Fairchild Video Game Inventor Passed Away

The San Jose Mercury News posted an obituary for Jerry Lawson, who passed away at 70 years old, the inventor of the first cartridge-based video game system in 1975. I had to scratched my head over that one, having never heard of the Fairchild Channel F video game system. At least, not in a store. I was surprised to find out that the Atari 2600 came out a year later. Video game didn’t take off until the early 1980s, where home systems and arcades at the mall became more prevalent. Besides that Atari 2600, there was the Magnavox Odyssey 2, Mattel Intellivision and Coleco ColecoVision. All cartridge-based systems. The Channel F must have been a very short lived system.

In the mid-1970s, he was director of engineering and marketing for the newly formed video game division of Fairchild Semiconductor, and it was under his direction that the division brought to market in 1976 the Fairchild Channel F, a home console that allowed users to play different games contained on removable cartridges. Until then, home video game systems could play only games that were built into the machines themselves.

During the 1970s I had two video game machines, one that plays tennis and another that plays tank warfare, both require two players. You could play by yourself if you wanted to operate both sets of control. There was no Artificial Intelligence (AI) to play against. I also had handheld games like the Coleco Electronic QuarterbackColeco Quiz Wiz and Mattel Battlestar Galactica Space Alert. These single player games had an AI to play against, but they were very predictable AIs that were easy to defeat once you learned the patterns. Which was why the Coleco Quiz Wiz was a huge disappointment for me. I only had three quiz books before I realized that the answers for all 50 questions in every quiz book were identical (i.e., question 1 / button a, question 2 / button c, etc.). The electronics for these early games weren’t sophisticated enough to have an unpredictable AI to play against.

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I developed the life long habit of recognizing patterns from these games, which became useful when I became a video game tester at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crises). I was the lead tester for Atari Anniversary Edition (Game Boy Advanced), which was a collection of classic arcade games that I played back in the 1980s. (I routinely shocked younger testers who believe that there were no video games before the Sony PlayStation in the 1990s by telling them I played Pong when it first came out and introduced them to another tester who tested pen-and-paper strategy games in the 1970s before they were born.) Since the original arcade game ROMs were being run in an emulator, I remembered all the patterns and re-discovered all the bugs that would never be fixed. Last week the Atari’s Greatest Hits for the Apple iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad came out. Didn’t take me long to reproduce an unfixed bug in Pong to show off to my friend because the original ROMs were being run in an emulator.

I always wanted to be a historian when I grew up. That never did happen. A blind pursuit of mathematics—and video games—caused me to drop out of San Jose State University. If I ever win the lottery and/or score a multi-million-dollar book contract, I would go back to school to finish a degree in Silicon Valley history. (With school funding being cut back and prices being jacked up, you need to win the lottery to avoid being debt for the rest of your life.) I’ll need to add Jerry Lawson and the Fairchild Channel F video game system to my list of research topics.