And he did have an amazing story. According to Edwards’ interview, Lawson was born in Queens, New York, in December 1940. He grew up with a fierce mother who ensured that her son received the best schooling possible, and a longshoreman father with an avid interest in science.
It was under these various influences that Lawson was able to cultivate his natural interest in engineering, tinkering with various electronics and even creating his own amateur radio station at the age of 13.
He studied at Queens College and City College of New York (CCNY), but Lawson’s engineering skills were largely self-taught, and he made his way to California’s burgeoning Silicon Valley.
He eventually landed in 1970 at Fairchild, a semiconductor company where he worked as a field engineer — one of the few Black men in the industry at the time. Lawson also interacted with other people who would later become even more influential in the technology industry, such as Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, in the Homebrew Computing Club.
But it was while working at Fairchild that he met engineer Allan “Al” Alcorn, the “father of Pong,” as Lawson called him in a 2005 keynote event.
Alcorn designed and built the two-dimensional tennis game Pong as “employee No. 3” for Atari, Inc., a company started by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney that quickly became a pioneer in arcade games and the home games industry. Released in 1972 as one of the first video games, Pong became a smash hit and catalyzed the commercial video game industry. Alcorn met Lawson while scouting for electronic parts for Pong.
“I had a question about a certain part that Fairchild made. They sent out a field engineer to explain how their parts worked, and that was Jerry Lawson. Jerry helped me out, and [we] became friends at that point,” said Alcorn, when we talked to him in 2020.
In a sense, Lawson and Alcorn were both friends and competitors in the same space, or “frenemies” as Alcorn pleasantly recalled with a laugh.
According to a story that he told at the keynote event, Lawson remembered hearing about a coin-operated Pong game being placed in a beer hall or pizza parlor in Sunnyvale, California, which local kids would shock with a wire, leading the game to drop all its coins for the children to steal. This coin-stealing helped inspire the engineering behind Lawson’s own coin-operated video game, Demolition Derby, which possessed a “coin defeat” mode to prevent local kids from stealing coins from the game.
Although Alcorn didn’t recall this specific story, he did remember Lawson mysteriously retreating into his work before reemerging with the Fairchild Channel F.
“After working with me as a sales engineer for Fairchild, he disappeared, and the next thing I know, Fairchild’s coming out with a home video game player,” said Alcorn.
What really happened: Lawson’s superiors at Fairchild got wind of his side work on games, and they decided to secretly enlist his skills for their semiconductor company, which wanted to get into the game industry.
“In early 1976, following Lawson’s evaluation and recommendation, his employer, Fairchild, licensed prototype video game technology from Alpex Computer Corporation and tasked Lawson, one of the few Black engineers working in Silicon Valley at the time, with developing it into a commercial product,” said Saucier.