The game-changing work of Jerry Lawson
Jun 19, 2023

The game-changing work of Jerry Lawson

Jerry Lawson, a black Silicon Valley engineer, changed the path of the video game industry by helping create the game cartridge.

When you think of the early days of video games, the Fairchild Channel F console might not be the first brand that comes to mind.

The Fairchild Channel F was released in 1976, before the more famous Atari released its console. It was also the first system to use individual game cartridges thanks in large part to Jerry Lawson, a Black engineer at Fairchild.

Marketplace’s Meghan McCarty Carino recently spoke with Anthony Frasier, CEO of ABF Creative and host of a podcast about Jerry Lawson called “Raising the Game,” about Lawson’s life and achievements.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation

Anthony Frasier: He was actually a salesman, a glorified salesman at first, at Fairchild. He would go around in a van and kind of do repairs and kind of do sales, pitches to other companies to get them to buy semiconductors and things of that nature. One day, he actually got his hands on an F-8 microprocessor, which is a microprocessor that Fairchild made at the time. And he took it home — not with the company’s permission, of course — and he built the first Demolition Derby game in his garage. And it worked really well. He showed it off to a few people, he was even trying to sell it to a pizza shop. And then the word got back to someone at Fairchild. He got called to the office and he thought he was going to lose his job. And the executive said, no, we don’t want to fire you. We want you to do this again, show us what you’ve done. And so they said, Jerry, we want to promote you, we want you to lead the team that creates a video game console for Fairchild.

Meghan McCarty Carino: Yeah, for the gaming industry, why was it so sort of transformational to move to this kind of game cartridge model?

Frasier: Before the cartridge, the only way for you to play games was with the games that was actually on the console. That was it. So when you went out and bought an Atari or you went out and bought a Fairchild Channel F, whatever games was on that system when you bought it, that was it! There was no other game you can ever play. When the cartridges got introduced, now you have options. So when Fairchild Channel F came into the scene, and they had cartridges, you can go out to the store and you can buy other games now. You can play, you know, Tetris and Demolition Derby, Space Invaders, whatever it was that came out at that time, you can play multiple titles, and you weren’t just locked in to whatever came on the system itself. But over time, that actually made the video game industry more profitable, because now Atari and Fairchild can actually make money from those extra cartridge sales.

McCarty Carino: Now, Fairchild is not a name that I think, you know, is a household name when we think about gaming. Some of the other companies that kind of followed the lead of Fairchild like, as you noted, Atari, are probably more associated with video games. I mean, why is that?

Frasier: Atari had a much more, I would say, visionary leader. Nolan Bushnell was, he was Steve Jobs before Steve Jobs was, you know? So he was someone who was very flashy, knew how to pitch, knew how to sell and they had more money, quite frankly. They knew what they were doing when it came time to market their consoles so the Atari really just came out swinging.

McCarty Carino: How do you think Jerry Lawson’s identity played into the work that he did, and how he has been remembered or maybe not remembered?

Frasier: It played a huge part. In our podcast, we’ve actually spoken to people who said that they spoke with Jerry over the phone before they met him, and they thought he was a white guy. And then when they seen him, they was like, whoa, this is a linebacker for the New York Giants. Jerry was humongous. He was 6’3″, probably close to 300 pounds, he actually did look like a football player. But he was this soft spoken, very intelligent individual with an afro, very hard to miss when he came into the room. It played a huge part in the way people received him initially, race actually played a part in him being able to actually succeed in his career. There’s been a lot of times when he tried to get something approved, and they would deny it or even try to get funding later in his life when he tried to create his own video game company. You know, and that’s some of the problems that a lot of blacks in technology still face today in tech.

McCarty Carino: Yeah, I mean, Silicon Valley, sort of past and present, is very rightly criticised for its lack of diversity. But is it also sort of the case that the real contributions of Black engineers like Jerry Lawson and others have been sort of overlooked in that narrative?

Frasier: For sure. When we think about the legends of the video game industry, we’re always thinking about the names that come up like, you know, the Nolan Bushnells and even in Silicon Valley itself, like the Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniaks, but Jerry Lawson was in the room. And I mean that quite literally. Jerry Lawson was part of the Homebrew Computer Club that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak was part of. It seems like like the biggest secret in Silicon Valley, almost like they all know who he is, but the public didn’t. I was just baffled by that.

McCarty Carino: Do you feel like that’s been changing?

Frasier: For sure. Microsoft just actually created a scholarship fund in Jerry Lawson’s name. Netflix had a segment, about a 12 minute segment in one of their documentaries about him. I myself, just came out with a documentary about him. And even Google made him the Google Doodle for the day. And that’s inspiring everyone there. I’ve seen tweets, talking about possibly a movie or a television show, we’ve been approached about that, you know, from people wanting to adapt our material into some kind of movie or show and people are hungry to hear more about who he was and what he’s done.

McCarty Carino: What do you see as his most important legacy?

Frasier: Jerry did a lot more than lead the team that invented the video game cartridge, he created the first game that actually had AI, where you can play against the computer, the first console that had a six axis controller where you can actually go more than up, down, left, right, you can actually go diagonal. And he was the first person who opened the door to third party game development. So he actually wrote a guide teaching other game developers on how to make games for the Atari, which essentially opened the door for other people to make money in the game industry. So his contributions were much more than just the video game cartridge itself. He did a lot to help move the industry forward.

Anthony Frasier mentioned a lawsuit between Atari and another video game company, Activision, and Jerry Lawson’s involvement in it.

Activision was actually started by former Atari employees who wanted to — and eventually did — create separate games for the Atari 2600 console which is what prompted Atari to sue Activision for allegedly stealing trade secrets.

That’s when Activision turned to Jerry Lawson to prove someone could reverse engineer the game and cartridge tech and both parties eventually settled that lawsuit in 1982.

They go even deeper into Lawson’s life on Anthony’s podcast, “Raising the Game.” He and his team spoke with a lot of people in Jerry’s life — family, friends and former colleagues.

Some of those include Atari founder Nolan Bushnell and Gene Landrum, who together founded Chuck E. Cheese, marrying the combo of arcade games, pizza and a rodent named Charles Entertainment Cheese for decades.

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The team

Daisy Palacios Senior Producer
Daniel Shin Producer
Jesús Alvarado Associate Producer