A Tribute to Jerry Lawson, Video Game Pioneer

This article was created by a Technology Services student employee. Our student employees attend, engage, and report on campus events that feature technology. Students provide a unique perspective on how innovations in technology affect campus life.

By Sara Abdeljalil, Economics '18

As part of Black History month, it’s important to reflect on how inventors of color have impacted our campus so greatly. If you've ever played a video game (and we know you have), the man all Illini should thank is Jerry Lawson, who invented the interchangeable cartridge system used for the Atari 2600.

Lawson (far left; image courtesy of Wired), who attended both Queens College and City College of New York, was a self-taught engineer. His interests in computers and technology were noted as a child, and he was known around his neighborhood for fixing electronics. His parents always supported his interests, and that’s what eventually led him to his success.

A motivated inventor, Lawson ended up founding his own company. According to the Tech Times, “Videosoft, a video game development company, was created by Lawson, who used it to produce cartridges for the Atari 2600. When the 2600 came out, it effectively made the Channel F obsolete.”

It was Lawson who made the first cartridge-based video game console. It was this system that later set the standard for consoles to come.

In addition to creating the cartridge used for the Atari 2600, Lawson created one of the first arcade games. He created Demolition Derby right out of his own garage, and it later went on to be quite popular.

As someone who grew up playing XBox and Playstation 1, Jerry Lawson is a missing piece in my history of video games. It’s unfortunate that the person who played such an integral role in the gaming industry is so rarely remembered.

Amer Marachli, a junior in Molecular and Cellular Biology here at Illinois and an avid gamer, also expressed how he has never heard of Jerry Lawson. “The first gaming console I ever got was the Nintendo 64. I’ve been playing video games for awhile, and I’ve never heard of Jerry Lawson, let alone knew anything about the changing cartridge system.” But he has happy to learn more and, in learning, honor the person who made the machines of our youth possible.

As the gaming industry continues to grow, Lawson’s legacy will remain alive. As a University that is known for its passion for engineering and technology, Jerry Lawson has had a discreet yet notable impact on our campus. We have things like the XBox and Playstation thanks to him.

His spirit and curiosity is the inspiration that many engineers and students hope to embody.

So for all the gamers out there, make sure to pay tribute to this late video game pioneer.