Black History Month Profile – Jerry Lawson
Video games are serious business. With an annual revenue around $100 billion, there aren’t many things bigger. Everyone remembers Pong and Super Mario Brothers, but did you know that the world’s first console-based video game system was created by a black man?
His name was Gerald (Jerry) Lawson. Born in 1940, he taught himself electronics from a young age, eventually becoming an amateur radio station operator and making things like walkie-talkies to sell to neighborhood kids from his home in Queens, New York.
Lawson attended both Queens College and City College of New York before going on to land jobs at places like Grumman Aircraft, Federal Electric, and PRD Electronics. After taking a position at Kaiser Electronics in Palo Alto, California, Lawson eventually moved away from military electronics and took a job at Fairchild Semiconductor in 1970 as the company’s first freelance field engineer, which is where he would go on to create one of the world’s first video game consoles.
Released in 1976, it was called the Fairchild Channel F home video game console. In addition to being the first cartridge-based console that allowed gamers to switch out the games it could play by inserting new cartridges, it also had other features unique to the market, such as a “hold” (pause) button that allowed players to freeze the game, or change its speed.
The Channel F sold for $169 when it was released, which is equivalent to a little over $700 today. It sold 250,000 units before it was discontinued in 1983, around the same time of the big ‘80s video game crash that almost brought down the entire industry.
It survives today through vintage game collectors, where a functioning Channel F system can bring in as much as $600 on sites like eBay. (Full disclosure: I actually had one of these consoles. It was pretty neat.)
With the early home gaming market dominated by legendary figures such as Atari’s Nolan Bushnell and Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, it’s easy to forget other equally important industry legends, like Jerry Lawson.
Lawson passed away in 2011 at age 70, but his legacy lives on today every time someone picks up a controller.