March 6, 2009
There’s a fascinating recent interview with Gerald A. Lawson, who was behind the Fairchild Channel F. The system was originally called the Fairchild Video Entertainment System or VES, and was the first cartridge-based video game console. Among other things, the rollout of this system apparently prompted Atari to finish and release one of my and Ian Bogost’s favorite systems, the Atari VCS, which had been in development.
As it happens, Jerry Lawson is black and was the son of a longshoreman. In the interview, he mentions his experience with TV repair – something he has in common with the first Atari employee, Al Alcorn, who Lawson knew. I sense from the interview that Lawson was the more text-oriented of the two:
I tried to sell Alan a character generator. He showed me the way he was doing it, which was much simpler, and I said, “Heck, there’s no sense using a character generator.” ‘Cause what he did was he decoded segments to make block lettering, numbering for score keeping [in Pong]. He really didn’t have need for anything else that was character oriented.
He did help fix Atari’s coin mechanisms, though – kids has been exploiting them to get free games.
Before discussing early arcade games, Lawson describes using different early computers, including the DEC PDP-8 that he had operating in his garage at the beginning of the 1970s. He describes interviewing and not hiring Steve Wozniak for a job at Fairchild’s video game division. And, of course, he discusses the Channel F, down to the details of the difficulties and dangers with cartridge insertion, struggles with the FCC, and raiding ROMs from MOS Technologies’ trash. Lawson talks about how his race influenced his experiences in the industry and growing up, and mentions that he’s currently “getting ready to write my book.”
I played a few Fairchild Channel F games when I went to Dartmouth not long ago to visit Dr. Mary Flanagan, the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor in the Digital Humanities. You can’t help but notice some superficial similarities to the VCS: the faux wood-grain finish and the styling of the unit, for instance, which makes it look more like an audio component and less like a toy, so that it seems worth the price. But, play some games and you’ll see evidence of the earlier system’s greater complexity. It has a frame buffer and the costly Fairchild F8 processor, designed by Robert Noyce, who went on to found Intel. The Channel F isn’t more powerful in every way, though; it has only 64 bytes of RAM (aside from its video RAM) and could only produce eight colors. When it asks you which game you want to play, it does it with a blocky “G?”. Although the relative simplicity of the VCS turned out to be a virtue in many ways, the Channel F was also a substantial technical accomplishment and made its mark.
I heard about this interview via GameSetWatch and then again thanks to Jason Scott.