistics on multiple insertion and what it would do, and how we would do it, because it wasn’t done. I mean, think about it: nobody had the capability of plugging in memory devices in mass quantities like in a consumer product. Nobody.”
Recognised as groundbreaking at the time, a 1976 Businessweek article dubbed the Channel F part of ‘The Smart Machine Revolution’ alongside cars and watches as consumer products representing the enormous potential of microprocessors.
The Channel F featured a CPU chip operating at 1.79 MHz, 64 bytes of RAM, and a resolution of 128×64 pixels. Today, a PlayStation 5 has a CPU with eight cores running at a variable frequency capped at 3.5 GHz, 16GB of RAM, a custom-built 825 GB solid-state drive, and 4K pixel resolution.
Games giant Atari was also working on a replaceable cartridge idea, but the Channel F beat it by a year. The firm quickly hired a contract engineer named Doug Hardy, who had helped design the Channel F cartridge mechanism.
He went on to co-design the Atari 2600, one of the most successful video game consoles of all time, which debuted in October 1977. A second iteration of the Channel F was developed to counter the Atari, with removable controllers (instead of wired) and sound mixed into the television speaker.
But Atari’s graphics quality outpaced Channel F’s, and only 300,000 units of Lawson’s design were sold by 1977, compared to several million units of the Atari 2600. Lawson himself went on to form his own company, Videosoft, which produced games and software for Atari.
One month before his death in 2011, Lawson was honoured as an industry pioneer by the International Game Developers Association.