When you sit down to play a video game, whether it’s to take a break or just enjoy yourself on the weekend, odds are you aren’t thinking about the history of your machine or it’s forefathers. For this year’s Black History Month, I thought it appropriate to bring light to two important innovators from the early video game industry and their impact on the modern market today.

The video game industry today is massive. Just last year it generated $18.4 billion last year in the U.S. alone and was comprised of an estimated 2.2 billion gamers worldwide. In 2015 it was found that 51 percent of American households have a traditional console and that 42 percent of Americans play video games, regularly, over three hours a week. With such a large market of genres, playstyles, and experiences through an untold amount of titles, it only makes sense that the industry is so successful.

Imagine though, for one second, that you had to buy a new console every time you wanted to play a different game? The industry would surely be a much different place. For a while, that was the norm, that is, until a man named Jerry Lawson came along and changed the industry forever.

Raised in Queens, New York, Jerry grew up with exceptionally supportive parents who encouraged him whenever possible. He spent his teenage years repairing electronics and running an amateur radio station out of his housing project. He soon became a self-taught engineer by attending Queens College, City College of New York, and working at various firms. It wasn’t until he landed a job at Kaiser electronics, which focused on military technology, that he moved to Silicon Valley.

“Get your chauffeur’s license so you can learn how to drive a truck,” said Smith’s father, “because that’s all that you’re ever going to do.”

Eventually, Jerry became the head of engineering and marketing for Fairchild Semiconductor’s gaming outfit in the mid 70’s, where he developed the first home gaming console to use removable cartridges, the Fairchild Channel F. It’s hard to imagine today, but designing removable cartridges was completely unheard of and Jerry and his team had no idea what would happen to cartridges after using them over and over. Luckily, things worked out, and the Fairchild Channel F was a huge step forward for the video game industry, even though it never garnered the notoriety of competitors like Atari, Sega, and Nintendo. The innovation changed the way the take-home video game market was viewed by both companies and consumers for good, cementing Jerry Lawson as the first major African-American figure in the industry.

Ed Smith was another African-American engineer that paved the way for personal electronics. Much like Jerry Lawson, Ed was a tinkerer during his childhood, but unlike Lawson’s parents, Smith’s father told him that he shouldn’t expect much out of life.

“Get your chauffeur’s license so you can learn how to drive a truck,” said Smith’s father, “because that’s all that you’re ever going to do.”

That didn’t stop Smith though, and he was soon tinkering with household electronics such as toasters and irons, eventually moving on to TV sets and radios. Before he knew it he was working on things in his neighborhood to help his family get by. By 1972 Smith had landed a job with a company by the name of Marbelite as a traffic light controller. Marbelite soon paid for Smith to attend vocational classes in Manhattan to learn about microprocessor-based circuit design.

His frequent trips to Manhattan led to him landing an interview with a company called APF Inc. At the conclusion of his interview, APF realized that Smith really knew his stuff, and promptly hired him. Smith quickly learned binary code and APF sent him to Pace University to study computer science and marketing. By 1977, a year after Lawson’s Fairchild Channel F was released, Smith took the lead on designing APF’s first cartridge-based video game system the MP-1000.

At $599 the Imagination Machine was a competitive and affordable response to the successful but expensive Apple II which sat at $1,195. Smith’s design was the first of a wave of lower-cost family-friendly home computers that allowed the average person an opportunity to own a PC.

Hitting the market in 1978, the MP-1000 faired well as a competitor but was never as successful as the likes of Atari. It did, however, provide the groundwork for what was arguably Smith’s largest contribution to the early tech industry, the Imagination Machine.

Using the processor from the MP-1000 as its core, the Imagination Machine debuted at the Consumer Electronic Show (CES) of Chicago in the summer of 1979 and was an instant hit. At $599 the Imagination Machine was a competitive and affordable response to the successful but expensive Apple II which sat at $1,195. Smith’s design was the first of a wave of lower-cost family-friendly home computers that allowed the average person an opportunity to own a PC.

The machine was so successful in fact, that APF hired Smith to attend every CES show and advertise his creation. Smith flourished until 1981, when the Imagination Machine made its last appearance, due to the fact that the bank APF worked with didn’t have faith in the personal computer market and withdrew their loans. APF went bankrupt and closed soon after.

While neither Lawson’s nor Smith’s creations lasted long, mostly due to an intensely competitive market, their creations were groundbreaking. They are the reason that personal at-home computers are a reality and consoles can play as many games as we can afford. They were told time and time again that accomplishing anything more than the minimum was impossible, yet they refused to accept that. In an era of political strife and unrest, they stood up and became examples of success that many would model themselves after. The least we can do is recognize that and thank them.

Feature Photo Credited to Jens Mahnke at Pexels.com

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