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Jerry Lawson, Video Game Pioneer

4/14/2011 03:06:00 PM

With all the attention - and rightfully so - on the passing of Sidney Harman on Tuesday the death of another industry pioneer seems to have gone under the radar.

Jerry Lawson, 70, is credited with creating the first home video game system with interchangeable game cartridges as an engineer at the video game division (of all things) at Fairchild Semiconductor during the mid-1970s.

When I heard about his passing a couple of days ago because I didn’t know who Lawson was, which is embarrassing. But Lawson introduced his discovery just before my time in the business.

That’s because I first began covering this industry in the early 1980s when the Atari 2600, Mattel Intellivision and ColecoVision were all the rage.

Until Lawson came up with the Fairchild Channel F console in 1976 the only home video game systems that were out there were the Telstar Pong system from Coleco and probably a few others.

You talk about innovation, Lawson’s development of interchangeable game cartridges helped create an industry that now dwarfs movie box-office sales among other entertainment genres.

Lawson’s work, plus dedicated video game systems like Telstar and, back in 1976, the first VHS and Beta videocassette recorders, enabled consumers to control what was on their TV screens - 19-inch color sets, if you were lucky.

While that sounds underwhelming today back then - before VCRs, video games, home computers (yes, I admit it, I did cover the Commodore 64 the first time it was introduced in the early 1980s) - for consumers it was amazing.

There were few TVs with remote controls back then, many TVs were black and white, and electric typewriters with ribbon cartridges were all the rage. TV was a completely passive technology - broadcasters broadcasted programs it wanted to show, when they wanted to show it while you made sure you were in front of a set to watch and listen to it.

But I digress. Consider that in Lawson’s New York Times obituary from today reports that Lawson was among a handful of black engineers in electronics in those years.

In reading the backgrounds of Lawson and Harman this week I note with some parochial pride a common link or two. Lawson was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. (like yours truly) although he grew up in neighboring Queens. Harman reportedly was born in Montreal but also grew up within the five boroughs.

Harman graduated from a branch of the City College of New York (CCNY) which became Baruch College. Lawson attended both CCNY and Queens College, another unit of the City College system, but never graduated, according to reports.

As a graduate of CCNY, but with none of the engineering genius of Lawson or Harman, I am proud that both attended my alma mater and my condolences go out to the families and friends of both men.

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