Turning On Channel F
The first fully programmable video game system is the 8-bit Fairchild Channel F, made by the Exetron Consumer Products division of Fairchild Camera and Instrument. The system is introduced as a prototype at the Chicago CES on June 14, 1976, and receives a rousing reception from show attendees. It is released in limited shipments in August of that year, retailing for around $170. It is originally known as the Video Entertainment System (VES).
The lead designer is chief engineer Jerry Lawson, a self-taught electronics whiz originally from Queens, NYC. Aside from his mark left on video games, Lawson also has the distinction of having refused Steve Wozniak for an engineering position when the later co-founder of Apple sought employment at Fairchild . Lawson’s first experience with video games is creating a coin-op machine called Demolition Derby in his garage on the side while working for Fairchild in 1972 – 1973. His design utilizes the first small-set microchip, the F8, invented at Fairchild by Robert Noyce. When his bosses catch wind of his game project he is issued a challenge to merge the F8 with a home video game system.
A Library of Fun
The “programmable” part of Lawson’s design means that the user is not limited by hard-wired built-in games, but can actually choose from a library of ROM cartridges that can be inserted into the machine to load or “program” another game. The technology to use ROM chips to hold game information in cartridges is first developed in 1974 by a company out of Connecticut called Alpex Computer Corporation, who licence the tech to Fairchild. As a holder of some key patents pertaining to cartridges and video game bitmapping display techniques, Alpex later reaps rewards from agreements with pretty much every subsequent company making video game cartridges, from Atari to Mattel to Activision to Imagic, but eventually goes out of business in 1983. The cartridges made for the Channel F are large, yellow boxes called Videocarts, the first of which available for the Channel F is Videocart-1, holding four games: Tic-Tac-Toe, Shooting Gallery, Doodle, and Quadra-Doodle. The PONG-like Hockey and Tennis are also available as games built into the console. Each Videocart sells for $19.95.
The system comes with an unusual pair of controllers, hardwired right into the system. Holding one like a stick, players twiddle a control knob on the top that not only features compass direction movement, but can also be pushed down for use as a fire button, as well as twisted left and right AND be pulled up. Near the front of the console is a control panel featuring an array of buttons. With these you can choose which of the built-in games to play, and set the time the game will last. Also offered is a “Hold” button to pause the on-screen action.
While the pioneering use of cartridges makes the Channel F cutting-edge in 1976, it is quickly eclipsed by the wildly popular Atari VCS console, released the next year. About 400,000 units are sold over three years. As the 70’s come to a close, the fad in LED and LCD digital watches fades, and since Fairchild sells an extensive line of these watches, their consumer division takes a major hit. It is at this point that programmer Rick Maurer takes his leave of the company, having developed Pro Football, Hangman and Pinball Challenge for the Channel F. He would take his game design experience to Atari, where he would make a few waves designing a little cartridge over there for the VCS called Space Invaders.
In 1979 Fairchild sells this department to oil field services company Shumberger, who promptly sell the Channel F division to Zircon International of Campbell, CA., themselves makers of digital watches. Utilizing revisions to the console’s design put in place just prior to the Channel F‘s shelving by Fairchild, such as detachable joysticks and other cosmetic changes, Zircon renames the system the Channel F System II and releases it in 1980 at a price tag of $99.95. In a nice gesture to owners of the original console, the price is only $69.95 if trading up from the first Channel F. The System II also sees release in the UK as the Grandstand, by a company called Adman. Zircon produces five more cartridges before the system drops off the market permanently in 1983, brining the total library for the Channel F to 25. This count doesn’t quite live up to the potentially unlimited catalog of games that programmable technology had promised.
In 1983, Zircon markets the distinctive controllers separately from the console, as the Video Command joystick, useable with the Atari VCS, Commodore VIC-20 computer and other compatibles. Several variants featuring modifications to the design such as red rapid fire buttons and a round chrome ball at the top are also released.
Channel F designer Gerald A. Lawson passes away on April 9, 2011, due to complications from diabetes, at the age of 70. The rest of the video game industry would build on the concepts he pioneered at Fairchild.
Sources (Click to view; inert links are kept for historical purposes)
Saunders, Glenn. “Stella at 20, Pts. 1 & 2” Glenn Saunders, 1997. Accessed 1998. Rick Maurer describing his video game creation work prior to joining Atari.
Videogaming Illustrated, “Eye On: ABC’s”, pg. 10, Oct 1982. “Never mind the 400,000 people who had purchased units: Fairchild Electronics had no desire to go head-to-head against Atari…” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Videogaming Illustrated collection, Sep 14, 2015.
All Game Guide – Channel F – www.allgame.com/platform.php?id=45
Atari2600.com Classic Gold Video Game Museum – atari2600.com/museum/GamMuseum.html
Electronic Games, “Player’s Guide to Programmable Videogames: Zircon Revives the Channel F” by the staff of Electronic Games, pg. 43, Winter 1981
Fairchild Channel F Faq Version 2, by Clinton R. Dyer & Chris Webb – www.digitpress.com/faq/channelf.htm
2600 Connection, “Atari VCS/2600 Controllers” – www.2600connection.com/faq/controllers/faq_controllers.html
Creative Computing, “Et Ceterea: Heath, Fairchild and Bally”, pg. 6, Oct 1979. “Fairchild, apparently because of mounting losses in the wristwatch division, has pulled back sharply from consumer products and is no longer marketing Channel F or cartridges for it.” “Schlumberger, a large French industrial holding company… made a cash tender offer for Fairchild” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Creative Computing collection, Sep 29 2015.
Electronic Games, “A Decade of Programmable Videogames”, pgs. 20-23, 34, March 1982. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Electronic Games magazine collection
Games, Guns and Glory: The Birth of Home Video Games – newton.physics.arizona.edu/~hart/vgh/main.html
Classified ad for the Channel F/Fairchild Video Entertainment System from Byte, pg. 196, Oct 1977
Image of a younger Jerry Lawson from Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jerry_Lawson_Software_Engineer.jpg
Image of the Zircon Video Command joystick from Atari2600.com Online Store
Fairchild Annual Report to Employees 1976 –
Leagle, “Alpex Computer Corp. v. Nintendo Co., Ltd.”, United States District Court, S.D. New York.
July 18, 1991
Montgomery Ward 1978 Christmas catalog page from Wishbook Flickr photo stream
The New York Times, “Gerald A. Lawson, a Pioneer in Video Games, Dies at 70” by Bruce Weber, pg. A24, April 14 2011
Triangle Plus Zero Divided By Nine – balduin.wordpress.com/2007/10/
“Nintendo Found Guilty in Patent Case”, by Jonathan Weber, Los Angeles Times, June 07 1994
“Nintendo Escapes $254-Million Jury Verdict”, Los Angeles Times (Bloomberg News), June 24 1997