One of my fondest childhood memories is switching between my Sega Genesis games. I imagine that this would be the same for many other people. The consoles you had this experience with may vary. Maybe you had this experience with an Atari 2600 or an N64. However, the idea of choosing between your library of games while sitting on your living room floor on a Saturday night is an experience that many of us can relate to, but not many of us know that we owe that experience to a Black man by the name of Jerry Lawson.
Jerry Lawson is the creator of the video game cartridge and arguably the concept of switching between games on an individual home console. His name has largely been lost to history, so who is he?
Jerry Lawson was born in New York City in 1940 and immediately displayed an aptitude for electronics. Lawson was, by all accounts, self-taught. He repaired electronics all around town. He even operated his own amateur radio station out of his housing project.
Later, as an adult, he moved to Silicon Valley. He was a member of the Homebrew Computer Club; yes that one. This is the place one where Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and many other members went on the become successful tech innovators.
His biggest contribution to games came through his work on the Fairchild Channel F game console. Lawson’s work on this console is seminal because it was the first game console to accommodate removable media. What this meant was a single game console unit could play multiple games. This sounds like a “well duh” development to us today, but back then it was brand new. When you purchased a Pong system the only game you were going to play on it was Pong. The Magnavox Odyssey had “different” games, but they were really all the same game run with different overlays.
The Channel F console never became the commercial success Fairchild had hoped. It was incredibly expensive and shortly thereafter the Atari 2600 debuted with similar cartridge technology and better graphics. That console won the battle. Jerry Lawson went on to develop games for the Atari 2600. This is likely why you have never heard of the Channel F or Jerry Lawson. The video game community itself had forgotten about him until an impromptu interview at a gaming convention brought his story back to the surface.
Lawson did finally receive his just due and was honored by the International Game Developers Association in 2011. Unfortunately, he would pass away just one month later from complication from diabetes.
Jerry Lawson epitomizes the little-known black history figure. Removable media and interchangeable games are the foundation for the video game market today. Yet, his name might have been lost to history if not for a chance encounter with a fan at a convention. Next time you or your child change the cartridge in their Nintendo Switch, give thanks to Jerry Lawson.