Irish Mail Toy Vehicle by UnknownThe Strong National Museum of Play
Playing to Learn
Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1940, Lawson grew up with parents who encouraged him to experiment. His father Blanton, a longshoreman who devoured science books, gave his son a four-wheeled, Irish mail handcar toy like this one to ride on and explore his Queens neighborhood.
George Inspires Jerry
Lawson learned the value of Black ingenuity early. At his predominantly white school he found a hero in the prominent African-American scientist George Washington Carver. A portrait of Carver hung next to his desk, inspiring him to become an inventor.
Jerry Lawson Corporate Photo (1970) by UnknownThe Strong National Museum of Play
Training in Tech
Lawson first encountered computers while working at Federal Electric ITT and PDR Electronics in New York. After honing his programming and electronics skills, he moved west to California’s Silicon Valley where he eventually settled at Fairchild Semiconductor in the early 1970s.
In the early 1970s, most electronic games were only available on mainframe computers in university labs. Lawson outfitted his own Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-8 minicomputer in his garage and played the space-themed, text-only game Lunar Lander on it.
Let the Games Begin
The first mass-produced arcade video game, the cosmic shooter Computer Space, came out in 1971 and motivated Lawson to build his own game. Powered by Fairchild’s F8 microprocessor, “Demolition Derby” never went into production, but the feat caught the attention of his colleagues.
Expanding Gaming’s Possibilities
In 1975, Fairchild tapped Lawson to lead the team responsible for transforming an Alpex Computer Corporation prototype into the first cartridge-based home video game system. Lawson used these printed circuit board and game cartridge prototypes to refine the console and its games.
Math Quiz Prototype Cartridge (1976) by FairchildThe Strong National Museum of Play
Fairchild Channel F Video Game Console (1976) by Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corp.The Strong National Museum of Play
The Console that Changed Gaming
Before the 1976 release of Fairchild’s Channel F, home video games came hardwired into consoles, limiting how many games any one system could play. Although largely forgotten today, the Channel F’s interchangeable game cartridges supercharged today’s massive game industry.
Fairchild Channel F Videocart Cartridge (1979) by Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corp.The Strong National Museum of Play
Video Soft Brochure (1980) by Video SoftThe Strong National Museum of Play
A Company of His Own
In 1979 Fairchild sold the rights to the Channel F and shuttered the company’s game division. With few opportunities for advancement, Lawson left the firm and founded Video Soft—the first Black-owned video game development company—in 1982 to capitalize on the growing game market.
Color Bar Generator cartridge (1984) by Video SoftThe Strong National Museum of Play
Clever and Colorful
Television technicians used expensive pattern generators to ensure a TV’s picture looked its best. With Atari 2600 consoles in millions of homes by the early 1980s, Video Soft sold this Color Bar Generator cartridge to adjust sets for a fraction of the cost.
Genesis 3D Atari Game (1977) by Video SoftThe Strong National Museum of Play
The video game market crash and recession of 1983-1985 forced Lawson to close Video Soft before it could ship any of its games. Fortunately, in 2010 a group of Atari game enthusiasts worked with him to release 100 copies of six prototype titles, including this Genesis 3D game.
Stanford Aeronautics Deptartment Honor (1994) by Stanford UniversityThe Strong National Museum of Play
After Video Soft, Lawson worked as a consultant, an expert witness in court litigations, and as an advisor to young engineers. This 1994 honor from the Stanford University department of aero/astronautics celebrates his outstanding mentorship on a satellite project.
Lawson died in 2011, but his trailblazing work inspires new generations. Like the portrait of George Washington Carver that spurred a young Lawson to invent, in 2019 New York City’s Computer Science For All program gave teachers these posters of him to hang in their classrooms.