Today's video game news was tinged with sadness, as the world learned of the death of Jerry Lawson, the man who led the team behind the creation of the video game cartridge.
Those cartridges were used in the Fairchild Channel F, the console Lawson helped develop along with Ron Smith and Nick Talesfore. While it never set the world on fire during its tenure on retail shelves, the Channel F's legacy means it's still worth taking a closer look at.
The Channel F was released in 1976, and was originally called the Video Entertainment System. While never a huge success on the market, the VES spawned just under 30 games, all of them shipping on the console's revolutionary "videocarts", which were the world's first ever cartridge-based video games.
Another pioneering achievement of the VES was the fact its AI was powerful enough to allow a human to play against it; competing machines at the time of the VES' launch, like Atari's Pong units, could only support human vs human play.
While the VES had the edge over Atari in terms of available titles and horsepower, it's ironic that its most lasting legacy is that it basically "inspired" its competitor to release the Atari Video Computer System, or VCS, a year later in 1977. Not only was the name incredibly similar to Fairchild's VES, but Atari's machine - which also used cartridges - was reportedly "rushed" into the marketplace before other devices could make cartridge gaming popular.
Because of the similarity in name, Fairchild changed its console's name from VES to the Fairchild Channel F, in order to get out from under Atari's shadow. A second console, the The Channel F System II, was released in 1979, but by then Atari's new console - which we now know as the Atari 2600, and which was more powerful than the Channel F- had already cemented its place as the dominant system on the market. Fairchild pulled its system from the market, and despite some attempts at re-releases both overseas and in the US under different names, the Channel F was effectively dead.
While helping create the first video game cartridges was a pioneering achievement for Jerry Lawson, it's hardly the only mark he's left on the video game landscape. He helped develop one of the first arcade machine's ever released, 1977's Demolition Derby, a two-player racer. And after the Channel F went bust, Lawson founded Videosoft, and developed games for his one-time competitor, the Atari 2600.
He was also, notably, the only black member of the "Homebrew Computer Club", a notorious group of software nerds and budding hackers who met in Silicon Valley in the 1970s and 1980s. Some of his peers in the group included PC pioneer Lee Felsenstein and Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.
[pics courtesy of Fairchild Channel F]
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