What is a genius? What does it take to make a genius and what does this have to do with video games? In this case, everything! This article is about a pioneer who is responsible for both the gaming world and industry as we know it.
Though he is finally starting to receive the deserved credit for his innovations, Jerry Lawson’s name is still not mentioned enough. For those who are familiar with his story, this article only highlights his work. For those hearing his name for the first time, it is an introduction to a man that truly revolutionized what would become today’s top form of entertainment.
Who Is Jerry Lawson?
The beginning of Jerry Lawsons’ story is pretty interesting. He was born in Brooklyn NY, in December 1940 and raised in Queens. His grandfather studied to be a physicist but unfortunately could only find work at the post office. His father whom Lawson described as a brilliant man; was a longshoreman who loved to read science based articles. Lawsons’ mother was very hands on with his schooling. In picking the best school for her son, Mrs. Lawson would draft up key questions to ask the schools’ principals and staff.
Another key point that helped set Lawson on his path, took place during the early years of his schooling. In Lawsons’ 1st grade classroom, there was a picture of George Washington Carver right next to his desk. His teacher, Ms. Guble saw that the young student was very taken by the picture. One day she walked up to Lawson while he was eyeing the picture and told him, “You can be just as great as Carver”. Lawson stated that this was something that always stuck with him. It’s kind of something that like Carver, Lawson would to become a man of science.
George Washington Carver
Lawson started in chemistry and later switched to electronics and became self-taught in engineering. In the process of educating himself, Lawson would spend much of his time at the local electronic stores’. With every visit he would learn all he could about the stores’ product and how they work. Lawson would apply what he learned. Whenever he received allowance money, he went right back to those stored and purchased what parts he could afford; he did this with the intention of building his own equipment. He would eventually gain the know-how that allow him to help repair some of the stores’ television.
At age 13, Lawson wanted to start his own amateur radio station but was having a hard time doing so. This was due to the housing management not okaying it. Not to be derailed, Lawson searched for a way to make his radio station happen. His persistence and research finally paid of when he came across an article that stated, “if a tenant lives a federal housing project, they don’t need permission to start a station”. After learning this, Lawson launched his radio station right out of his bedroom and aired from equipment that he built.
What’s so impressive is that at even a young age, Lawsons’ work was on par with schooled engineers. Not bad for a teenager who grew up way before the internet, social media and 3-D printing.
* With the parts that he would buy from different electronic stores’, Lawson built a transmitter from scratch. He also built and sold walkie-talkies.
*Not the actual transmitter that Lawson created, just a visual of what it may have looked like.
A Man Ahead Of The Game
It is fitting to say that Jerry Lawson was ahead of the game before he worked on them. That’s because before working on the interchangeable cartridge, Lawson had already worked with uncommon technologies. Lawson’s first love was radar and imagery. After college, he landed a job at ITT’s Federal Electronic division. He was hired to put their radar system online. Lawson would also work at Gruman Aircraft and PDR; writing and programming software for the company’s advanced computers. After his job at PDR, Lawson was transferred to Silicon Vally to work at Kaisers Electronics. At Kaiser, Lawson worked on military devices, particularly displays. He would help set up HUD (Heads up display) and VDI (Vertical display indicator) systems. Lawson stated that by working with military products, he was using technologies that weren’t common or used in products used by consumers. He was geared to creating and pushing out state-of-the-art products before he worked for Fairchild.
*Not actual equipment that Jerry Lawson worked on.
It would be an experiment, inspired by a friends mistake that would be Lawsons first big contribution to the game world. Lawson was friends with Alan Alcorn-developer of the Pong video game. The two were talking one day and Alcorn was explaining a flaw with his arcade cabinet. Gamers had found a way to play the game for free, by sticking a hanger in the machine. Intrigued by the issue, Lawson went back and created an arcade cabinet of his own. The result was a game that he titled, Demolition Derby. The machine contained a coin jiggle (coin slot) function. Don’t know if I should thank Mr. Lawson for that but it did solve the free game problem. When the executives at Fairchild found out about Lawsons machine, they wasn’t thrilled about it. But rather than fire him, they asked if he wanted to make games for them.
Lawson was already an impressive employee for Fairchild. He was a recruiter for freelance engineers, used his skills and abilities to improve Fairchild’s customer service; now the company put him in charge of making video games. They couldn’t have given the task to a better man.
