Video Games Pioneer, Gerald Lawson, Dead at 70

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LawsonWithout the wizardry of black inventor Lewis Latimer and his incandescent filament Thomas Edison might still be searching in the dark.  And steam driven trolleys might still be operating on New York streets without the innovations of Granville T. Woods. 

More currently it was reported that a black man, Gerald A. Lawson, was a pioneer in video games.   Lawson, 70, died last week in Mountain View, Calif.  The cause was complications of diabetes.  

It’s amazing to discover that a black man was a pacesetter in video games; that it was his genius that gave birth to such popular games as Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, Xbox and Playstation, and the current crop of games—Grand Theft Auto and Madden NFL.

Lawson was born in Brooklyn, grew up in Queens, and attended City College of New York.  Among his heroes was the great horticulturalist George Washington Carver who provided the early inspiration for his desire to be a scientist.  “I want to be a scientist, I want be something,” he told a reporter, recalling his childhood.

He certainly did become something, and so much so that back in the 1970s he was part of a computer club that included Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak as members.  Later, when Lawson was director of engineering and marketing at Fairchild Semiconductor, he said he was not impressed with Jobs or Wozniak, the founders of Apple.  And actually chose not to hire Wozniak for a position at Fairchild.

It was during his tenure at Fairchild that Lawson invented Demolition Derby, which earned him prestige and head of the company’s video game division.  He headed the team that developed the cartridges that could be loaded with different game programs.  These could then be inserted in consoles one at a time.  Thus, individual games could be sold separately from the consoles, thereby creating the key to video game industry.

In 1980, Lawson left Fairchild and started his own company Videosoft, continuing to create games while working as a consultant for several related companies.

“I don’t play video games that often,” Lawson said in an interview in 2009, “first of all, most of the games that are out now—I’m appalled by them.”  In his opinion they were too interested in violence and killing somebody.

Lawson may not have been interested in playing the games, but millions of gamesters are, and they can thank him for providing this pastime and wealth for the video game industry.