The Invention of the Video Game Cartridge

January 22nd, 2015 by Benj Edwards

The Untold Story of the Invention of the Game Cartridge

Three and a half years ago, I started writing a history of the Fairchild Channel F, the world’s first commercial game console to use software cartridges. As part of the research, I first interviewed two Fairchild veterans to follow up on my 2009 interview of Jerry Lawson.

As I kept digging, the rabbit hole of history went deeper and deeper, and the story turned out too complex and nuanced to properly research for whatever venue I was planning at the time. Budgets were tight, and the economics didn’t work out, so I had to shelve it.

Just last year, I picked up where I left off and did the rest of the legwork, summoning primary source documents from around the world (special thanks to ICHEG) and interviewing over 15 people who worked for Alpex, National Semiconductor, Fairchild, Atari, and RCA to piece together the most accurate portrait of the birth of the game cartridge that I could possibly manage.

The result was finally published last night — in a somewhat abridged format — on with my friend and longtime collaborator Harry McCracken editing the piece.

What I have created sheds light on a heretofore completely unknown segment of video game history (especially regarding Alpex), and it is my hope that I have done so in a way that does justice to the achievement of those involved some forty years ago.

I am grateful to everyone who helped with my research — especially Ron Smith, the mechanical designer of the Channel F, who provided me with countless documents and a patient ear for all of my questions, and Wallace Kirschner and Lawrence Haskel, who decided to talk to the press for the first time ever for my piece.

There is more to the story than could fit in the article, but don’t despair — it will probably end up as part of a book.

I hope you enjoy the piece.

10 Responses to “The Invention of the Video Game Cartridge”

  1. AguyinaRPG Says:

    Wow, how convenient is this! I’m writing up a section on the Fairchild currently, just got done with your Jerry Lawson interview (R.I.P), and I coem to the front page to see this! Must be a sign or something.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. V Says:

    Thanks, that was awesome. I really, really enjoyed reading it!

  3. Geoff V. Says:

    Fantastic article Benj. Interesting subject material and a well told story. Looking forward to your book!

  4. Galactus Says:

    Great article Benj, congrats.

    So when you ask “Why did Atari beat Fairchild?” (and everyone else around) you nailed it right:
    Because it brought the Arcade home. (Thanx Nolan you are my childhood hero).

    I was able to play Asteroids, Space Invaders, Pacman(well sort of), Ms Pacman, Centipede, Missile Command and a lot more of Arcade titles thanx to my Atari 2600, it was perfect for my gaming needs at the time. Atari made me very happy back then. 🙂

  5. MajorMach1 Says:

    Thanks for the article Benj,

    Our family’s first video game system was the Fairchild Channel F. It was December 1979, ironically, after Christmas. My dad purchased it for us at a camera store in Peoria, Ill. We probably bought 5 cartridges with it, I’m guessing it must have cost over $200.00 (1979 money) when we left the store. Over the next couple of years, we bought almost every game available (Spitfire and Drag Race were always my favorites). I remember one of the last carts was a ripoff of Space Invaders (1981). I loved that machine!! While not as advanced as the Atari VGC (2600), or having the licenses Atari had, I still hold a very special place in my heart for the Channel F. Thanks for reminding me of many of the good times from my childhood.

  6. Mattel Aquarius Says:

    Great story. I have a Channel F that I picked up at a swap meet over 10 years ago. For some reason, the box says System II. I assume the original owner had both, and mixed up the boxes. It was shipped directly from the factory to the customer.

    Thanks for all the research into the history of the machine, and the people who made it possible.

  7. esm8m Says:

    Thank you for the article! While I don’t comment often, as I’m too young to have experienced most of the things you have discussion questions on, I always enjoy reading this stuff.

  8. Benj Edwards Says:

    Thanks for the feedback, guys. It means a lot. I’m glad you enjoyed my article.

  9. Alexander Says:

    Excellent article as always, Benj! This is probably the first detailed piece I’ve ever seen on the Channel F.

  10. Benj Edwards Says:

    Thanks, Alexander. That’s because it is indeed the first detailed piece on the Channel F written. Prior to 2009, the most you could find about the Channel F were scraps of mostly inaccurate info. After that, 99% of pieces (and book chapters) on the Channel F were based on my 2009 VC&G interview with Jerry Lawson.

    I found that very unsatisfying because my Lawson interview didn’t specifically focus on the creation of the Channel F (we talked about it a little, but did not go into it in depth), and people were reading way too much into his answers. So I dug in with the rest of the Channel F team (then Alpex), and this piece is the result. 🙂

Leave a Reply