Jerry “the King” Lawson

You know, if Twitter has any utility outside proactively abetting one’s own stalkers, it must be the ease with which links pertinent to shared interests can be propagated. If you enjoy being horrified and disgusted at all times, for instance, I’ve heard Shawn Elliott’s Twitter is right up your alley. Likewise, it was through the Retronauts Twitter that I became immersed in this voluminous interview with one Gerald A. Lawson, which I’m recommending here for the benefit of those of us who do not, ourselves, tweet.

[[image:nn_090312_lawson_01.jpg:Much respect.:center:0]]
As one of the brains behind the Fairchild Channel F, the first cartridge-based console, Lawson’s stature as a pivotal figure in gaming’s history is matched only by the extent to which his efforts have gone unsung…until now. In the interview, he relates the span of a decades-long career, from developing a coin-operated video game, Demolition Derby, in his own garage; to his off-the-cuff, first-hand impressions of fellow pioneers such as Steves Jobs and Wozniak; to helping Pong designer Allan Alcorn improve some of the first-ever commercial arcade cabinets.

Of course, his claim to fame, the Channel F, hosted its own set of ordeals — mostly regarding the then-untested concept of a system with removable cartridges. As the first microprocessor device to be put under the scrutiny of the FCC, every cartridge developed for it had to be analyzed and approved. There was also trepidation within Fairchild that the repeated interaction between software and hardware might, in time, cause explosions.

My first video game was the watershed known as Super Mario Bros., so I rarely enjoy playing games made prior to the mid-’80s. I’m also by no means a programmer or an engineer. But from a historical, conceptual perspective, the arcane schemes required to form functional, knowable experiences on menial ’70s technology are positively spellbinding. The onscreen display literally was the system’s memory? Controls were applied via a hysteresis curve? Mr. Lawson, you are blowing my mind.

And if your eyes glaze over at the sight of words like “semiconductor,” there are also some lighter anecdotes, such as the time an RCA employee straight-up started some shit at 1977’s Winter CES:

At that show in Chicago, RCA presented their Studio II. I had an invitation that said, “Hey, the RCA game is here.” Well, I wanted to see that. It was being shown in a suite. And I went up to the suite and walked in. They had their game there, and this guy looks up and sees me with a Fairchild badge on, right? And I’m 6’6″, 280 pounds. This clown charged me and tried to wrestle me to the ground. And I banged him on his head! I said, “If you want me to leave, I’ll leave!”

And what I saw was a laugh. They had this game — it was in black and white. It looked horrible. So, the next day, he came down to our booth. And when he came down to our booth, I jumped the counter, heading for him. And he started running! [laughs] I said, “Ah, there he goes.”

Well, it’s “light” now that there’s more than thirty years’ distance on it, but let it be known: ’70s games developers did not mess around.

But the most human part of the interview is the account of Lawson’s personal life: how his parents encouraged and enabled him to pursue a scientific field in the ’40s and ’50s; the awkwardness he suffered in the lamentably unlikely position of a black engineer; and how he’s been fortunate enough to inspire others to follow in his footsteps. Hopefully, with more of his legacy now out in the open (as well as the book he’s currently writing), new generations can continue to make his race a little less of an oddity — to make the path he’s walked a little less unbeaten.

9 thoughts on “Jerry “the King” Lawson

  1. So, when I bash the Fairchild Channel F on my web site, does that make it a hate crime?

    To Lawson’s credit, the Channel F is a much much much better system than the RCA Studio II. Then again, the 2600 is a much much much better system than either of them.

  2. Awesome interview! It also reminded me that Retronauts has a Twitter page.

    Thanks for sharing on both counts, Kishi. Let us know if you hear anything about Lawson’s book in the future.

    My favorite part of the interview was about the decked-out car that he tested where the cruise control stuck. I never would have had the presence of mind to pull out the car’s circuitry.

  3. I wish game people today would get into drag-out fights. Why can’t Peter Molyneux tackle somebody instead of bragging for weeks that if he DID tackle you, it would be the most amazing tackle ever, with intricate Judo moves, a string of stunning, never-before-heard insults, and an epic climax that ends in sex and mutual respect.

  4. “let it be known: ’70s games developers did not mess around.”

    Its true – we are all such panywaists :P

  5. Game developers today never witnessed the Strength of Street Knowledge…therefore, they don’t know how to throw down.

    True Fact: N.W.A’s early music was heavily inspired by the Channel F and, to a lesser extent, the Interton VC 4000.

  6. This was of course a great read, but also a revelation to me. As a child I had an issue of Boy’s Life that had an article on pioneers in computing. The page on video games profiled a black man whom I had never heard of. Unfortunately, I was apparently not interested enough to remember his name or the contents of the article. As I grew older and my friends and I began talking about names like Bushnell and Baer and the like, that man’s image always popped up in my mind. I knew he must have been an unsung hero, someone I could use to prove my gamer cred at the time, but I couldn’t pin any facts to him. Now I finally know it was Lawson they were referring to (they showed his image next to Pong, meaning they must have discussed his work with Alcorn).

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