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Black History Month Innovators Spotlight: Gerald (Jerry) Lawson

This is why we celebrate black history month – Gerald ‘Jerry’ Lawson. Who is he? Do you know? You should – as I guarantee he has influenced your life. I’m a parent of three children and one of their favorite hobbies is video games. I’m bombarded with game theory, Youtubers, twitch streams, discord chats and, of course, requests for money. Being a part of Gen X I have vivid memories of playing video games on Atari and Nintendo and being in awe. My children’s experiences today and my fond memories create a commonality and bond in our family that is priceless.  Who can I thank for this? Mr. Gerald ‘Jerry’ Lawson.

Gerald, ‘Jerry’ Lawson is considered the ‘Father of Modern Gaming’.  He was an exceptional child with a strong interest in chemistry and science bundled with the gift of self-determination.  Influenced by African American inventor George Carver Washington, Mr. Lawson was inspired to become his own inventor, to be something and teach himself. By the age of 13 he received his amateur HAM Radio license and used his time to repair TVs and other electronics. When other kids his age were climbing trees, Jerry was building a radio station in his room!

In 1970, he became an Applications Engineering Consultant for Fairchild Semiconductor in Silicon Valley.  He was one of the few African American engineers in his field and built the first microprocessing arcade game, Demolition Derby, in his garage.  By the mid 70’s he was the Chief Hardware Engineer which contributed to him becoming a video game pioneer.

In the 70’ s video game consoles were brand new and to play a game you had to buy a console with the game built in. At Fairchild, Jerry led his team to improve technology licensed by Alpex and develop a console that allowed a video game to be stored on a removable cartridge, enabling players to play multiple games on one system without causing electrical damage. This interchangeable cartridge was the first of its kind. Effectively, inventing the first modern video gaming system called the Fairchild Channel F Console. Atari and Nintendo followed suit and with their larger resources changed the at-home gaming market.  This would not have happened without Jerry Lawson. In addition to the gaming cartridge invention his team also designed the 8-way joystick and Jerry created the ‘pause’ button, another first of its kind.

Jerry’s talents were not unnoticed, he became the only African American member in the Home Brew Computer Club of Silicon Valley at that time, which included Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak who founded Apple.  After Fairchild, Jerry Lawson went on to found Video Soft, Inc., the first black-owned video game development company, which created software content for the Atari 2600 and other gaming systems.

Gerald Lawson has been recognized by the International Game Developers Association and his inventions are on display at the World Video Game Hall of Fame in Rochester, NY.  Jerry passed away in 2011 but his legacy continues.  He was an inventor, a leader, a technology guru, a mentor and a family man. I thank him for his positive impact on my life and my family’s.  To learn about the wonderful character of Gerald Lawson click here.

Images: Yahoo