Gerald A. Lawson, Black Video Game Pioneer, Dies

Lawson led the team that created the world's first ROM cartridge-based video-game console.

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Vintage Computing and Gaming is reporting that black video-game pioneer Gerald A. Lawson has died. Affectionately known as Jerry, Lawson was an important figure in the history of video games. He was one of the few African-American electronic engineers in Silicon Valley and led the team that created the world's first ROM cartridge-based video-game console, the Fairchild Channel F.

In a 2006 interview with Benji Edwards of Video Gaming and Computing, the Queens, N.Y., native was described as a self-taught electronics genius. Lawson's interest in technology was cultivated and inherited through the men in his life. His father was a longshoreman who bought him high-tech toys, and his grandfather was a physicist. Although his grandfather was educated, he could work only at the post office as postmaster because he was black.

After starting at an amateur radio station at age 13 in a Jamaica, Queens housing project, Lawson went on to attend Queens College and then City College of New York. He embarked on a career in technology, working for various companies including ITT, Grumman Aircraft, Federal Electric and PRD Electronics, eventually running the video-game division at Fairchild.

Lawson had first built a coin-op game in his garage that sparked a lot of controversy. People could not believe that he had done that. Fairchild approached him about doing the same for them, and the rest is history. Lawson headed the video-game division, where he met a young Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. He interviewed Wozniak for a position but didn't hire him because he didn't find him -- or Jobs, for that matter -- impressive. 

In the interview, Lawson detailed his experiences with racism in the field, including people being surprised that he was a big, black man and underestimating what he was capable of accomplishing. He credits his tenacity to his mother, who he said "invented busing" by interviewing the teachers and principals at schools in New York before deciding where to send him.

He ended up going to a school that was 99 percent white, but his mother was president of the PTA. Lawson credits his mother with inspiring him to want to be something at a time when "black kids were put under an aroma of 'You can't do something.' " Lawson said that he told himself, "I want to be a scientist. I want to be something."

The International Game Developers Association honored Lawson's contribution to the field during the national conference held in March 2011. He was 70 years old.

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