Jerry Lawson: The Black Engineer and Entrepreneur Who Changed Video Games

Explore the life of Gerald “Jerry” Lawson, a Black video game engineer who changed the way we play.

The Strong National Museum of Play

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.

Gerald Lawson (age 13) (1953) by Lawson FamilyThe Strong National Museum of Play

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

Lawson Work Badge (1970/1979) by Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corp.The 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.

DEC PDP-8 (1965) by Digital Equipment CorporationThe Strong National Museum of Play

Garage Gaming

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.

Computer Space Arcade Game (1972) by Syzgy EngineeringThe Strong National Museum of Play

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.

Fairchild Channel F Video Game Console Second Generation Prototype Printed Circuit Board (c. 1975) by Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corp.The Strong National Museum of Play

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

Second Life

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

Giving Back

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. 

Computer Science for All Poster (2019) by Elite Media and EdulutionaryThe Strong National Museum of Play

Lawson’s Legacy

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. 

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