Black History Month In Focus: Video Game Pioneer Gerald “Jerry” Lawson

There wouldn’t be online video game purchases, CDs or multiple video game cartridges if it wasn’t for the passion, drive, and genius of Jerry Lawson.

This is part of The Shadow League’s yearly Black History Month In Focus series celebrating Black excellence in sports and culture.

Society tends to overlook or under-appreciate the contributions of black inventors in tech-spaced positions. This includes the video game industry.

So, in honor of Black History Month, TSL pays homage to the triple OG black video game engineer, Gerald “Jerry” Lawson.

Do you remember the Nintendo 64 days when you had to blow dust out of your cartridge just to sneak in one more game before dinner time? Well, you have Lawson to thank for that special memory.

After making early contributions to video games with the development of Demolition Derby, an arcade game he created in his garage, Fairchild Semiconductor quietly asked Lawson to do the same thing for the company.

And the rest was history moving forward. Jerry Lawson is primarily credited for developing the first cartridge-based video game console. The system was called Fairchild Video Entertainment System but later was named Channel F in 1976.

commercial for Fairchild Channel F video game system at JC Penney

Fairchild was the first video game system to have interchangable cartridges, predating the Atari by about a year. This commercial is for one of the later models, as it wasn’t called “Channel F” at first.

Channel F was the first gaming system to use interchangeable cartridges (with a pause button too!), predating Atari 5200, Nintendo’s Famicom and Sega’s Master System.

Before Lawson’s history-changing advancement, first-generation systems like the Magnavox Odyssey and Atari Pong had built-in hardware games. This development was a huge moment in the history of video games.

Unfortunately, the Fairchild console didn’t supersede its competitors. And eventually, Jerry Lawson left the company to start his own company, Videosoft.

But, the mark he made with the new interchangeable cartridge system played a massive role in the evolution and increased accessibility of video games. It took multiple fan favorites from the arcade and mall into the homes of average consumers.

Gerald A. “Jerry” Lawson Collection at The Strong Museum

Pioneering African-American engineer Jerry Lawson (1940-2011) helped revolutionize the video game industry through his design of the Fairchild Channel F, the first video game system to use interchangeable cartridges. An early member of the Homebrew Computer Club, Lawson went on to found Video Soft, Inc. in 1980.

There wouldn’t be online video game purchases, CDs or multiple video game cartridges if it wasn’t for the passion, drive, and genius of Jerry Lawson.

And while he pioneered this space, he was also one of, if not the only, black engineers in the gaming space at that time. This is legendary status.

So whenever you are playing video games or reminiscing over dust-filled cartridges or scratch video game CDs, always remember and think of Gerald “Jerry” Lawson.

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