The Fairchild Game Console
Here are some highlights of how Mr. Lawson revolutionized the home gaming market:
– First, a game division had to be established. With the help of Gene Landrum -Marketing, Lawson wrote out a business plan for building video games.
– The division needed workers. Lawson recruited people who already worked for Fairchild. The CEO didn’t know who the people were. When he asked Lawson about them, Lawson said; they worked for him (the CEO). They just needed a reason to stay.
– The consoles at the time: Sears tele-games, Magnavox, Odyssey etc; had their games built into the memory of their consoles. So Lawson and his staff had nothing to reference to when creating the interchangeable cartridge.
– The idea of the removable cartridge wasn’t Lawsons. It originally came from Wallace Kirschner and Lawerence Haskel. It was Jerry Lawson, Ron Smith and Nick Talesfore who cultivated the technology and transposed it for consumer use.
– It was a big gamble creating a console that allowed changeable cartridges. Lawson and his team had no idea what the worst case reactions would be. Explosions on the semiconductor device or break down static charge were possibilities.
– Made the first console joystick. Lawson designed the prototype, the original design was made by Ron Smith (mechanics), the case of the controller was designed by Nicolas Talefore (industrial designer).
The rest is history. After reading his story, one can make a case that not only did Jerry Lawson help create the game cartridge; he was also responsible for creating a new video game market.
One of the games for the Fairchild Console
Right before home gaming caught on, third-party game development didn’t exist. All the video games at the time was created by the companies that manufactured the consoles. Imagine, if today the games were only made by X-box and PlayStation; Sounds kinda bland. This would change in 1979, when a group of ex-Atari designers created the first independent game develop company; Activision. This was a game changer (pun intended). The formation of Activision opened the door for game designers who were looking to form their own companies.
The home video game market exploded in the early 1980s. By this time Jerry Lawson was ready to leave Fairchild and take advantage of the new opportunities that were now available. In 1982, he launched his own game company, VideoSoft. To help get his company off the ground, Lawson leveraged his reputation in order to secure initial game design contracts. This helped the company gross $400,000. VideoSoft was one of the dozen third-party gaming companies that developed games for the Atari system.
For the short time it was around, VideoSoft did some pretty impressive work:
– Their first game: Atom Smasher looked like a head-to-head shooter.
– Depth Charges, was a submarine shooting game. Modems connected one player as the captain sub; with the other player commanding an enemy destroyer.
– The company designed the first-person jet shooting game entitled: S.A.C. Alert.
– Some of the company’s more innovate work was when they combined fitness and gaming. They created an exercise bike for the Atari 2600.
– The company also developed a series of 3-D based games, that were to be played with traditional red and blue 3-D glasses. These games were to be released on a single cartridge.
Innovative ideas and headed by the man who pretty much created the home gaming market. VideoSoft had a lot going for it. Unfortunately, neither of this would be enough to overcome the misfortune and circumstances that would keep the company from taking off. The company didn’t have money to keep it afloat for long. This was due to a lack of investors and no access to any major capital. Not much money was coming into the company; due to most of its games not being released to retail stores. To add to this, the company was developed in the wake of the game recession (1983-1985). When the crash did hit, it was over. Lawson had to close his company, he would finish his career as a consultant engineer. It would take 20+ years for Jerry Lawson to resurface.
Finally, A Pioneer gets his due (Parts 1 and 2)
* In late 2006, Benj Edwards-writer for Vintage Computing and Gaming; was looking for subject material for a story. For his research, he received a big collection of vintage computer magazines. Edwards had thumbed through nearly every issue and hadn’t yet found anything that piqued his interest. That is until he came across a 1983 issue of a popular computing magazine. The story gripped Edwards, after reading hundreds of publications that spanned for decades, this was the first time he’d seen a professional black man in a computer magazine. Edwards had come across what was most likely the first article to highlight Jerry Lawson.
* What truly amazed Edwards, wasn’t Lawson’s race; it was that he was completely unaware of Lawson’s existence in the computer field and his absence from it. After reading the article, Edwards knew he had his story. After a few failed attempts to get in contact with Lawson, Edwards shelved the story, but did bump into Lawson at a vintage computer festival-months later.
