Jerry Lawson And The Fairchild Channel F; Father Of The Video Game Cartridge

The video game console is now a home entertainment hub that pulls in all forms of entertainment via an internet connection, but probably for most readers it was first experienced as an offline device that hooked up to the TV and for which new game software had to be bought as cartridges or for later models, discs. Stepping back through the history of gaming is an unbroken line to the 1970s, but which manufacturer had the first machine whose games could be purchased separately from the console? The answer is not that which first comes to mind, and the story behind its creation doesn’t contain the names you are familiar with today.

The Fairchild Channel F never managed to beat its rival, the Atari 2600, in the hearts of American youngsters so its creator Jerry Lawson isn’t a well-known figure mentioned in the same breath as Atari’s Nolan Bushnell or Apple’s two Steves, but without this now-forgotten console the history of gaming would have been considerably different.

The Coin-Op Project That Kicked It Off

The primordial Pong machine.
The primordial Pong machine. Frmorrison / CC BY-SA 4.0

Jerry Lawson was an engineer from New York who had arrived at Fairchild Semiconductor in 1970 after having worked at various companies in the defense electronics industry. Working as part of their customer engagement effort, he achieved prominence in the company by revolutionising the point of contact with the customer using an RV (yes, a camping vehicle) converted as a demonstration lab for Fairchild products. He was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to be a member of the famous Homebrew Computer Club, cradle of so much of the later microcomputer industry, which put him at the center of a web of contacts covering the games business as it was in the early 1970s.

Though his employer was not involved in gaming, Jerry got his start in that field as a side project. When his friend Allan Alcorn installed the first Pong machine in Andy Capp’s Tavern it suffered from customers interfering with its coin mechanism to score free plays, so Jerry produced a game cabinet of his own called Demolition Derby that had a more robust system. This led to Fairchild Semiconductor International offering him the chance to start their new video game division, and the road to the Channel F was laid.

For the First Time, Removable Software

The first home video consoles were one-trick devices that presented either a single game such as Pong or a set of variant games enabled through circuitry. As Al Williams wrote in his article on the 1972 Magnavox Oddyssey, that console had something resembling a game cartridge, but instead of containing software it rewired the machine’s configuration. Lawson’s innovation was to incorporate the game software and even deliver extra functionality such as RAM into the cartridge, allowing a near-infinite variety of games to be programmed. With this he created what would lead to the entire business model of console gaming, as well as sowing the seeds of the computer games development and publishing industry.

The Fairchild Channel F console
The Fairchild Channel F console. Evan-Amos (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Channel F was launched in November 1976, nearly a year before Atari’s VCS console. Its Fairchild F8 microprocessor, low resolution color graphics, and 2K RAM were outclassed by its rival despite its far superior joysticks, and its lack of the Atari’s much larger software catalog saw it steadily lose ground into the 1980s despite a hardware revamp. Surprisingly it continued production until 1983, by which time it must have appeared an anachronism when compared to the crop of 8-bit microcomputers.

Lawson had by 1980 left Fairchild to found Videosoft, a company producing Atari software, and the chipmaker would not release any follow-up to the console. After Videosoft he became a consulting engineer and moved away from the limelight. Having suffered ill-health due to diabetes, Jerry passed away in April 2011.

There are many names from the annals of computing history who roll off the tongue. People such as Jobs and Wozniak, Bushnell, Dabney, Sinclair, Miyamoto, or Miner. We should also add Jerry Lawson to that list, as his vision to make one console and sell multiple games, done inexpensively with the use of the PCB edge connector, set the standard for decades to come.

14 thoughts on “Jerry Lawson And The Fairchild Channel F; Father Of The Video Game Cartridge

  1. I had one of these back when everyone had Pong. I had about 6 different games. My favorite was Drag Race. just like drag racing against another player. you had to shift the gears with the hand held control to shift like a 4 speed and turn the control knob to control the gas. I gave you ET times and mph readings.

  2. I had one of these. I’m guessing it was a gen 2. My mom got hooked on the poker game on the F8 Console and sweared that when she beat it late one night, it played some music and the display “just went nuts”. She later resigned herself to the fact that she could never duplicate that feat.

    I did some F8 design work back in the late 70’s, but it used their innovative “single chip” 3870, one of the first microcontrollers (uC) with CPU, SRAM, IO, and a piggyback DIP socket for a 2732 UVEPROM on a ceramic chip case. Soon, Intel copied that for their 8048 “all in one” uCs for a short while until they were able to put the UVEPROM directly on the same uC die.

    1. I had a Fairchild console as well, and even to this day I believe it had the best version of Pong ever.

      “far superior joysticks” is quite an understatement. The knob not only had directional control like a joystick, but could be slid up and down for a Z axis, and it twisted for rotational input.
      For its version of Pong, the Z axis let you “lift” the on screen paddle up, so it could be moved across the board faster, at the expense that it won’t hit or stop the puck.
      The rotational control changed the angle of the paddle on screen, reflecting the ball at a different angle to “fake out” the other player.

      It sounds silly to describe a match of pong as “insanely intense”, and in a way it’s surprising the controls and these facets haven’t been reproduced since.

