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Mr. Lawson (Channel F) gets recognized as a Pioneer

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Mr. Lawson gets honored twice this year

 

Here is a link to a recent Mercury News articale 3-24-11

 

Mercury News article

 

Here is a cut-and-paste of the article just in case it gets changed or moved

 

 

jerry_lawson_at_home.jpg

 

By Mike Cassidy

 

Mercury News Columnist

 

On Friday the International Game Developers Association will honor Jerry Lawson for all he's done to move the state of the art forward.

 

 

By Mike Cassidy

 

 

The honor has been a long time coming.

 

It was back in the mid-1970s that Lawson developed the first video game console system, breaking ground in more ways than one. You see, Lawson, 70, is black. And while we often try to pretend that's neither here nor there, the truth is it is here — and it was even more-so there, when Lawson arrived in the valley in 1968.

 

Lawson started at Fairchild Semiconductor in 1970, when there were very few black engineers working in the valley. Within a few years he was launching and running the new gaming division, where he developed the Fairchild Channel F, a console that allowed players to change out cartridges loaded with games like "Video Black Jack," "Maze, Cat and Mouse," "Spitfire" and "Space War."

 

Few at the time thought anyone could develop a console around its own microprocessor, which is what Lawson did. "The whole reason I did games was because people said, 'You can't do it,' " Lawson, of Santa Clara, says. "I'm one of the guys, if you tell me I can't do something, I'll turn around and do it."

 

He is one of

 

those guys, and that determination drove him to invent the console, develop a series of games with a team that reached 30, start two companies and persevere despite diabetes that resulted in his losing a leg and the sight in one eye several years ago.

 

 

 

It's the way engineers are, and the way innovation happens. Every time you see an Xbox or PlayStation or Wii, you should think of Jerry Lawson. He was the first, and though the Channel F was soon eclipsed by the Atari console, he was there at the dawn of what is now a $20 billion industry in the United States.

 

"He's absolutely a pioneer," says Al Alcorn, the Atari co-founder and Pong developer who competed with Lawson. "When you do something for the first time, there is nothing to copy."

 

You have to think of everything, he added. "The cartridge: How to avoid static shock and people putting it in backward?''

 

It's the little details, the trial and error, the what-ifs, that have intrigued Lawson since he was a little kid growing up in public housing in Queens, N.Y. He set up a mini-lab (two chemistry sets) in his bedroom. When he was about 12, he started building a ham radio transmitter from a manual.

 

"I built it and it worked," he says. "I think the greatest joy I ever had in my life was when I put that thing together by myself with nobody helping me."

 

Lawson says it was his mother and one special teacher who instilled in him the belief that he could do whatever he set his mind to. His mother stressed education, sending him to a superior public school across town that was nearly all-white. Mrs. Gubel taught first grade at that school, and she conspicuously placed a picture of George Washington Carver, a man who went from slave to accomplished scientist, on the classroom wall near Lawson's desk. This is what you can do, she told him.

 

"I'll never forget that woman for that," Lawson says. "It was that kind of thing that made a difference."

 

After he left Fairchild in 1980, he started Videosoft, which during a five-year run produced several games and contracted with prominent companies in the industry. He's since taken on consulting jobs, including one in the 1980s with musician Stevie Wonder. The singer had an idea for a Wonder Clock, which would wake a child in the morning with the sound of his or her mother's voice.

 

It never made it to production, but Lawson still remembers his thoughts when Wonder first reached him by phone: "If it ain't Stevie Wonder, it's Rich Little."

 

He's slowed down a bit. His impressive 6-foot-6 frame is now folded into a wheelchair. But he intends to be at the Game Developers Conference Friday afternoon networking event in San Francisco, where he'll be introduced as a gaming pioneer. It's an honor that came as a sudden surprise.

 

The idea of celebrating Lawson was born about three weeks ago when John Templeton, a San Francisco publisher who's highlighted the accomplishments of black technologists, asked an acquaintance with the developers association whether the group ever planned to recognize Lawson. The association is the world's largest nonprofit trade organization for game developers. Joseph Saulter, who leads the association's diversity committee, told Templeton that his mention of Lawson was the first he'd ever heard of him.

