July 22, 2019

The Gamer Godfather You've Never Heard Of

by The Nod

Video game consoles were super boring in the early days: you could only switch between a few basic, built-in games — no Super Mario Bros, Sonic the Hedgehog or Legend of Zelda. But that all changed thanks to the contributions of a man named Jerry Lawson. Brittany tells Eric the story of the man who helped make video gaming way more fun, paving the way for the video game industry as we know it today.

Mentioned in this episode:

Transcript

[THEME MUSIC]


FROM GIMLET MEDIA…THIS IS THE NOD, A PODCAST ABOUT BLACK CULTURE FROM BLACKNESS’ BIGGEST FANS. I’M BRITTANY LUSE. AND I'M ERIC EDDINGS.


[THEME MUSIC OUT]


BRITTANY LUSE: Eric, do you know what time it is?


ERIC EDDINGS: What time is it? (laughs)


BRITTANY: Don't do that again. (laughs) Don't. Don't do that again. I ask you question, you ask me back.


ERIC: Yes.


BRITTANY: And you know the answer already.


ERIC: What is that?


BRITTANY: It's time for Peanut Butter History.


Speaker 3: George Washington Carver was the wizard of the soil.


Speaker 4: George Washington Carver was the most well-known African-American of his day.


Speaker 5: During his lifetime, Carver extracted more than 300 products from the peanut.


Speaker 6: There was one product that many mistakenly attribute to him. Peanut butter.


Speaker 7: (music)


ERIC: Peanut Butter History is our nod to the beloved inventor, George Washington Carver, who didn't invent peanut butter, by the way. You should all know that. But he did think of hundreds, hundreds of new uses for peanuts, including, get this, peanut meal. You want that on your fried fish?


BRITTANY: Peanut is kind of a strong flavor. It could be good though. It could be maybe some fish sauce?


ERIC: Never know.


BRITTANY: You know what I'm saying? With garlic.


ERIC: Yeah.


BRITTANY: Soy sauce.


ERIC: George knew.


BRITTANY: He knew. Also, Peanut Butter History is our homage to the many, many Black inventors, scientists, artists, activists, and so much more who haven't been recognized for their contributions. And today, we're going to make sure that one engineer really gets the recognition he deserves.


ERIC: That feels like a strong hint.


BRITTANY: Yes. And here IS another strong hint, in the form of a question, Eric. When you were a kid, what video games would you play?


ERIC: Oh man, there were a lot. Like, the first video game that I loved was Super Mario Brothers.


[Super Mario Brothers clip plays]


The one from the Super NES.


BRITTANY: Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.


ERIC: I played that game incessantly.


BRITTANY: My sister played it a lot.


ERIC: Wow, it's so good. I played that, I played a basketball games, NBA Jam, or NBA Live, Final Fantasy.


[Final Fantasy clip]


BRITTANY: The one game that I always wanted to play that my cousin, Laquan, had at his house that I didn't have ... He was younger than me, so I felt like this was not fair. Is that he had Zelda on N64...


[Zelda clip]


Which was like the best game. That was like, the best game.


ERIC: Yeah.


BRITTANY: And I could never play it. We had Sega Genesis. 


[Sega! and Sonic clip plays]


BRITTANY: So I played a lot of like, Sonic the Hedgehog.


ERIC: Sonic was nice.


[Sonic clip and Mortal Kombat clip plays]


BRITTANY: And then my sister had the little, I think like, a Sega handheld.


ERIC: Yeah.


BRITTANY: The one that had came out in the 90s. My parents got her Mortal Kombat because that was like, that game was like, the shit. And then afterwards, this is how you know my parents FAKE. 


[Mortal Kombat clip ends]


Afterward, the newscaster like, "You know, if you let your kids play Mortal Kombat


ERIC: I was about to say, my mom wouldn't let me play it.


BRITTANY: They took it back from her, which I think is... I mean, that's whack.


ERIC: I mean, yeah. I thought it was whack too.


BRITTANY: That was whack.


ERIC: I was like, I love this game. We had a friend who had every console, and so depending on what… 


BRITTANY: Oh my gosh.


ERIC: So I had the Super NES, my friend, Jadaris, across the street, he had the regular Nintendo. I had another friend named Dale who had the Sega Genesis.


BRITTANY: Uh-huh.


ERIC: And like, depending up on what game we wanted to play, like, that's where we went.


BRITTANY: So, so you grew up in a world with plenty of video games—so much so that you could go to a different friend’s house each day after school and have something different to play.


