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Tech luminaries we lost in 2011

Frank Hayes | Jan. 3, 2012
It's been a rough year for the IT industry. Here's one last look at some of the people who made a big difference.

Gerald A. Lawson

Cartridge Creator

 

December 1940 - April 2011

The man who created the first home video-game system that used interchangeable game cartridges wasn't a typical Silicon Valley engineer. Jerry Lawson was 6-foot-6, more than 250 lbs. and African-American -- even more of an IT industry rarity in the 1970s than today. Lawson's creation, the Fairchild Channel F, arrived in 1976, a year before Atari's first home game system, and sparked an industry of third-party video games.

That wasn't as simple as it sounds. Lawson, who worked for a succession of government contractors before joining Fairchild Semiconductor, discovered that the biggest challenge with plug-in cartridges was satisfying the FCC's radio-frequency interference requirements. "It was the first microprocessor device of any nature to go through FCC testing," Lawson said in a 2006 interview. "We had to put the whole motherboard in aluminum. We had a metal chute that went over the cartridge adapter to keep radiation in. Each time we made a cartridge, the FCC wanted to see it, and it had to be tested."

The resulting game system was a moderate market success, but its biggest impact was on Lawson's friends at Atari, who rushed their own cartridge-based home system into production. The rise of the video game had begun.

George Devol

The Man With the Robot Arm

February 1912 - August 2011

If one man represents the real-world impact of IT, it's probably George Devol, who developed the first digitally programmable robot arm. A lifelong tinkerer with a fascination for electronics, Devol invented a system for recording sound for movies in the 1930s, then switched to systems that used photoelectric cells to open and close doors and sort bar-coded express packages (he also used "electric eyes" to count visitors to the 1939 New York World's Fair).

After starting a company that made anti-radar devices used by the U.S. Army in World War II, Devol turned his inventiveness to factory automation in the 1950s. The large programmable "Unimate" arm he developed used magnetic drum memory and discrete solid-state control components. It made its factory debut in 1961 on a General Motors assembly line in New Jersey, stacking freshly die-cast (and very hot) metal parts. By 1966, the arms were being used by other automakers for welding, spray-painting and applying adhesives, and the Japanese were using them, too. Within 20 years, Devol's Unimation was the biggest robotic-arm company in the world. (Here's a video interview in which Devol discusses his work.)

Devol's biggest public moment may have been one in which he never actually appeared. In 1966, the Unimate arm was a "guest" on television's Tonight Show, where the arm was programmed to sink a golf putt, pour a beer and lead the band. (See this video clip.)

 

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