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Photo Credit: Pete Fuller via Flickr, and Vintage Computing and Gaming

I had no idea who Jerry Lawson was until he died and his obituary appeared in The New York Times on Wednesday. To sum up, he was an African-American engineer who oversaw the development and release of a video-game system in 1976 called the Fairchild Channel F. It was special because it had interchangeable cartridges. The console had two games programmed in, but if you wanted more, you had to buy cartridges for each new game. The Fairchild Channel F was not the first system to have interchangeable games. The Magnavox Odyssey came out in 1972 and had printed circuit boards with different games, but they came with the console and were not sold separately. The Odyssey was a black-and-white system that came with overlays that you needed to put on the TV screen to provide the game background or design. Here’s a great example: A YouTube demonstration of the Odyssey game “Prehistoric Safari.” The Fairchild Channel F was in color and the games were completely software-based. It also had advanced game controllersThe cartridges sold for the Fairchild system were like the game cartridges for Atari and other systems that came later. The business model of selling games separately remains the standard for today’s multi-billion-dollar industry (though with DVDs or downloads instead of cartridges). There are a few videos of Lawson on YouTube, but unfortunately they have poor audio and it’s hard to hear him. But there is a great 2009 interview on vintagecomputing.com that you can read. One of the highlights is when he talks about being the only black member of the Homebrew Computer Club that met at Stanford and included Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Here’s what he thought of the Apple co-founders:

BE: Did you talk to Steve Jobs and Wozniak back then?

JL: I was not impressed with them — either one, in fact. What happened was that when I had the video game division [at Fairchild], and I was the chief engineer, I interviewed Steve Wozniak for a job to work for us. Well, my guys were kind of impressed with him at first, and I said I wasn’t. Never had been.

I don’t have any childhood memories of playing with the Fairchild. I do remember the Odyssey because of those goofy overlays. And, of course, there was Pong. I could play that thing for hours, and it wasn’t much different than what the Fairchild system had to offer. Here’s a video sampler of the games from the Fairchild Channel F:

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RIP, Mr. Lawson.

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