ERIC: Yeah, now you can just download them online, usually all the friends are playing together in their own homes.


BRITTANY: But Eric, you know there was a world before playing all these different video games—at home—was even an option. Like you know, no Sega Genesis.


ERIC: Oof. 


BRITTANY: No PlayStation.


ERIC: Dark times.


BRITTANY: No Xbox. Or even Wii. Even Wii. And definitely no Nintendo Switch.


ERIC: Yeah.


BRITTANY: There were no game consoles like that at all until 1972 when the first home video game console went on the market. I'm gonna show you the commercial for it right now. It's called the Magnavox Odyssey.


Speaker 8: Magnavox presents Odyssey. The electronic game of the future. Odyssey easily attaches to any brand TV, black and white or color, to create a closed circuit electronic playground. Odyssey gives you all the exciting action of hockey, and 11 other challenging play and learning games for the entire family.


BRITTANY: Does that look like a hockey game to you?


ERIC: It does not look like a hockey game to me. It looks like clipart.


Speaker 8: Odyssey. A new dimension for your television. Now at your Magnavox dealer. He's listed in the yellow pages.


ERIC: Wow! Listed in the yellow pages, also just like what time is this?


BRITTANY: Also he said HE’S listed in the yellow pages, that's so funny I don't think you can say that anymore like maybe only a man would- would be a Magnavox dealer?


ERIC: Exactly. 


BRITTANY: (laughs) 


ERIC: Oh my goodness!


BRITTANY: Throwback! 


ERIC: Yeah. (laughs) 


BRITTANY: But I mean you could, you could see though this is like- the machine itself is a throwback. I mean it's just like super basic. 


ERIC: They put this thing on the screen, It's like a screen on a screen.


BRITTANY: Like when your teacher in elementary school...Well, if you're my old age, used to have...Remember the overhead? Like, the overhead-


ERIC: Yeah.


BRITTANY: With transparency sheets. You just stick that one your TV. and then you're basically playing Pong.


ERIC: Yeah.


BRITTANY: Back and forth, little boxes of light.


ERIC: Yeah.


BRITTANY: And the way you see that they switch back and forth between the games was just changing the transparency sheet-


ERIC: On the screen.


BRITTANY: That stuck on your television.


ERIC: The backgrounds are very different. So like, there's one with a- with a, you know, like a map of America.


BRITTANY: I don't know.


ERIC: But it's still just the- the ray of light going back and forth?


BRITTANY: It just says geography.


ERIC: Yeah. (laughs)


BRITTANY: I don't know what game- there's a geography game with just a map of America- A rainbow map of America with a box of light on it. I don't know what that means.You saw people playing tennis, roulette. I don't even know how the roulette is really supposed to work.


ERIC: Yeah. It's a circle. It's supposed to spin.


BRITTANY: The transparency sheet can't spin.


ERIC: Yeah.


BRITTANY: It's just like, stuck to the TV.


ERIC: Maybe flip it around.


BRITTANY: I don't know.


ERIC: And then they're using this massive controller

.

BRITTANY: The controller has a knob. Not a joystick or a button or …


ERIC: It's like a little dial.


BRITTANY: You just move it back and forth. It's like when you're trying to change the volume in your car. it barely even looks like a video game. You’ve got the weak controller, AND the games themselves are not that different—it’s all basically the same game with different transparency sheets you just put them on the tv screen.


ERIC: Yeah it’s kinda hard to get excited about that. 


BRITTANY: So when you were a kid and playing all those video games you mentioned with your friends, how would you switch between the games?


ERIC: So, you have the little cartridge-


BRITTANY: Yeah.


ERIC: And they got the cool cartridge. Sometimes you know, you gotta blow it (blows). Like that.


BRITTANY: (laughs)


ERIC: That's right. You spit all in it. You got to figure out how to dry it out. But yeah, you take the cartridge, you just pop the cartridge in a little slot, it makes a little click. Uh, you want to take it out, you take it out.


BRITTANY: I'm glad you mentioned that, uh, because for a long time there actually wasn't a fancy home video game console that let you switch between all these different games.


ERIC: Hmm.


BRITTANY: It all changed in 1976 though with the introduction of a new kind of home video console called Channel F.


Speaker 9: Channel F, the one with all the fun. The Fairchild Video Entertainment System at your larger JC Penney. The home entertainment system that never gets old. Plug in a new video card and change the fun. Play Tic-Tac-Toe, Shooting Gallery, or just doodle. Switch video cards and play Desert Fox. 


ERIC: Wow.


