Jerry Lawson Great Day in Gaming from joseph saulter on Vimeo.
Born in 1940, Jerry Lawson pioneered home video gaming in the 1970s by helping create the Farichild Channel F, the first home video game system with interchangeable games. A New York native, Lawson is one of the few African-American engineers who worked in computing at the dawn of the video game era.
Early Life and Education
Born in New York City on December 1, 1940, Gerald Anderson Lawson is famous for being a video game pioneer, helping develop the first cartridge-based home video game console system. Lawson’s father was a longshoreman and his mother worked for New York City. He had one brother, Michael.
Inspired as a child by the work of George Washington Carver, Jerry Lawson dabbled in electronics growing up, repairing televisions to make a little money before enrolling at Queens College, part of the City University of New York. His 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 Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. (In an interview, he referred to Steve Jobs as a business-minded “sparkplug” and recalled being unimpressed when he interviewed Wozniak for a job.)
Video Game Pioneer
In the mid-1970s, Lawson helped create the Fairchild Channel F, a home entertainment machine that was produced in 1976 by Fairchild Semiconductor, where he worked as director of engineering and marketing. (Only years earlier, Mike Markkula, co-founder of Apple Computers Inc., had headed marketing for the company.) Though basic by today’s standards, Lawson’s work allowed people to play a variety of games in their homes, and paved the way for systems such as the Atatri 2600, Nintendo, Xbox and Playstation.
“I’m one of the guys, if you tell me I can’t do something, I’ll turn around and do it.”
One of the few black engineers in his industry, Lawson later said that colleagues were often surprised to find out that he was African American: “With some people, it’s become an issue. I’ve had people look at me with total shock. Particularly if they hear my voice, because they think that all black people have a voice that sounds a certain way, and they know it. And I sit there and go, ‘Oh yeah? Well, sorry, I don’t.'”
Lawson died in Mountain View, California, on April 9, 2011, due to complications relating to his diabetes. He was survived by his wife, Catherine, and two children.
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Video game pioneer Jerry Lawson dead at 70
In these days of portable game systems with Wi-Fi and consoles with motion sensors, Internet connectivity, and integrated Blu-ray drives, it can be hard to remember that the industry had to get its start somewhere. Jerry Lawson, a key figure in the development of home video game systems was one of a handful of people who jump-started the industry. He died this week at age 70 in Santa Clara, California, from complications from diabetes.
Lawson was the key engineer behind the Fairchild Channel F console game system. The Channel F wasn’t a tremendous commercial success—it was quickly eclipsed by Atari systems that hit the market the next year—but it was the first system to use interchangeable ROM cartridges to load games, paving the way not only for Atari but for innumerable console systems and game developers that followed, including the likes of Nintendo and Sega. The same basic technology was used as recently as the Nintendo Game Boy Advance. Interchangeable cartridges enables a single game system to play multiple titles rather than a single game embedded into a system’s ROM or controllers. At the time of the Channel F, few people thought it would be practical to design a home video game console on a general microprocessors rather than a dedicated chip—but that’s exactly what Lawson did. The Channel F marked the first commercial use of the Fairchild F8 CPU. Lawson also had to come up with ways to shield cartridges from static electricity, and come up with a design that would stand up to home use and be simple enough for consumers to use. Before Lawson, nobody had tackled those problems.
Lawson was also an earliy pioneer in video arcade games, developing a Demolition Derby arcade console game that hit the market shortly after the seminal Pong.
Lawson’s story and contribution went largely unrecognized by the video game industry until his later years. Lawson grew up in public housing in Queens, New York, and was one of only a handful of black students at an almost all-white school. He built his own ham radio transmitter by age 12, and his skill and determination eventually landed him engineering work in the nearly all-white Silicon Valley. Lawson was the sole black member of the Homebrew Computer Club, a group of early computer aficionados that included future Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. After the Fairchild, Lawson founded and ran Videosoft, a game development company that created titles for the Atari 2600, and did various consulting work, including a gig with musician Stevie Wonder.
In February of this year, Lawson was honored by the International Game Developers Association for his outstanding achievement in the industry.
Fairchild Channel F game console: First programmable ROM cartridge–based video game console, and the first console to use a microprocessor.
The Fairchild Channel F
|Type||Video game console|
|Retail availability||November 1976|
The Fairchild Channel F is a game console released by Fairchild Semiconductor in November 1976 at the retail price of $169.95. It has the distinction of being the first programmable ROM cartridge–based video game console, and the first console to use a microprocessor. It was launched as the Video Entertainment System, or VES, but when Atari released their VCS the next year, Fairchild renamed its machine. By 1977, the Fairchild Channel F had sold 250,000 units and was second-place behind the VCS.
The Channel F electronics were designed by Jerry Lawson using the Fairchild F8 CPU, the first public outing of this processor. The F8 was very complex compared to the typical integrated circuits of the day, and had more inputs and outputs than other contemporary chips. Because chip packaging was not available with enough pins, the F8 was instead fabricated as a pair of chips that had to be used together to form a complete CPU.
Lawson worked with Nick Talesfore and Ron Smith. As manager of Industrial Design, Talesfore was responsible for the design of the hand controllers, console, and video game cartridges. Smith was responsible for the mechanical engineering of the video cartridges and hand controllers. All worked for Wilf Corigan, head of Fairchild Semiconductor, a division of Fairchild Camera & Instrument.
The palette of the Channel F
The graphics are quite basic by modern standards. The Channel F is only able to use one plane of graphics and one of four background colors per line, only three plot colors to choose from (red, green and blue) that turned into white if the background is set to black. A resolution of 128 × 64 with approximately 102 × 58 pixels visible and help from only 64 bytes of system RAM, half the amount of the Atari 2600. The F8 processor at the heart of the console is able to produce enough AI to allow for player versus computer matches, a first in console history. All previous machines required a human opponent.
