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How an engineer changed the video game industry forever

  • Published at 01:22 pm February 28th, 2020
Jerry-Lawson
Jerry Lawson Wikipedia

Lawson, an engineer and designer at Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corp, led a team at the Silicon Valley semiconductor maker charged with creating a game system using Fairchild's F8 microprocessor and storing games on cartridges

A rarely spoken engineer's contributions to the videogame industry continue to resonate to this day. 

Jerry Lawson oversaw the creation of the Channel F, the first video game console with interchangeable game cartridges -  something the first Atari and Magnavox Odyssey systems did not use, reports USA Today.

The initial consoles had a selection installed within the consoles. The 1972 Magnavox Odyssey used game "cards" but did not contain game data like the subsequent cartridges.

But Lawson, an engineer and designer at Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corp, led a team at the Silicon Valley semiconductor maker charged with creating a game system using Fairchild's F8 microprocessor and storing games on cartridges.

"A lot of people in the industry swore that a microprocessor could not be used in video games and I knew better," Lawson said during a speech at the 2005 Classic Gaming Expo in San Francisco posted on YouTube. 

Later named Chanel F, Fairchild Video Entertainment System began selling in 1976, and had games such as hockey, tennis, blackjack, and a maze game that foreshadowed Pac-Man.

Channel F's console preceded Atari 2600 by a year, and sold 250,000 units. 

It established the console of a concept of a console that could play an unlimited number of games, the foundation for today's global video game market, which is projected to surpass $160 billion in 2020, according to research firm Newzoo.

A pioneer as one of the few African American engineers in the industry at the time, Lawson grew up in Queens, New York. He was a lifelong inventor who attended college but did not earn a college degree, according to his obituary in The New York Times. As a teen, he made money by repairing televisions.

While working at Fairchild, Lawson belonged to a home inventors club that included Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the founders of Apple.

When he left Fairchild, Lawson founded his own video game company, Videosoft, which created games for the Atari 2600 and made some of the first 3D games. But he closed the company during the video game crash of the mid-1980s.

An exhibit of Lawson's handiwork is on permanent display at The World Video Game Hall of Fame at The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. The Channel F game system and some of Videosoft's games can be seen there. The museum has Lawson's papers in its archive, too. Lawson and the Channel F game system are also included in "A History of Video Games in 64 Objects," a book published by the museum in 2018.

As he aged, Lawson became upset with how video games glorified violence. "Most of the games that are out now – I’m appalled by them," he told Vintage Computing and Gaming. "They are all scenario games considered with shooting somebody and killing somebody. To me, a game should be something like a skill you should develop – if you play this game, you walk away with something of value. That’s what a game is to me."