  3. That is another “standing on the shoulder’s of giants” moment for all of us to reflect on.

    It’s also interesting to note that not all innovations have to be “applied quantum physics.” In this case, we was using a PCB edge card connector system to allow the ROM to be external to the main board, and easily changed by the user. Obvious only in retrospect…

    1. Going along with that “innovation … PCB edge connector” thought: I was surprised recently by how expensive those things have become. And sooo many protoboards just begging to be slipped into one…. Now days it seems to be all about SIP/DIP pin headers.

      1. Your right about the cost, as they were everywhere in the 80’s as it was the standard way to add cards to a PC (still is, but I doubt anyone has used all the slots on a motherboard like we used to, at least when most cards were single function).

        But I have also used a Card Edge connector & PCB to design disposable medical wire harnesses, so with as many as 18 twisted pairs going to individual EMG electrodes.

  4. Wow I had one of those. I kind of forgot all about it. I don’t even remember what games we had… Pong, Hockey, … Black Jack, … dunno. It was quickly eclipsed by a TRS-80 model I and later we picked up the ColecoVision for *COLOR* games! But my TRS-80 was my go-to for entertainment most of my growing up years. Running games, writing software even soldering together add-ons like a color graphics box. Came as a kit, had the footprint of about a sheet of paper and was 3 or 4″s tall…. The only software I had for that was what I wrote myself.

    Thanks Jenny for featuring this! It certainly was the first cartridge system I remember, and I remember it was something else at the time. But I haven’t seen everything. Good to know it really was the first.

  5. The 2600 had the Channel F beat (a little) in some specifications and it had far simpler controls. 8 way stick with one button, super simple to learn for anyone. Even simpler for games that used the paddle controller.

    The Channel F controllers had 8 way control plus up and down and twist. The original Magnavox Odyssey controls were nearly as complex and it wasn’t selling well.

    Atari showed the way with the simple joysticks that wouldn’t scare away customers who thought they’d never be able to learn how to use more complex controls. Simple equaled sales despite having worse graphics and far worse sound than Colecovision or Intellivision.

  6. In an early issue of Kikobaud there was an article about the Channel F. The title had hype, maybe suggesting it could be converted into a computer. But it was a very basic “dissection” of the unit, not much detail.

    1. I remember something about that. If I remember richt, it went like this:

      Fairchild had this Channel F console, and it was just at the beginning of the home computer boom. It was not a bad games machine, but Atari later was outselling it because it had so many games (and it had Pac-Man too :)).

      Fairchild then got the idea of creating an expansion with a keyboard, a Basic module with serial I/O, and I think a cassette interface, which would turn the game console into a full-featured computer. Something that was possible with the F8’s architecture, but not with the Atari’s architecture.

      There was lots of hype, people we really waiting for it, because together it would have been cheaper than a TRS-80, but just as capable (according to Fairchild), and it would have color and sound. And that was at a time that the VIC-20 wasn’t introduced yet,. So if the price would have been right, it would have killed the VIC-20 before it was even born.

      But it took them time, time, and more time. And in the end, it never appeared.

      So probably Fairchild also invented the first computer vaporware. :)

      This is the story from my perspective, as a 14-year old kid. So maybe it was all slightly different, and I might also have forgotten some of it. So don’t fault me if I wrote something wrong. But I think I still have a Kilobaud magazine which had an article about the delay of the keyboard module for the Channel F.

      1. Channel F did get a Pacman conversion in the end – 2008 or so – there are videos on YouTube, it’s surprisingly accurate given the hardware.

        Channel F did have a colour bitmap display, albeit at a very low resolution (around 95×58 visible out of 128×64). Sadly the processor could only access this via I/O ports rather than directly, although the low resolution reduced that pain because you didn’t have to do much to update the screen.

        Games were primitive, likely due to ROM size constraints than anything else.

        2600 was more colourful, and it had sprites and twice the RAM (not including video ram, the F had 2KB, the 2600 raced the raster), I think the Atari name helped a lot. And “Channel F” doesn’t feel like a great name to me!

        I know that the F cartridges could include more RAM, so it’s not infeasible that a more useful computer could have been devised from that with a keyboard and BASIC ROM – but the screen would always have been low-res – maybe you could have managed a 19×11 text screen – so of limited value.

        I don’t know how good the F8 CPU is compared to a 6502, but maybe they could have built a dedicated computer around the hardware, with F8 game compatibility but more advanced graphics and audio hardware…

  7. I was working at a Fairchild facility in Silicon Valley in 1978 and bought one of these from the company store. Shortly after buying it I was at Mike Quinn’s electronics in Oakland (a surplus store) and came across a Channel F cartridge attached to a box.

    As a Fairchild employee I was able to convince an engineer I needed the mask ROM data set. I disassembled this (by hand of course) and figured out this was part of an experiment to distribute video games via cable TV. You would attach the box to the cable, plug in the cartridge, wait for a menu of games to display, chose a game and play. They had this deployed in Castro Valley for a short time. I think this was pretty amazing.

    The “3D” hand controls were also used by Creative as prior art in a patent dispute over “3D” mice.

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