In the nascent days of video games, gaming consoles had limitations — namely, users were limited to one game, such as Al Alcorn’s groundbreaking Pong. But a group of engineers at the semiconductor company Fairchild — including the subject of this month’s Pioneers in Tech feature, Jerry Lawson, one of the few Black engineers in 1970s Silicon Valley—changed the course of video game history.
Born in 1940 in Queens, New York, Lawson was encouraged by his parents to pursue science from an early age. After studying at Queens College and City College of New York, he moved to California and began working at Fairchild in 1970. As a hobby, Lawson developed an interest in gaming. Inspired by the first arcade video game, Computer Space, he built his own microprocessor-driven game, Demolition Derby. Fairchild execs recognized the value of Lawson’s hobby and added him to a team charged with developing a gaming console using the Fairchild F8 microprocessor.
What Lawson and his colleagues developed was the first cartridge-based console, the Channel F (the “F” standing for “fun”), which made its debut at the June 1976 Chicago Consumer Electronics Show. Allowing players to switch games opened the door for game developers and created an entirely new segment of the industry. The Channel F also allowed players to pause the action midgame, making it possible to take a bathroom or snack break. Lawson was instrumental in designing the Channel F game controller.
Despite the foresight of its designers, the Channel F was quickly pushed aside by Atari’s cartridge-based console. Only 26 Channel F games were produced, including Blackjack and a bowling game.
Lawson eventually left Fairchild to start his own video game company, Video Soft. Throughout his career, he was a strong advocate and mentor for other Black computer engineers as he traveled in Silicon Valley circles, including the famed Homebrew Computer Club. Lawson passed away in 2011 at age 70.
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