Speaker 9: Switch again, it's Blackjack, or play the two built in games, pro hockey or tennis games. Channel F for fun. The Fairchild Video Entertainment System.


ERIC: It's complex. 


BRITTANY: This one actually looks like a video game console.


ERIC: Yeah.


BRITTANY: Like, things are happening on the screen.


ERIC: Yeah. it seems so much more sophisticated. Its like cgi compared to what you saw before. The other game was bas- it was Pong. Every game was Pong.


BRITTANY: Every game was Pong. So it's like the first time you could actually play lots of different games. And the games themselves could be better looking because all the information wasn’t held in the gaming console itself (...or I guess, a combination of the gaming console and a stack of transparencies…) Like you could see in the commercial they were switching out—they called them video cards—but they basically looked like old school atari cartridges. And each of those cartridges could hold an entire game on it...It was totally revolutionary.


ERIC: You can definitely see like, visions of Nintendo-


BRITTANY: Oh absolutely. Absolutely.


ERIC: And Sega.


BRITTANY: This actually allowed people to make actual games.


ERIC: Yeah.


BRITTANY: They could sell, like, this was crucial to the growth of the video game industry. Just to give you an idea of how much this changed things. Okay? Last year the video gaming industry in the United States alone, made more than $40 billion in revenue. So today I'm going to tell you about the man who helped to pave the way for the massive commercial success of video games as we know them now. 


ERIC: Wow.


BRITTANY: So today I'm going to tell you about the man who helped to pave the way for the massive commercial success of video games as we know them now. The man who led the team that actually made the Fairchild Channel F console. 


[MUSIC]


The very first home gaming system with interchangeable cartridges. His name was Jerry Lawson.


ERIC: Jerry Lawson.

BRITTANY: Are you ready to hear Jerry's story?


ERIC: I am. I actually- I- I- I have never heard of any of these systems, so this is actually- this is actually really cool.


BRITTANY: Right. Look at that. Gamer. Look at me. I'm a gamer.


Coming up after the break, I try to tell Eric, Jerry Lawson’s story...before I run out of time.


ERIC: Hey (laughs)! I fuck with Jerry!


BRITTANY: Okay, I know. Exactly (laughing)! Big up, big up


[MUSIC FADES OUT] 


BREAK


ERIC: So you have four minutes to tell me this story.


BRITTANY: Okay.


ERIC: You think you can do it?


BRITTANY: I can do it.


ERIC: Jerry deserves it.


BRITTANY: Jerry deserves.


ERIC: I deserve to learn.


BRITTANY: You learn something (laughing).


ERIC: Okay. Put the time on the clock, and to make it a little more challenging, I'm gonna play you some music that speeds up as you go along. So, you know, just keep in mind, the music is letting you know clock's ticking.


BRITTANY: Okay. All right. I can do this.


ERIC: Okay.


BRITTANY: I'm ready.


ERIC: Ready?


BRITTANY: Okay.


ERIC: Set? Go!


[TIMER MUSIC]


BRITTANY: Okay, so, Jerry was born in 1940 in Brooklyn, New York, and he grew up in a federal housing project in Queens.


ERIC: Mm-hmm (affirmative).


BRITTANY: Okay, and get this: One of Jerry's first inspirations-


ERIC: Okay.


BRITTANY: ... was actually George Washington Carver!


ERIC: Really (laughs)?


BRITTANY: Yes. There was a photo of, of George Washington Carver next to Jerry at his desk in the first grade, and he remembers his teacher telling him, like, "This could be you." Okay!


ERIC: Mmm.


BRITTANY: And he says that that was the moment that he realized that maybe he could actually be an inventor or a scientist.


ERIC: That's so sweet. (laughs)


BRITTANY: So, Jerry also had a lot of support from his parents. His father was a longshoreman who loved to read science books, and he also had a really dedicated mom who made sure he went to only the best schools, and she also bought him, like, little gadgets and stuff like that and gave him an allowance to buy parts from his favorite electronic stores. So, growing up, he'd make, like, his own walkie-talkies.


ERIC: Wow.


BRITTANY: He even started his own radio station.


ERIC: Wow.


BRITTANY: Eventually... I know. Eventually-


ERIC: That's early, too!


BRITTANY: I know, as a kid, right?


ERIC: Yeah.


BRITTANY: Eventually, he went to school at Queens College in New York, and he worked in electronics for a little while. And, eventually, he moved to California in the late '60s. So, remember, this is right before companies like Apple or-


ERIC: Yeah.


BRITTANY: ... Atari, Oracle, were popping up. But at this time, you have to remember, going into tech was not an obvious career path.