Jerry Lawson with Benj Edwards
*Sections are from Benj Edwards interview Post with Lawson. (Posted In Feb 24th 2009)
*Telephone interview took place Feb 6th 2009
What I feel was the biggest thing going against Lawson, was that he was in an industry that was completely unaware of him. It’s one thing for gamers to be clueless but a whole other thing when insiders are as well. Even with that playing against him, Lawson’s story was presented at the perfect time. The gaming industry had reached global popularity; not only with video games but also game articles and magazines. It was just the right setting for a pioneer to receive recognition. It was just a matter of the right person/people, coming across the story.
2011, would be big for Jerry Lawson. This was the year were he would receive his due. Going off of Mercury News-who covered the build up to Lawson’s ceremony; 3 weeks before, honoring Lawson wasn’t in the picture at all.
It started with John Templeton. Templetom who was a publisher out of San Francesco had written an article about unsung black technologists. The article doesn’t mention Lawson but Templeton was aware of his story. He got in contact with an acquaintance at the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) which was a non-profit organization. The acquaintance was Joseph Saulter. Saulter a black man, was then the chairman of IGDA’s diversity division. When Templeton asked if the organization planned on recognizing the work of Lawson; Saulter replied that he had never heard of Lawson.
With the bug in his ear, Saulter did research Lawson. After reading the story, Saulter got very emotional. He was shocked that he never heard of Lawson, bothered that he was unmentioned and filled with pride. When stating what Lawson’s story meant to him, Saulter stated: “It’s inspirational for me, because it gives me a foundation to say, we go back to the whole foundation of this gaming arena. I belong here”. Saulter took the idea of honoring Lawson to the higher ups of the IGDA, who also had never heard of Jerry Lawson. Saulter spearheaded the push for recognizing Lawson; in weeks his organization was all in.
On March 2011, The IGDA organized a ceremony in honor of Jerry Lawson. The event was a smaller version of Game Developers Conference, to which Saulter says: “Mr. Lawson has waited long enough and delaying his recognition for a more formal ceremony, simply would not be right”. When being brought to the podium, Jerry Lawson was appropriately introduced as a gaming pioneer. Regardless of the scale of the event, history was being acknowledged. Jerry Lawson was finally receiving his due from the industry he was responsible for launching. Sadly, on April 9th 2011, just a month after being honored; Jerry Lawson passed away.
It could be seen as bitter-sweet the Jerry Lawson passed right after finally being credited for his work. I myself, don’t see it that way. While I do wish that Mr. Lawson was still physically with us; it was a blessing that he lived to receive the first stage of honors. His passing was and is not the end. There’s still much to learn from Mr. Lawson. Like John Templeton and Joseph Saulter, it only takes the right person to come across Jerry Lawson and get inspired. No only to bring light to this already incredible story; but to also blaze trails that lead to new possibilities.
When I was putting this article together, it was originally intended to be presented during Black History Month. I think it’s more fitting that it’s coming out after February; the reason being connects to why I chose to focus on Mr. Lawson’s achievements and not his racial challenges. Excellence, greatness go beyond a month and this story is bigger than race issues.
Jerry Lawson was fully aware of the pros and cons of being the only black engineer during his time. He also knew that in the end it was really about letting your work speak for itself. This much is evident when he said, “When you get involved in certain practices and in certain things you want to do, you’re colorless”. This story, his story, isn’t one to only motivate black children but also the creative and innovative minds of those who dare to challenge what is perceived as impossible.
So why does it take so long for geniuses to get their due? I think some of it is our fault. We’re slow to realize these people were geniuses from the start. Look throughout history! You’ll find numerous names of figures who are admired today but were scrutinized and looked down on during their prime. Jerry Lawson could be mentioned in the same breath as Edison, Bell, Ford etc. Yes he is receiving more recognition than ever but seeing what his work has led to, I feel much more has to come. I wrote this article to shine more light on Jerry Lawson’s story; I hope that it helps to bring more credit to his name and work.
In closing, before popping a game in one of your consoles, I challenge gamers around the world to give thanks at least once; not only to Jerry Lawson but also to the team that worked with him. I know this may sound silly to most but thank about all the happiness that we’ve gotten from playing video games. Now think of how today, we can earn money making videos playing video games from the comfort of our homes. Still think it sounds silly?
To: Wallace Kirschner, Lawrence Haskel, Ron Smith, Nick Talesfore and Jerry Lawson- This one’s for you, Thank You, Play On!!
* Jerry Lawson, videosoft and the history of the First Black owned video game Development company
* VC&G Interviews Jerry Lawson, Black video game Pioneer
* IGN Article: Jerry Lawson: The Black Man Who Revolutionized gaming as we know it