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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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 FastCompany.com 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.

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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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