Curious minds opening up their internet browser today might have clicked on today’s Google Doodle and been met with an 8-bit video game when clicking the Doodle. Don’t worry, technology isn’t going back but instead Google is celebrating the birthday of Gerald ‘Jerry’ Lawson, considered one of the godfather’s of modern video gaming, who would have turned 82 today.
A graduate of Queens College and the City College of New York, Lawson’s love of tinkering with electronics at an early age led him to move to California and start his career in the Palo Alto district. Years later, that district would come to be known as “Silicon Valley” and the birthplace of numerous advancements in computer technology.
He joined Fairchild Semiconductor as an engineering consultant in 1970, becoming one of only two black members of the hallowed Homebrew Computer Club alongside fellow employee Ron Jones. Other computer hobbyists at the club at that time included two intrepid engineers; Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who would shortly thereafter start work on their new desktop computer project, the Apple.
In 1976, Lawson was promoted to Director of Engineering and Marketing of Fairchild’s video game department, leading him to create one of the world’s first video game consoles, the Fairchild Channel F system. The conventions that Lawson developed for the system have become tenets of video game development in the years since the 8-bit console’s debut.
Lawson created one of the first uses of interchangeable video game cartridges, which would set the mould of the likes of Nintendo, Atari and Sega to emulate during both the 8-bit and 16-bit era of video gaming (including the dreaded blowing on a cartridge to get it to work), alongside an eight-way digital joystick for fuller movement in video games and a pause option for those moments real life gets in the way of video gaming.
Lawson left Fairchild in 1980 to open one of the first black-owned video game development companies in gaming history, Videosoft. His company worked closely with Atari who had released the watershed Atari 2600 which cemented video game cartridges as a standard across the gaming industry. Despite its closure after 1983’s Video Game Crash, such were the conventions created by Lawson that rightfully he has been canonised as the father of video game cartridges, alongside being a pioneer for black video game developers to aspire decades later.
In 2011, the International Game Developers Association recognized Lawson as an industry trailblazer for his contributions to gaming. The University of Southern California also created the Gerald A. Lawson Fund to support underrepresented students who wish to pursue undergraduate or graduate degrees in game design or computer science, while Lawson’s achievements are memorialised at the World Video Game Hall of Fame in Rochester, New York.