 

"I was really very emotional about it," says Saulter, founder of Entertainment Arts Research, an Atlanta-based gaming and media company. "As a matter of fact, I started crying — just for somebody like him to be left out."

 

And so while the association and its many committees periodically hold formal award ceremonies — honoring the developers of "Donkey Kong" and "Tetris" and games such as "Grand Theft Auto" — the salute to Lawson will be a more informal affair.

 

Saulter, who is black, says Lawson had waited long enough, and delaying his recognition for a more formal ceremony simply wouldn't be right. Lawson's story is too important, says Saulter, particularly to the tiny percentage of those working in gaming who are black. "It's inspirational for me," he says, "because it gives me a foundation to say, 'We go back to the whole foundation of this gaming arena. I belong here.' "

 

As important, says Templeton, Lawson is an inspiration to young blacks who might wonder whether there is a place for them in the gaming industry. Seeing, as they say, is believing.

 

Which is to say that Lawson's overdue turn in the spotlight might well be his own Mrs. Gubel moment.

Edited by FND
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I read this earlier this week (last week?), and I say it's about damn time.

 

When people talk about the pioneers of video/computer games, naturally they talk about Ralph Baer and Nolan Bushnell and Al Alcorn and Steve Russell and maybe Willy Higginbotham, but never Jerry Lawson. I don't see how he can be excluded from that group, since his innovations arguably gave video games the form they've taken for over 30 years, and still take today.

 

Hopefully that will start to change now. Better late than never!

 

:)

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Wow! It's amazing to see Mr. Lawson get his due! It's a shame that most people never heard of him, and I hope this starts to change now. It's about time!

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What's really a shame is he just passed away now.

:sad:

 

How sad. I first heard of him through an interview that he gave to Retro Gaming Radio, recorded at CGE some years ago. I never got to meet him, but my impression is that he was a great guy as well as a brilliant engineer, with a delightful sense of humor and a wealth of incredible stories to tell. I'm sorry to hear that he's gone, but I'm glad he lived to see video games grow into the industry they have become, and to receive recognition for his pioneering contributions.

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Nice tribute in the New York Times.

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/14/technology/personaltech/14lawson.html?ref=technology

 

 

“I don’t play video games that often; I really don’t,” he said in the 2009 interview. “First of all, most of the games that are out now — I’m appalled by them.” Most are concerned with “shooting somebody and killing somebody,” he said.

 

“To me, a game should be something like a skill you should develop — if you play this game, you walk away with something of value.”

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Wow. You know, I didn't realize the Channel F was that innovative. Lawson really does deserve more credit than he's gotten up to this point.

 

I'm sorry to see that he's passed. I'm sure that the new attention he has gotten would have resulted in some interesting interviews indeed. Still, perhaps this recognition will help raise people's knowledge of him. I certainly hadn't heard of him before.

Edited by Lendorien

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I have mixed feelings about doing this, but I went back into my Retro Gaming Radio archives and pulled out the excellent interview with Mr. Lawson that I mentioned earlier, for the benefit of those who haven't had the chance to hear it. I think it's important to make it available to a wider audience, especially at this particular time, because not enough people are aware of Mr. Lawson's story and the contributions he made to the industry.

 

This was originally a two-part interview from the September and October 2005 episodes; I put it back together into one file. It's more of an informal discussion, about 90 minutes long, and it includes a lot of detail about the Channel F, Videosoft, and the other projects Mr. Lawson was involved with over his long career.

 

Here is a direct link.

 

I hope that the people at RGR won't mind my sharing this; if anyone has any objections, I'd be glad to pull it. I feel I should at least put in a plug for their archive DVD collections, where you'll be able to get the full episodes that this interview was extracted from (along with many other excellent shows).

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I hope that the people at RGR won't mind my sharing this; if anyone has any objections, I'd be glad to pull it. I feel I should at least put in a plug for their archive DVD collections, where you'll be able to get the full episodes that this interview was extracted from (along with many other excellent shows).

 

Shane plans on putting this up on the RGR site soon.

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I am glad for him that he did get the recognition that he deserved for creating the cartridge based system that we all enjoyed. I am sorry that he passed away and we never got to meet him in person. I am sure that he had some really good stories of the design process with the Channel F system.

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