Remember when video games used to come in cartridges? Everyone born in the ’80s or early ’90s remembers the satisfying click of putting their favorite game into their NES, Super Nintendo or Nintendo 64. Everyone remembers going to their one rich friend’s house and seeing his jumbled crate of 100 games that they could organize better than he ever could. And of course everyone remembers when they put their cartridge into the machine and nothing would happen for a while — so they’d take the cartridge out and for some reason instinctively blow into it and then it would magically work. (FYI: it really worked because you took the game out and put it back in.) You have Jerry Lawson to thank for all of those childhood memories. Lawson was a video game pioneer who headed the team that invented the first video game cartridge. He was 70-years-old and died on Saturday after suffering a heart attack. He’s one of the genre’s only black pioneers and leaves behind a huge legacy.
Jerry Lawson was originally a Queens native who moved out to Silicon Valley in the ’70s. He grew up in a Jamaica housing project and went to Queens College and CCNY. He moved out to Silicon Valley where he was a major part of the early tech scene. He was part of a group of young hackers called the Homebrew Computer Club, which counted Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak among its members. He worked for a company called Fairchild that developed the first home console that used cartridges.
Although he was a video game pioneer, it seems that Lawson lost some respect for the genre in recent years. In a lengthy interview with VintageComputing.com, he says:
I don’t play video games that often; I really don’t. First of all, most of the games that are out now — I’m appalled by them. They’re all scenario games considered with shooting somebody and killing somebody. 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. That’s what a game is to me.
Lawson had apparently developed diabetes in the past few years and was confined to a wheelchair. His family friend David Erhart said, “He continued building devices to control telescopes, lasers, tools, etc. up until the day he went to the hospital. His workbench had more tools than most people would even know what to do with. He taught me quite a bit and I’ll miss him sorely.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 12, 2011