Gerald A. Lawson, a Pioneer in Video Games, Dies at 70

April 15, 2011

Gerald A. Lawson, a Pioneer in Video Games, Dies at 70

By BRUCE WEBER

April 14, 2011

Gerald A. Lawson, a largely self-taught engineer who became a pioneer in electronic video entertainment, creating the first home video game system with interchangeable game cartridges, died on Saturday in Mountain View, Calif. He was 70 and lived in Santa Clara, Calif.

The cause was complications of diabetes, said his wife, Catherine.

Before disc-based systems like PlayStation, Xbox and Wii transformed the video game industry, before techno-diversions like Grand Theft Auto and Madden NFL and even before Pac-Man and Donkey Kong became the obsession of millions of electronic gamers, it was Mr. Lawson who first made it possible to play a variety of video games at home.

In the mid-1970s, he was director of engineering and marketing for the newly formed video game division of Fairchild Semiconductor, and it was under his direction that the division brought to market in 1976 the Fairchild Channel F, a home console that allowed users to play different games contained on removable cartridges. Until then, home video game systems could play only games that were built into the machines themselves. Mr. Lawson’s ideas anticipated — if they did not entirely enable — a colossal international business.

In March, Mr. Lawson was honored for his innovative work by the International Game Developers Association, an overdue acknowledgment for an unfamiliar contributor to the technological transformation that has changed how people live.

“He’s absolutely a pioneer,” Allan Alcorn, a creator of the granddaddy of video games, Pong, said in an interview with The San Jose Mercury News in March. “When you do something for the first time, there is nothing to copy.”

Mr. Alcorn was the first design engineer at Atari, whose own cartridge console eventually dominated the home video game market.

At 6 feet 6 inches and well over 250 pounds, Mr. Lawson cut an imposing figure. A modest man but a straight talker who was known to one and all as Jerry, he was among only a handful of black engineers in the world of electronics in general and electronic gaming in particular.

Gerald Anderson Lawson was born in Brooklyn on Dec. 1, 1940, and grew up mostly in Queens. His parents encouraged his intellectual pursuits. His father, Blanton, was a longshoreman by profession and a voracious reader of science books by inclination; his mother, Mannings, was a city employee who was also president of the PTA at the nearly all-white school Jerry attended. There he had a first-grade teacher who changed his life.

“I had a picture of George Washington Carver on the wall next to my desk,” he said in a 2009 interview with the publication Vintage Computing and Gaming. “And she said, ‘This could be you.’ ” He went on: “This kind of influence led me to feel, ‘I want to be a scientist. I want to be something.’ ”

As a boy he pursued a number of scientific interests, ham radio and chemistry among them. As a teenager he earned money repairing television sets. He attended both Queens College and the City College of New York, but never received a degree. In the early 1970s, he started at Fairchild in Silicon Valley as a roving design consultant. While he was there he invented an early coin-operated arcade game, Demolition Derby. Along with other Silicon Valley innovators, he belonged to a hobbyists’ group known as the Homebrew Computer Club. Two of its other members were Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, later the founders of Apple.

“I was not impressed with them — either one of them, actually,” Mr. Lawson said in the 2009 interview, and though he didn’t say why, he declined to hire Mr. Wozniak for a job at Fairchild.

After inventing Demolition Derby, Mr. Lawson was put in charge of the company’s video game division. He and his team came up with cartridges that could be loaded with different game programs and then inserted into the console one at a time. This allowed the company to sell individual games separately from the console itself, a business model that remains the cornerstone of the video game industry.

A crucial element of the invention was the use of a new processor, the Fairchild 8; another was a mechanism that allowed for repeated insertion and removal of cartridges without damaging the machine’s semiconductors. Video hockey and tennis were programmed into the F Channel console; additional games available on cartridge included Shooting Gallery, Video Blackjack and Alien Invasion.

In addition to his wife, whom he married in 1965, Mr. Lawson is survived by a brother, Michael, of Queens, and two children, Karen and Marc, both of Smyrna, Ga.

After he left Fairchild in 1980, Mr. Lawson founded a company, Videosoft, that created games, and worked as a consultant.

“I don’t play video games that often; I really don’t,” he said in the 2009 interview. “First of all, most of the games that are out now — I’m appalled by them.” Most are concerned with “shooting somebody and killing somebody,” he said.

“To me, a game should be something like a skill you should develop — if you play this game, you walk away with something of value.”

Originally published in The New York Times