Search “video cartridge inventor” on Google. Do you see Jerry Lawson? Good. So why don’t more people know this fact?
It might have to do with confusion about the actual creator of the medium. Ten years after his death, Lawson still isn’t a household name. Why?
If you grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, you remember the cartridge era. Without cartridges, games like Super Mario Bros., Mega Man, Metroid, Sonic the Hedgehog, Madden NFL, and Street Fighter II would never have been possible. And without Jerry Lawson, cartridges would not have been possible.
In August, Anthony Frasier, a Black tech and media entrepreneur from Newark, New Jersey, created and narrated Raising the Game, an Audible original podcast. He wonders aloud why few understand Lawson’s impact. Lawson, the true inventor and engineer of the video game cartridge, created an essential component of the multibillion-dollar gaming industry. Why, then, are his accomplishments hidden behind a wall of white?
Frasier says that he discovered Lawson’s story while working in Silicon Valley trying to build his tech startup. He attended a memorial service for Lawson even though he was just some random guy who never knew him. “I left that day inspired, but angry I had been robbed of examples like this to model my career after. I wanted to put an end to that.” Though he started the project back in 2019, when he first got connected with Audible, all of the research and lining up all the interviews couldn’t be completed until this year, the 10th anniversary of Lawson’s death.
Player One: The Life of Lawson
It’s not difficult to learn more about Lawson if you go looking. Born in 1940, in Brooklyn, New York, Lawson grew up in the projects in Jamaica, Queens, where kids like himself were often dismissed.
Lawson’s grandfather was from the South and trained in physics, worked for the post office and eventually became postmaster—it was just out of the question for a Black man to get a job in science in the South back then. So Lawson’s fascination with science began early. Lawson’s father was a longshoreman who worked three days a week, during which he’d make as much as the average man made in six days. However, the longshoreman nurtured in the boy the fascination that would propel him to greatness. Lawson’s mother used a fake address to get him into a white school, and was the greatest inspiration for his later career. She also bought him the Hallicrafters Model S-38 shortwave radio that led to Lawson building converters and antennas. By 13, he was making walkie-talkies from scratch and selling them to neighborhood kids. He also worked for local stores. They’d commission him to fix their clients’ TV sets, and he also worked on HAM radios.
In 1968, Lawson and his wife moved to Silicon Valley to be near emerging technologies, like microprocessors, transistors, and semiconductors. Lawson landed a job as a field-applications engineering consultant for Fairchild Camera and Instrument, basically a traveling troubleshooter.
Four years later, in 1972, Lawson passed an arcade and was instantly mesmerized by Pong. One year earlier, Intel released its 4004 microprocessor. Microprocessors had never been used in gaming before, but Lawson got the idea he could put a microprocessor in a video game. He designed a coin-operated video game cabinet: Demolition Derby. He tested it at a local pizza parlor, and it turned out to be quite popular. Inside was a Fairchild F8 microprocessor. Someone learned about his side-project, and while some wanted to fire Lawson for his seeming conflict of interest in creating video games on the side with his own company’s microprocessors, execs immediately promoted him. Shortly thereafter, Lawson became director of engineering and marketing for Fairchild’s new video games division.
Around this same time, home consoles were making inroads, but the consoles had no memory of their own. Before cartridges, video games were just on the console, preprogrammed. Players were stuck playing the same couple of games or buying a new console that had new games on it, and buying a new console was pricey.