You may not know him, but Jerry Lawson is the REASON you can PAUSE video games!
Jerry Lawson helped lay the groundwork for all modern gaming consoles. As chief hardware engineer for Fairchild Semiconductor’s game division in the 1970s, Lawson was largely responsible for the Fairchild Channel F—the first console to include its own microchip and the first to use cartridges.
Lawson succeeded in Silicon Valley at a time when opportunities for black engineers and inventors were severely limited (even more so than today). As The New York Times once put it, “He was among only a handful of black engineers in the world of electronics in general and electronic gaming in particular.”
Under Lawson’s leadership, Fairchild released the Fairchild Channel F in November 1976. It was a game changer. Lawson engineered the console using the same F8 microprocessor he had used for Demolition Derby . The Channel F was the first gaming console with its own microprocessor. The F8 gave the system enough computing power to implement AI subroutines, which made the Channel F the first console system that allowed players to play against the computer. Before that, video games required a human opponent.
“He’s absolutely a pioneer,” said Al Alcorn, the Atari co-founder and Pong developer who competed with Lawson, when talking about his peer to the Mercury News. “When you do something for the first time, there is nothing to copy.”
The Channel F was also revolutionary because it was the first console system that could play programmable game cartridges. Before the Channel F, consoles could only play games that were coded on the system when the unit shipped. Designing a system for the consumer market that accommodated a plugin memory device was no easy task. The engineers had to devise a method that allowed the cartridge to communicate with the microprocessor without disrupting the processor’s static charge. Moreover, the system had to be robust enough to hold up through repeated insertions and removals of the cartridge.
And on top of introducing an onboard microprocessor, programmable game cartridges, and player versus computer gaming, the Channel F was the first console that allowed players to pause the game. The controller had a Hold button that could be used to stop the game and change parameters like game speed.
Lawson engineered a revolutionary console that introduced features that have been central to console gaming ever since. But was the Channel F successful? Well, not very.
Atari was working on their own cartridge-based system when Fairchild released the Channel F. Realizing they had to rush production or fall far behind, they released the Atari VCS in September 1977. The Channel F had a more powerful processor (1.79 MHz vs 1.19 MHz for the VCS), but Atari’s machine had twice as much RAM (128 vs 64 bytes) along with better graphics and sound. The Atari VCS outsold the Channel F, which led Fairchild to give up on the gaming industry. They sold the Channel F to Zircon International in 1979. Atari eventually rebranded the VCS as the Atari 2600 in 1982, and it is recognized today as one of the most successful and influential systems in the history of console gaming.
Learn more about Lawson’s contribution to modern-day gaming systems HERE.[source: ARS Technica]