VC&G Anthology Interview: Ed Smith, Black Video Game and Computer Pioneer

February 22nd, 2017 by Benj Edwards

Ed Smith, Black Video Game Pioneer of APF ElectronicsIn 1978, APF Electronics introduced the MP1000, an early cartridge-based video game system. It wasn't a smash hit like offerings from Atari, but it carried within its faux woodgrain housing a hidden kernel of cultural brilliance: The console would not have existed without the work of an African-American electronics engineer named Edward Lee Smith (b. Nov 4 1954).

I first learned about Ed Smith while researching Jerry Lawson, one of the first known African-Americans in the video game industry. Not long after Lawson did his pioneering design work on the Fairchild Channel F in Silicon Valley, Smith began a similar task on the opposite side of the country, crafting his on his own contributions to the industry while at APF in New York City.

VC&G Anthology BadgeAs part of a small engineering team, Smith helped design the MP1000 and its plug-in computer expansion module, the Imagination Machine. That work got him noticed by Black Enterprise magazine, and in 1982, Smith and Lawson were both interviewed for a feature written by S. Lee Hilliard about the roles African-Americans had played in the video game revolution, which was a hot business topic at the time.

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Ed Smith and the Imagination Machine

September 2nd, 2016 by Benj Edwards

Ed Smith and the Imagination Machine

Just today, FastCompany published my in-depth history of Ed Smith and APF Electronics.

APF was responsible for several video game consoles in the 1970s (like the MP1000) and a personal computer called The Imagination Machine. Ed Smith was the primary electronics designer for the MP1000, and he has quite a story to tell.

I think you guys will really enjoy the piece.

Thirty-seven years ago, New York-based APF Electronics, Inc. released The Imagination Machine, a hybrid video game console and personal computer designed to make a consumer's first experience with computing as painless and inexpensive as possible.

APF's playful computer (and its game console, the MP1000) never rivaled the impact of products from Apple or Atari, but they remain historically important because of the man who cocreated them: Ed Smith, one of the first African-American electronics engineers in the video game industry. During a time when black Americans struggled for social justice, Manhattan-based APF hired Smith to design the core element of its future electronics business.

What it took to get there, for both APF and Smith, is a story worth recounting—and one that, until now, has never been told in full.

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[ Retro Scan of the Week ] African American Apple Fans

February 4th, 2013 by Benj Edwards

Multiracial Black African American Apple Fans Apple PowerBook Advertisement 1992One big happy family — and a PowerBook (click to see entire ad)

It's Black History Month once again in the US, so I thought it would be timely to share this Apple PowerBook advertisement from 1992.

The ad appeared in the February issue of Smithsonian Magazine; I don't think it is a coincidence that it prominently featured people of African descent. It also prominently featured the PowerBook 100, which had just been introduced a few months prior in October 1991.

The obvious racial focus of this ad brings to my mind a couple of interesting, if racially-charged questions: What percentage of black Americans, historically, have used Apple products versus other computer brands? Do African Americans, like other demographic groups, have their computer or tech brands of choice?

Today, Apple is such a mainstream company that the answer to the first question is most certainly larger than it likely was in the pre-iPod era. It would be interesting from a cultural standpoint to peek back into private demographic customer studies that Apple no doubt commissioned at various points in its history.

As for an answer to the second question, I have no idea. But I would love to hear from African American computer users to find out.

[ From Smithsonian Magazine, February 1992, p.10-11 ]

Discussion Topic of the Week: What's your favorite PowerBook model?

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Jerry Lawson (1940-2011)

April 11th, 2011 by Benj Edwards

Jerry Lawson creator of Fairchild Channel F and Black Video Game PioneerIn Memoriam: Gerald A. Lawson (1940-2011), black video game pioneer.

I am very saddened to announce the passing of a truly important figure in the history of video games. Jerry Lawson died Saturday morning, April 9th, 2011, at the age of 70.

Lawson was notable not only for being a rare African American electronic engineer in Silicon Valley, but also for leading the team that created the world's first ROM cartridge-based video game console. I speak, of course, of the Fairchild Channel F, which hit the market in August 1976.

Lawson did an interview for this site in 2009, and I am proud to say that the feature brought this amazing man some long overdue recognition. The IGDA honored Lawson's contributions to the industry during an informal session at this year's Game Developer's Conference on March 4th, 2011.

I heard the news of Lawson's death only this afternoon from David Erhart, a personal friend of Lawson. Erhart tells me that he and Lawson were planning to go to a ham radio swap meet Saturday morning, but he received a call from Jerry's wife on Friday night telling him that Lawson was in the ICU. The next morning, his wife phoned Erhart again to say that Lawson had died.

The cause of death is unknown to me at the moment, but I do know that Lawson struggled with severe diabetes for years. An obituary for Jerry is in the works, and I will post an update whenever I receive it (or a link to it).

Rest in peace, Jerry. Thank you for all you've done for us. History will not forget your name.

[Update (04/14/2011) - David Erhart was told by Lawson's family that Lawson died of a heart attack. "He was feeling bad Wednesday afternoon/night as was taken to the hospital," Erhart wrote in an email. "He then died at 6:15am Saturday morning." This New York Times obituary quotes Lawson's wife as saying that Lawson died from "complications of diabetes."]

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VC&G Interview: Jerry Lawson, Black Video Game Pioneer

February 24th, 2009 by Benj Edwards

Jerry LawsonIn late 2006, I received a large collection of vintage computer magazines from a friend. For days I sat on my office floor and thumbed through nearly every issue, finding page after page of priceless historical information. One day, while rapidly flipping through a 1983 issue of Popular Computing, I encountered a photo that stopped me dead in my tracks.

There I discovered, among a story on a new computer business, a picture of a black man. It might seem crazy, but after reading through hundreds of issues of dozens of publications spanning four decades, it was the first time I had ever seen a photograph of a black professional in a computer magazine. Frankly, it shocked me — not because a black man was there, but because I had never noticed his absence.

That discovery sent my mind spinning with questions, chiefly among them: Why are there so few African-Americans in the electronics industry? Honestly, I didn't know any black engineers or scientists to ask. I tried to track down the man in the magazine, but all my leads ended up nowhere. I'd have to put the matter aside and wait for another opportunity to address the issue.

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[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Atari Basketball Catalog

January 19th, 2009 by Benj Edwards

Atari Catalog p 21 - 1982Click above to see the full page scan

Here's a scan of Basketball's appearance in a 1982 Atari product catalog for their 8-bit home computer line. Basketball, programmed by Alan Miller, is notable for possibly introducing the first obviously black video game character. And hey, it's also the first game I remember playing.

[ From Discover the World of Atari Home Computers, 1982 ]

Discussion topic of the week: What is the significance, if any, of the first black video game character appearing in a basketball game, rather than a game based on another subject matter?

If you use this image on your site, please support "Retro Scan of the Week" by giving us obvious credit for the original scan and entry. Thanks.

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The First Black Video Game Character

January 19th, 2009 by Benj Edwards

The First Black Video Game Character - Illustration

Tomorrow, the United States will inaugurate its first black president, Barack Obama. In honor of this watershed moment in American history, I thought we should pay tribute to another African-American trailblazer: the first black video game character. After some searching, I believe I've found him.

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