Among the litany of recognizable names in the gaming industry, there is one that’s often left out of the conversation. Gerald “Jerry” Lawson, the engineer responsible for the development of the video game cartridge, among other outstanding achievements, is the subject of today’s Google Doodle. While his name may not get the same recognition as the likes of Carmack, Romero, or Bushnell, Lawson was an instrumental part in the growth and development of video games, long before many of these prominent upstarts would hang their shingle.
A Brooklyn-born and -raised Black man, Lawson began his career working as an engineering consultant for the gaming division of Fairchild Semiconductor in San Francisco. Here, he would develop his first game and eventually be promoted to chief hardware engineer, leading the development of the first cartridge-based home console, the Fairchild Channel F.
Home consoles had been a thing for some time, but their programming had to be built into their hardware (think of something like an arcade cabinet), which prevented you from using different software. That is, until Lawson and his team developed the ROM cartridge, which allowed you to swap different software into the motherboard of your console.
This opened up a whole new revenue stream for developers, as you no longer needed to also develop dedicated hardware for your games and could continue to add to a console’s existing library after it had shipped.
Gaming giants like Atari and Activision would go on to build their respective empires on the work done by Lawson and his team. While gaming has largely moved away from cartridges and other physical media, you can still see Lawson’s contributions echoed today in the physical cartridges for the Nintendo Switch, which are a fraction of the size but still operate on the same principles.
Lawson’s contributions to the evolution of video games as a sustainable medium of entertainment are immense and made all the more impressive by the fact that he was largely self-taught. He did attend both Queens College and the City College of New York, but never completed a degree.
Lawson, unfortunately, passed away in 2011 following complications from diabetes, but not before being honored by the International Game Developers Association as an industry pioneer for his achievements.
If you’re interested in learning more about Lawson and his story, I can recommend checking out the three-part audiobook Raising the Game: The Untold Story of Jerry Lawson by Anthony Frasier, which features interviews with many of his friends and colleagues. But, for a more interactive tour of gaming history, you might want to check out Atari 50, a playable collection of gaming’s most influential titles.