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Games Blog

Jerry Lawson, Inventor of Modern Game Console, Dies at 70

Plugged In

Wired

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Console pioneer Jerry Lawson (pictured at left) - Peter Fuller, Vintagecomputing.com

Gerald "Jerry" Lawson, creator of the first cartridge-based videogame
console, died Saturday morning in a Mountain
View, California,
hospital, Wired.com has learned. Lawson was 70.

As an engineer at Fairchild
Semiconductor
, Lawson designed the electronics of the Fairchild Video Entertainment System,
later renamed the Channel F, in 1976.

Predating the release of Atari's Video Computer System by a year, the
Channel F was the first videogame machine that used interchangeable game
cartridges, which Fairchild sold separately. Previous game machines like
Atari's Pong and the Magnavox Odyssey had all their games built
into the hardware. Lawson's pioneering design set the standard for the game
consoles of today.

"Jerry was an amazing personality," said family friend David Erhart, who
broke the news of
Lawson's death
Monday on the Digital Press website. "He created part of the
videogame industry history in Silicon Valley
and it was always a pleasure to hear his stories about back in the day."

Much of Lawson's background is discussed in a wide-ranging interview he gave
Vintage Computing and Gaming
in 2009.

A lifelong engineer and tinkerer, Lawson was born in 1940 and grew up in a
federal housing project in Queens,
New York. As a kid, he operated a
ham radio; as a teenager he earned money by repairing his neighbors' television
sets.

In the 1970s, living and working in Silicon Valley, he joined the Homebrew Computer
Club
, a group of early hackers that included Apple co-founders Steve Jobs
and Steve Wozniak.

Lawson's contributions to videogames began with Demolition Derby,
a coin-operated arcade machine that he created in his garage while working at
Fairchild.

"Fairchild found out about it - in fact, it was a big controversy that I had
done that. And then, very quietly, they asked me if I wanted to do it for
them," Lawson said in the Vintage Computing interview.

Although similar machines were in development at Atari and RCA at the time,
the console Lawson's team built for Fairchild was the first cartridge-based
gaming system that came to market. Although it seems simple now, making the
technology work wasn't easy.

"There was a mechanism that allowed you to put the cartridges in without
destroying the semiconductors.... We were afraid - we didn't have statistics on
multiple insertion and what it would do, and how we would do it, because it
wasn't done. I mean, think about it: Nobody had the capability of plugging in
memory devices in mass quantity like in a consumer product. Nobody."

Only 26 cartridges were ever released for Channel F, all simple games like Blackjack,
Space War and Bowling. When Atari released its
cartridge-based system, Channel F was quickly rendered obsolete. Years later,
Lawson started his own company, Videosoft, to produce Atari 2600 cartridges,
but only released one, a technician's
tool called Color
Bar Generator
.

Last month, the International Game Developers Association honored
Lawson's pioneering efforts
at Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.

‘His workbench had more tools than most people would even
know what to do with.'

"The whole reason I did games was because people said, ‘You can't do it,'" he
told the San Jose Mercury News last month. "I'm one of the guys,
if you tell me I can't do something, I'll turn around and do it."

In later years, Lawson had suffered the severe effects of diabetes. He lost
sight in one eye and lost one of his legs to the disease, leaving him confined
to a wheelchair. On Wednesday, not feeling well, he was admitted into El Camino
Hospital Mountain View.

"He continued building devices to control telescopes, lasers, tools, etc. up
until the day he went to the hospital," said friend Erhart. "His workbench had
more tools than most people would even know what to do with. He taught me quite
a bit and I'll miss him sorely."

At 6:15 a.m. Saturday, Lawson died after apparently suffering a heart
attack. He is survived by his wife, son and daughter. The family is planning a
memorial service in mid-May.

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