ERIC: Mmm.


BRITTANY: But, like, you know, you know, like now, honestly.


ERIC: Yeah.


BRITTANY: It was especially tough if you were a Black man.


ERIC: Hmm. Imagine that (laughs).


BRITTANY: Side bar: one little tidbit that I love, Jerry was actually in a computer club with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak at Apple?


ERIC: Are you serious (laughs)?


BRITTANY: Yes, and Jerry said he was, and I quote, "Not impressed with them."


ERIC: Hey (laughs)! I fuck with Jerry!


BRITTANY: Okay, I know. Exactly (laughing)! Big up, big up. Okay, so 1970 Jerry started working at this big electronics company called Fairchild. He was an engineer for them, but in his free time, he was really obsessed with video games. Like, arcade games were kind of a pretty new thing at the time, like, Pong you mentioned, um, the arcade game, that had come out a few years back. Jerry actually built his own coin-operated game in his garage-


ERIC: Wow.


BRITTANY: ... and he called it Demolition Derby, which basically involved ramming your car against other cars. It sound kind of fun to me.


ERIC: Yeah. It actually sounds awesome (laughing).


BRITTANY: Um, but when the guys at Fairchild found out he did this in his spare time, they were not cool with it. Like, initially-


ERIC: Really?


BRITTANY: ... They saw it as, like, a threat or competition, but then they were like, maybe we should just make him the head of video games.


ERIC: Mmm.


BRITTANY: Right. Somebody-


ERIC: I actually feel like that doesn't happen often too-


BRITTANY: Yeah, I was gonna say, I'm like-


ERIC: ... well, at least for us.


BRITTANY: ... people, take notes.


ERIC: Yep.


BRITTANY: Anyway, so Jerry became the chief engineer of their video games division, and his job was to figure out how to build a console-


ERIC: Seems like you run out of time.


BRITTANY: ... that was actually better than the Magnavox. So, remember, this, you know, Magnavox, the really crappy system I showed you before. So he wanted to make something where you could play a lot of different games and handle all the plugging and unplugging without overloading the whole system. Like, literally, there was this fear that a video game console would explode.


ERIC: (laughs)


BRITTANY: So Jerry led a team make a prototype, and the secret ingredient they introduced were these things called cartridges.


ERIC: Yes.


BRITTANY: The godfather of the video game cartridge.


ERIC: (laughs)


BRITTANY: ... Black man. Because of these cartridges, you could switch out games without the whole system freaking out, overloading-


ERIC: Yeah.


BRITTANY: ... and exploding. Jerry also made a prototype of a new kind of joystick that was a lot easier to use.


ERIC: Yeah (laughs).


BRITTANY: So, basically, you can move left, right, up, down, and not just use, like, those little knob controllers that you saw in the Magnavox. So, later, some other guys modified his plans and basically built one of the main foundations of the controller model that we use today.


ERIC: Yeah.


BRITTANY: So the put the Channel F console in 1976. Unfortunately, it wasn't super successful-


ERIC: Mm.


BRITTANY: But a year later, Atari released their own version of a home console, the Atari VCS-


ERIC: Yes.


BRITTANY: ... which became super famous. It had a lot better RAM, um, and sound than the Fairchild Channel F, but the thing is it used that cartridge system.


ERIC: Mmm.


BRITTANY: Basically, the Fairchild Channel F set the standard for cartridges and changed the entire industry.


ERIC: Wow.


BRITTANY: And this opened up a whole new market within the video game industry. You know, companies can make money off of all these games.


ERIC: Yeah.


BRITTANY: And players could also enjoy more games, like, you know, than the boring versions of tennis and football-


ERIC: (laughs)


BRITTANY: ... that we saw didn't even make any sense.


ERIC: Geography.


BRITTANY: And that was all thanks to the leadership of Jerry Lawson. But, as you could probably guess-


ERIC: Yeah.


BRITTANY: ... he's mostly been left out of video game history...until 2011 when he was honored by the International Game Developers Association just a month before he passed away-


ERIC: Oh, man.


BRITTANY: ... at the age of 70.


ERIC: Wow, you just finished, with time to spare.


BRITTANY: You know what it is? It's my Midwestern speech. It just goes by so fast.


ERIC: (laughs)


BRITTANY: It does. It really does-

 

[TIMER MUSIC OUT]


...and you know what else, too? I was driven.


ERIC: Mmm.


BRITTANY: I was driven to tell Jerry's story.


ERIC: At least he got his flowers. Geez.


