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Gerald "Jerry" Lawson: Inventor of the First Home Gaming Console with Interchangeable Cartridge

This profile on Gerald "Jerry" Lawson, an engineer and inventor of the first home gaming console that utilized interchangeable cartridges, is the tenth post in a month-long series of profiles on Black STEM innovators in honor of Black History Month. Today’s post also celebrates Engineers’ Week, by focusing on Lawson. 

Have you ever “fixed” a video game that didn’t work in your home gaming consul by blowing into the cartridge? If so, not only were you an early adopter of the now 19.72 billion dollar video game industry, but you were an early supporter of Gerald “Jerry” Lawson, inventor of interchangeable gaming cartridges1

Lawson showed an early interest in engineering, prompted by his parents. Lawson’s father would give him odd and complex gifts such as an Irish Mail cart, which Lawson then had to learn to use, while his mother encouraged and sought out better educational opportunities for her gifted son2. Besides his parents, Lawson also found teachers during his primary and secondary school years who encouraged his curiosity and passions, including one who commented on a photo Lawson kept next to his desk of George Washington Carver who told him “’This could be you.4’” 

Through his late teenage years, Lawson repaired TVs at local shops and homes when he wasn’t at electronics stores looking for new parts to buy with his weekly allowance which led to him piecemeal building a transmitter from scratch4. This passion for engineering followed Lawson through college when he attended Queens College and the City College of New York, then went on to work at established tech-focused companies such as Grumman Aircraft, Federal Electric, and PRD Electronics2,4.

After these job experiences, Lawson accepted a new job offered to him by Fairchild Semiconductor, where he took to the field in a customer-facing role and ultimately began working in the company's video game department. Fairchild, located in California, allowed Lawson to join the The Homebrew Computer Club, where he met two other prolific tech industry members-Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak4.

While working as the head of engineering and marketing for Fairchild's gaming branch, Lawson developed the Fairchild Channel F, a home gaming consul that predates the other early video giants like the Atari 26002. Lawson’s development allowed users to change games by removing and inserting different cartridges installed with a specific game’s program instead of having a system that was capable of only playing one game that was programed into the systems hardware, such as Pong2

This revolution in the gaming industry, propelled Lawson into the spotlight as one of, if not the, first role model for aspiring African American game programmers. Even in modern days, only 1% of respondents to a 2017 Developer Satisfaction Survey conducted by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) identified as Black/African American or African3

In an interview with Vintage Computing, Lawson spoke about his experience as a minority in a white dominated field, which he reported having its good and bad aspects. Lawson said "in some regard, you got a lot of, shall we say, eyes watching you. And as a result, if you did good, you did twice as good, ’cause you got instant notoriety about it4.”

Lawson’s expansive experience not only forwarding the gaming industry and improving the consumer experience, but also succeeding in spite of intrinsic racism, has provided inspirational insight into the industry for other programmers of color.

“You’ve gotta step away from the crowd and go do your own thing. You find a ground, cover it, it’s brand new, you’re on your own — you’re an explorer. That’s about what it’s going to be like,” Lawson offered as advice to young black men or women in STEM. “Explore new vistas, new avenues, new ways — not relying on everyone else’s way to tell you which way to go, and how to go, and what you should be doing.4” 

References: 

  1. Statista. (2019, August 12). Video Game Industry - Statistics & Facts. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/topics/868/video-games/
  2. Engadget. (2015, February 20). Jerry Lawson, a self-taught engineer, gave us video game cartridges Retrieved from https://www.engadget.com/2015/02/20/jerry-lawson-game-pioneer/.  
  3. Game Designing. (2019, November 11). The Issue of Diversity in Gaming. Retrieved from https://www.gamedesigning.org/gaming/diversity/
  4. Vintage Computing and Gaming: Adventures in Classic Technology. (2009, February 24). VC&G Interview: Jerry Lawson, Black Video Game Pioneer. Retrieved from http://www.vintagecomputing.com/index.php/archives/545