Black History Month: Celebrating Jerry Lawson, The Man Who Invented Video Games

It's Black History Month, and that means we're going to see a celebration of iconic Black figures like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, and Harriet Tubman, all the way up to modern day Black heroes like Simone Biles. However, there's one especially influential figure in gaming that we should all know a lot more about, and yet his name has not been immortalised in history in the way it ought to be, given the cultural power gaming now holds. Meet Jerry Lawson, the man who invented video games.

If you've ever held a video game in your hand, you have held a piece of Jerry Lawson's legacy between your fingers. There are many people we may point to as 'inventing' video games in a thematic sense; we might think of those souls behind the influential works from Tetris to Super Mario to Doom to Tomb Raider to The Last of Us and point to them as transforming what it means to be a video game. We might look to the programmers who first managed to get buttons and joysticks to move pixels on a fuzzy screen. Some might point to the work Hideo Kojima has done in embracing cinema and driving forward the medium. Far fewer would look to Mabel Addis, the overlooked woman who wrote The Sumerian Game's narrative way back in 1964 – now thought to be the first video game with a storyline, eight years before Pong even existed. But Lawson's invention is more thematic and more literal.

Video games have taken various physical forms over the years, and these days exist either as discs with codes on them to facilitate downloads, or existing entirely digitally as strings of numbers, leaving nothing for you to hold in your hands at all. However, going back through gaming's history, we see various forms of discs, cartridges, and eventually, Jerry Lawson's screwdriver. Lawson is the inventor of the original video game cartridge, having worked on the Fairchild Channel F, which stands for Channel Fun. It seems like a silly name now, but really it's no different than having a Play Station, an X Box, or a Game Cube.

The Channel F was the first console to have a microprocessor and to come with a set of cartridges you could swap in and out to play different games. This would then become the future of the medium, but before they could do that, they had to exist. Jerry Lawson, who had once built his own radio station at home with scraps of metal when he was just 13, was the man who made them exist. If you've ever snapped a cartridge into place, blown the dust out of the port, or even wiped a scratched disc clean on a soft cloth and slid it inside a console, that can all be traced back to Lawson.

Lawson's personal history is fascinating too, as well as a little bit poetic. Intellect and science had always run deep in his family – his grandfather studied to become a physicist, but as a Black man in early 20th century America, could not find work and so became a postmaster. Still, his family maintained this love of science and a young Lawson took an interest in chemistry and ham radio – the latter of which would be crucial in plotting his career path and, with it, the advent and future of video games as a medium.

However, what Lawson credits as most important are the words of his first-grade teacher, who taught him of George Washington Carver and instilled in him a desire to be influential – a goal he, despite perhaps a lack of recognition, undeniably achieved. Carver has a similarly misunderstood legacy. Most people know him as the man who invented peanuts, though this is incorrect. Carver was a scientist who used peanuts and other natural ingredients to create all sorts of substances including shampoos, glue, and various sauces, but more importantly, he was one of the earliest advocates for environmentalism in farming and invented a method of crop rotation that avoided soil depletion and helped Black communities grow more nutritious foodstuffs.

Carver took land that had been rendered near barren after decades of slave-produced cotton plantation and revived it into something rich enough to grow sweet potatoes, cowpeas, and yes, peanuts. He was known in his lifetime as a great scientist and inventor, even dubbed 'the Black Leonardo Da Vinci' by Time Magazine before his death. It feels trite that his legacy has been reduced to being 'the peanut butter man', but maybe that's why it's fitting that Lawson, whose invention is a cornerstone of our industry yet none of us know his name, wanted to tread the same path as him.

There are many ways someone might claim to have 'invented' video games, making the physical object we have held in our hands and watched come to life for generations feels the closest to the truth. This Black History Month, and always, we owe our thanks to Jerry Lawson.

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