As a self-taught electrical engineer, Gerald “Jerry” Lawson helped invent the first video game console with interchangeable cartridges in the 1970s.
At the time, gaming consoles came pre-loaded with a set number of games, like Atari’s “Pong.” According to CNBC, the console Lawson’s team built for the cartridges, called the Fairchild Channel F and released by a San Francisco-based semiconductor company, was later adopted by popular gaming brands like Atari and Nintendo. Lawson’s vision would also prove to be an early precursor to video game systems like today’s PlayStation and Xbox.
According to Biography, Lawson was inspired as a child by the work of George Washington Carver. During his formative years, Lawson dabbled in electronics, repairing televisions to make a little money before enrolling at Queens College, part of the City University of New York.
The Channel F included the gaming world’s first digital, at-home joystick, and even featured the first-ever “pause” button for a gaming console. But, mostly it stood out because players could swap out different video game cartridges.
The gaming console Channel F, which stood for “fun,” would only sell 350,000 units of Channel F and soon thereafter Lawson sold the technology to another electronics company. Comparatively, Atari sold over 30 million console units in its lifetime.
Lawson’s interest in computing led him in the 1970s to Silicon Valley’s Homebrew Computer Club, of which he was the only Black member at the time. While with the club, he crossed paths with both Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.
He left Fairchild in 1980 and founded Videosoft, which made gaming software for the Atari 2600 and other developers. It was “likely the earliest Black-owned game development company,” according to the National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York.
Lawson’s console would be a first. Lawson said he felt “like a secret agent” quietly developing his platform without tipping off any competitors, in a 2005 keynote address at the Classic Gaming Expo in Burlingame, California.
Lawson said in his 2009 interview that he hoped his career could inspire other Black students to get into engineering and the gaming industry. He died in 2011 at age 70 and was posthumously entered into the World Video Game Hall of Fame.