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In Memory of Jerry Lawson, a Black Engineer Who Changed Video Games: NPR

Anderson and Karen Lawson at the StoryCorps recording in Atlanta in 2015.

Diana Guyton


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Diana Guyton

Anderson and Karen Lawson at the StoryCorps recording in Atlanta in 2015.

Diana Guyton

Self-taught electricity Engineers changed the world of video games in the 1970s.

Before Gerald “Jerry” Lawson helped invent the first video game console with replaceable game cartridges, players were limited to selecting game presets built into the system.

That’s why Lawson is called the “father of modern games.” But for Karen and Anderson Lawson, he was, first and foremost, a “dad.”

Jerry died in 2011 at the age of 70. At Storycorp, Anderson (now 49) and Karen (52) recalled how their father’s pioneering spirit influenced his father’s upbringing.

Jerry, one of the few black engineers in Silicon Valley at the time, worked for a company called Fairchild Camera and Instrument. He helped lead the team in 1976 when they released a product known as Channel F, the predecessor of video game systems like today’s PlayStation and Xbox.

Catherine, Jerry, Anderson, Karen Lawson shot in the 1970s

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“Dad was an unlimited man as long as he thought he could and could achieve it,” Karen told his brother. “It was sad when he passed, but you and I both know that he had a fulfilling life.”

The brothers said he was 6 feet, 6 inches, about 300 pounds and his height was intimidating. But Anderson remembered the calm giant. “He came to pick us up and pretended to be King Kong.” He remembered.

After all, his father’s illustrious achievement, the “F” on Channel F, was short for “fun.”

Jerry was constantly tinkering, disassembling the device and checking its contents. As a teenager in Queens, NY, he called home to repair his television.

Anderson remembers his father’s temporary lab in a garage similar to the Slap Dash Star Trek console.

“It’s possible that eight to ten different computers, about the size of a refrigerator, are all connected to the network,” he said. “And I remember walking around and stepping on some electronic components and hurt my leg.”

Karen joked that she needed shoes. “It was a death trap.”

Some of their early memories were that they played a game designed by their father’s team.

“Check for bugs,” Karen said, saying that as the brothers grow older, they also act as guinea pigs in their father’s early game design when they’re having fun and playing games. I noticed.

“He got a free workforce from us,” Anderson said with a laugh.

A book that Jerry gave to his son and nephew, 101 basic computer gamesInspired Anderson’s decision to become a computer scientist.

“He made us think about how to make our game,” Anderson said.

“I had a lot of fun doing that,” he said. “It changed the whole trajectory of my life.”

Like the science fiction books and movies he devoured, Jerry didn’t see the rules about what he could do in life.

“If everyone is going to the right, he will understand the good reason to go to the left,” Anderson said. “It was only him. He created his own destiny.”

Audio produced for Morning Edition By Lauren Smith.

StoryCorps is a national non-profit organization that provides friends and loved ones with the opportunity to interview their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Fork Life Center in the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. For more information, including how to interview someone in your life StoryCorps.org..

In Memory of Jerry Lawson, a Black Engineer Who Changed Video Games: NPR

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