Their Dad Transformed Video Games In The 1970s — And Passed On His Pioneering Spirit

Sep 17, 2021
Originally published on September 20, 2021 7:02 am

A self-taught electrical engineer transformed the video game world in the 1970s.

Before Gerald "Jerry" Lawson helped invent the first video game console with interchangeable game cartridges, players were limited to a preset selection of games built into systems.

As such, Lawson has been called the "father of modern gaming." But to Karen and Anderson Lawson, he was first and foremost "Dad."

Jerry died in 2011 at age 70. At StoryCorps, Anderson, now 49, and Karen, 52, remembered how their father's pioneering spirit also influenced how he raised them.

One of the few Black engineers in Silicon Valley at the time, Jerry worked for a company called Fairchild Camera and Instrument. He helped lead a team that in 1976 released a product known as Channel F, a precursor to video game systems like today's PlayStation and Xbox.

Catherine, Jerry, Anderson and Karen Lawson, photographed in the 1970s
The Lawson family

"Dad was a man without limitations as far as what he felt he could do or accomplish," Karen said to her brother. "When he did pass, as sad as it was, you and I both know that he lived a full life."

At 6 feet, 6 inches, and some 300 pounds, his stature was intimidating, said the siblings. But Anderson remembered a gentle giant. "He'd pick us up and he would pretend like he was King Kong and go, 'Aaaahhhh!' " he recalled.

After all, the "F" in his father's shining achievement, Channel F, stood for "fun."

Jerry was always tinkering, taking devices apart and seeing what was inside. As a teenager in Queens, N.Y., he made house calls to repair TVs.

Anderson remembers his dad's makeshift lab in their garage resembling a slapdash Star Trek console.

"There might be eight to 10 different computers, about the size of a refrigerator, all networked together," he said. "And I remember walking around and stepping on some of the electronic components and hurting my foot."

Shoes were necessary, Karen joked: "It was a death trap."

Some of their earliest memories were of them playing games that their dad's team designed.

The siblings realized as they got older that as they were having fun and games, they also served as guinea pigs for their father's early game designs, Karen said, "checking out bugs."

"He just got some free labor out of us," Anderson said, laughing.

A book Jerry gave to his son and nephew, 101 BASIC Computer Games, inspired Anderson's decision to become a computer scientist.

"He forced us to figure out how to make our own games," said Anderson.

"I had so much fun doing it," he said. "It changed the whole trajectory of my life."

Like the sci-fi books and movies he devoured, Jerry saw no rules to what he could do in life.

"If everyone was going right, he'd figure out a good reason to go left," Anderson said. "That was just him. He created his own destiny."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Lauren Smith.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NOEL KING, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps. Gerald Lawson was an engineer who specialized in making video games in the 1970s. His kids, Karen and Anderson, remember growing up with him in Silicon Valley.

ANDERSON LAWSON: He was 6'6" and almost 300 pounds.

KAREN LAWSON: His size was intimidating. The guy walks into the room and he's filling up the doorway.

A LAWSON: And no matter where you were in the house, you can hear the keys jingle. And when - as soon as you hear that, we would just get up from wherever we're at and run to the door and hug Dad. He'd pick us up, and he would pretend like he was King Kong and go (imitating King Kong). You remember that?

K LAWSON: (Laughter) Yes.

A LAWSON: And he had this huge lab in the garage. If you ever saw a episode of "Star Trek," we see everyone sitting around the consoles, right?

K LAWSON: Consoles, yeah.

A LAWSON: That's what that lab looked like to me. There might be eight to 10 different computers about the size of a refrigerator all networked together. And I remember walking around and stepping on some of the electronic components and hurting my foot.

K LAWSON: Yeah.

A LAWSON: Like, if you didn't have shoes on, you were screwed.

K LAWSON: It was a death route.

(LAUGHTER)

A LAWSON: Some of my earliest memories are of us playing his video games.

K LAWSON: And which we didn't know at the time is that we were checking out bugs in the games.

A LAWSON: Right. And he just got some free labor out of us (laughter).

K LAWSON: That was it. We played video games so much that Mom and Dad used to put us outside...

A LAWSON: Yeah.

K LAWSON: ...And Dad used to say, give it a rest.

A LAWSON: Give it a rest. I remember that.

K LAWSON: (Laughter).

A LAWSON: And remember our cousin Manny (ph) who came to visit?

K LAWSON: Yes.

A LAWSON: He gave Manny and I a book, "101 Basic Computer Games." And he forced us to figure out how to make our own games. So Manny and I made a game on one of the computers Dad had. I had so much fun doing it. That influenced me in my decision to become a computer scientist. It changed the whole trajectory of my life.

K LAWSON: His influence speaks to his personality and who he was. Dad was a man without limitations as far as what he felt he could do or accomplish. So when he did pass, as sad as it was, you and I both know that he lived a full life.

A LAWSON: He was a man that went his own path. If everyone was going right, he'd figure out a good reason to go left. and...

K LAWSON: Yes.

A LAWSON: ...That was just him. He created his own destiny.

KING: Anderson and Karen Lawson remembering their dad, Gerald, who died in 2011. That conversation will be archived at the Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRYAN COPELAND'S "ELEGIAC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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