The video game industry has struggled with proper minority representation over the years; like many science and technology industries, gaming has largely been dominated by white men. However, one of the most important contributions to the gaming industry, the video game cartridge itself, was created by Jerry Lawson, an African-American engineer.
Lawson was born in Queens in December 1940, and was raised by parents who encouraged his interest in science. His childhood hobbies included tinkering with ham radio sets, and he took up television repair as a way to earn money. Though he attended both Queens College and the City College of New York, he did not complete a degree at either – though that didn’t hinder his career at all. By 1970 he had been hired by Fairchild Semiconductor of San Francisco.
While working for Fairchild, Lawson developed the arcade title Demolition Derby. Within a few years he had been promoted to the position of Chief Hardware Engineer and Director of Engineering and Marketing for Fairchild’s video game division, where he went in to lead the development of the Fairchild Channel F console. The Channel F arrived in November 1976 and was the first programmable ROM cartridge-based console, as well as the first console to use a microprocessor. Though the console wasn’t exactly successful (or even particularly well-remembered) its introduction of cartridges spurred other companies, such as Atari, to adopt the method. Lawson later left Fairchild and founded his own company, Videosoft, which developed software for the Atari 2600 in the early 1980s.
Lawson was honored for his contributions to the industry and for his work on the cartridge concept by the International Game Developers Association in March 2011. A month later, Lawson passed away due to complications from diabetes. While Lawson’s name might not be the most recognizable one in the industry, his contributions live on, with modern systems such as the Nintendo 3DS continuing to use cartridge-based technology.