BRITTANY: It's almost, like, too deep-


ERIC: Yeah.


BRITTANY: ... that it happened a month before he passed away.


ERIC: Right? It's like credit, man.


BRITTANY: I know.


ERIC: Give folks their credit.


BRITTANY: Credit.


ERIC: There's so many things that are awesome and frustrating about that.


BRITTANY: Yeah.


ERIC: Like, you know, I play, I played games for forever...They've been re-releasing all the old systems-


BRITTANY: Yeah.


ERIC: ... and so I've, like, I- I bought all of them, and-


BRITTANY: You have?


ERIC: I have, and I've been pl-


BRITTANY: I did not know, you talk about video games all the time and I'm like, what is his problem?


ERIC: My new thing is, like, you know, when I put Eve down, I'll take like 15 minutes and I actually just play, like, Super Mario Brothers or the old Final Fantasy... looks, it looks horrible, uh (laughs).


BRITTANY: I bet. At the time Final Fantasy was, like, thee shit.


ERIC: Yeah. But it looks terrible now. But, like, it's crazy to think that so much of the structure that I'm playing with every day, and growing up, was made by a Black person.


BRITTANY: I know.


ERIC: It's, that's one of those things, like, it would have been awesome to know. 


BRITTANY: Isn't it wild, though? It's, like, such a specific thing, like, I- I feel like everybody has that childhood memory of pulling out the cartridge and blowing on it.


ERIC: Yeah.


BRITTANY: Or even just, like, going to...actually p- physically going and buying games-


ERIC: Yeah.


BRITTANY: ... or picking them out or giving them, like, under the tree at Christmas or whatever. I did not know until I learned about Jerry Lawson that a Black man was behind that.


ERIC: Wow.


BRITTANY: Literally!


ERIC: Yeah.


BRITTANY: Literally!


ERIC: It's 'cause for so long, I mean, I'm glad Jerry got to see it.


BRITTANY: Yeah.


ERIC: I'm glad he got some recognition. But if you think about the progress that games made in between when he made that thing and 2011-


BRITTANY: Mm-hmm (affirmative).


ERIC: ... like, that is wild-


BRITTANY: Mm-hmm (affirmative).


ERIC: ... that you don't go back to one of the people who, you know, helped get you there.


BRITTANY: Yerp. It just makes me sad 'cause I feel like they're always talking about these Black people. No Black people in STEM.


ERIC: Mm-hmm (affirmative).


BRITTANY: It's like, what, we've been in STEM. We've been in STEM.


ERIC: Yeah.


BRITTANY: He was in the computer club with both the Steves.


ERIC: Yeah, and they weren't impressive at that time!


BRITTANY: They weren't impressive. And you know what, honestly, I bet Jerry was right.


ERIC: (laughs)


BRITTANY: Truthfully-


ERIC: Yeah.


BRITTANY: ... he was probably right. But you know what, the other thing is, I will say this, I already didn't have respect for Steve Wozniak because he broke up with Kathy Griffin.


ERIC: (laughs)


BRITTANY: I used to watch her reality TV show, and I was like, they should have stuck together. Anyway, that's just my two cents.


ERIC: (laughs) Th- that tells you that Jerry's right (laughs).


BRITTANY: (laughs) So, Eric, I think that Jerry Lawson deserves some recognition. Don't you?


ERIC: Absolutely.


BRITTANY: Jerry Lawson, welcome to the Peanut Butter Pantheon!


ERIC: Peanut Butter Pantheon!


Speaker 3: (singing)


[PEANUT BUTTER THEME MUSIC FADES OUT]


ERIC: I need a Nintendo Switch actually. Sorry, that's not for the show, but-


BRITTANY: That's okay.


ERIC: ... I was thinking about that.


BRITTANY: Literally, I barely know what that is.


[MUSIC OUT]


[THEME MUSIC]


Alright listeners, if you can’t get enough video game content, I would recommend checking out our episode called “Saving Grace.” It’s the story of a young woman who uses The Sims video game to help cope with a tragedy in her life. It’s beautifully told, I can not recommend it enough. Again, its called "Saving Grace," and you can find it at gimlet media dot com slash the nod, or wherever you are listening to this right now.


The Nod is produced by me, Brittany Luse, with Eric Eddings and Kate Parkinson-Morgan. Our senior producer is Sarah Abdurrahman. This episode was edited by Sara Sarasohn. It was fact-checked by Max Gibson.


The show was mixed this week by Sam Bair.


Our theme music is by Calid B. For additional music credits, check the show notes.


[THEME MUSIC OUT]