One feature unique to this console is the ‘hold’ button, which allowed the player to freeze the game, change the time or change the speed of the game during the course of the game. In the original unit, sound is played through an internal speaker, rather than the TV set. However, the System II passed sound to the television through the RF modulator.
The controllers are a joystick without a base; the main body is a large hand grip with a triangular “cap” on top, the top being the portion that actually moved for eight-way directional control. It could be used as both a joystick and paddle (twist), and not only pushed down to operate as a fire button but also pulled up. The model 1 unit contained a small compartment for storing the controllers when moving it. The System II featured detachable controllers and had two holders at the back to wind the cable around and to store the controller in. Zircon later offered a special control which featured an action button on the front of the joystick. It was marketed by Zircon as “Channel F Jet-Stick” in a letter sent out to registered owners before Christmas 1982. They also released it as an Atari-compatible controller called “Video Command”, first released without the extra fire button. Before that, only the downwards plunge motion was connected and acted as the fire button; the pull-up and twist actions weren’t connected to anything.
Twenty-seven cartridges, termed ‘Videocarts’, were officially released to consumers during the ownership of Fairchild and Zircon, the first twenty-one of which were released by Fairchild. Several of these cartridges were capable of playing more than one game and were typically priced at $19.95. The Videocarts were yellow and approximately the size and overall texture of an 8 track cartridge. They usually featured colorful label artwork. The earlier artwork was created by nationally known artist Tom Kamifuji and art directed by Nick Talesfore. The console contained two built-in games, Tennis and Hockey, which were both advanced Pong clones. In Hockey the reflecting bar could be changed to diagonals by twisting the controller, and could move all over the playing field. Tennis was much like the original Pong.
A sales brochure from 1978 listed ‘Keyboard Videocarts’ for sale. The three shown were K-1 Casino Poker, K-2 Space Odyssey, and K-3 Pro-Football. These were intended to use the Keyboard accessory. All further brochures, released after Zircon took over Fairchild, never listed this accessory nor anything called a Keyboard Videocart.
There was one additional cartridge released numbered Videocart-51 and simply titled ‘Demo 1’. This Videocart was shown in a single sales brochure released shortly after Zircon acquired the company. It was never listed for sale after this single brochure which was used for winter of 1979.
Ken Uston reviewed 32 games in his book Ken Uston’s Guide to Buying and Beating the Home Video Games in 1982, and rated some of the Channel F’s titles highly; of these, Alien Invasion and Video Whizball were considered by Uston to be “the finest adult cartridges currently available for the Fairchild Channel F System.” The games on the whole, however, rated last on his survey of over 200 games for the Atari, Intellivision, Astrocade and Odyssey consoles, and contemporary games were rated “Average” with future Channel F games rated “below average”. Uston rated almost one half of the Channel F games as “high in interest” and called that “an impressive proportion” and further noted that “Some of the Channel F cartridges are timeless; no matter what technological developments occur, they will continue to be of interest.” His overall conclusion was that the games “serve a limited, but useful, purpose” and that the “strength of the Channel F offering is in its excellent educational line for children.”
The biggest effect of the Channel F in the market was to spur Atari into improving and releasing their next-generation console which was then in development. Then codenamed “Stella,” the machine was also set to utilize cartridges; after seeing the Channel F, Atari realized they needed to release it before the market was flooded with cartridge-based machines. With cash flow dwindling as sales of their existing Pong-based systems dried up, they were forced to sell toWarner Communications to gain the capital they needed. When the Atari VCS gaming system (whose name was coined as a takeoff of the VES) was released a year later, it had considerably better graphics and sound.
Original Channel F technical specifications:
- CPU chip: Fairchild F8 operating at 1.79 MHz (PAL gen. 1: 2.00 MHz, PAL gen.2: 1.77 MHz)
- RAM: 64 bytes, 2 kB VRAM (2×128×64 bits)
- Resolution: 128 × 64 pixels, approximately 102 × 58 pixels visible depending on TV
- Colors: eight colors (either black/white or four color max. per line)
- Audio: 500 Hz, 1 kHz, and 1.5 kHz tones (can be modulated quickly to produce different tones)
- Input: two custom game controllers, hardwired to the console (original release) or removable (Channel F System II)
- Output: RF modulated composite video signal, cord hardwired to console
PCB Scan of the Grandstand Video Entertainment Computer (UK Channel F II variant).
The Channel F System II
Some time in 1979, Zircon International bought the rights to the Channel F and released the re-designed console as the Channel F System II to compete with the Atari’s VCS. This re-designed System II was completed by Nick Talesfore at Fairchild. He was the same industrial designer who designed the original game console. Only six new games were released after the debut of the second system before its death, several of which were developed at Fairchild before they sold it off.
The major changes were in design, with the controllers removable from the base unit instead of being wired directly into it, the storage compartment was moved to the rear of the unit, and the sound was now mixed into the TV signal so the unit no longer needed a speaker. This version also featured a simpler and more modern-looking case design. However, by this time the market was in the midst of the first video game crash, and Fairchild eventually threw in the towel and left the market. A number of licensed versions were released in Europe, including the Luxor Video Entertainment System in Scandinavia (Sweden), Adman Grandstand in the UK, and the Saba Videoplay,Nordmende Teleplay and ITT Tele-Match Processor, from Germany and also Dumont Videoplay and Barco Challenger from the Barco/Dumont company in Italy and Belgium.
Like many other discontinued consoles, the Channel F lives on through homebrew. For example, a 2009 version of Pac-Man was developed and distributed for the Channel F
Channel F system II promotional poster
The Channel F System II