This week’s entry: Fairchild Channel F
What it’s about: Only the most high-tech fun 1977 had to offer! While ’70s video game nostalgia centers around Atari’s Pong and 2600 systems, and—in the early ’80s—competitors Intellivision and ColecoVision, they were all (apart from Pong) in large part modeled on the mostly forgotten Channel F, a system that represented a leap forward from mid-’70s consoles, but was almost immediately outpaced by its rivals.
Strangest fact: While the Channel F wasn’t the most widely used system of its day, its controller was so popular that Fairchild released it for other systems. Rather than the Atari-style joystick that sprung from a base that included one or more buttons, the F controller’s base was sized to fit the player’s hand, and was topped by a triangular cap that could move in eight directions, but also twist (like Atari’s paddles), and could be pushed down like a button or pulled up. The versatile controller was so well regarded, an Atari-compatible version was marketed as the “Video Command Joystick.” Because the Atari joystick port became a standard, the Channel F controller soon became usable with Commodore’s VIC-20 and 64, Atari’s later Amiga system, Sega consoles that Wikipedia declines to name (we looked it up—it’s the Genesis and the SMS), and even (with an adapter), the Apple II.
Thing we were happiest to learn: While Fairchild didn’t have as big a hit as competitors Atari or Coleco, it got to market first, and the Channel F is considered the beginning of the second generation of home video game consoles. The first generation began with the Magnavox Odyssey in 1972, which played a dozen games built into the system, in glorious black and white, with plastic overlays that affixed to your TV screen to provide additional graphics. The Channel F was the first console with a microprocessor, the first to use game cartridges (which allowed for an ever-expanding library of games), color (red, blue, and green, although all three would turn to white against a black background), and enough computing power to provide an AI opponent—previous games were strictly player-vs.-player. The Channel F also had a “hold” button that allowed players to pause and even change the speed of the game.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Besides the fact that the F cost over $700 in 2017 dollars? While it was groundbreaking in its time, its biggest impact was simply to spur Atari to create the era’s defining game system. Atari’s first product was the first-generation-defining Pong, a one-game console. The Channel F was the first console to use cartridges, allowing for a library of games. A year after the F’s debut, Atari released the 2600, which used a similar cartridge system, but had twice the RAM (128 bytes! Today’s iPhone, for comparison’s sake, has 3,221,225,472 bytes of RAM) and a broader color palette. Atari even imitated the name—Fairchild’s console was originally the Video Entertainment System (VES), and Atari’s competitor was the Video Computer System (VCS), until Fairchild changed the name to avoid confusion with Atari, and Atari changed its name when it expanded the product line with the 5200.
Also noteworthy: While the F was technologically inferior to the 2600, some of the games in its 26-cartridge library were highly regarded. (The console also came with built-in hockey and tennis.) In 1982, Ken Uston’s Guide To Buying And Beating The Home Video Games called Alien Invasion and Video Whizball “the finest adult cartridges currently available for the Fairchild Channel F System.” (Not adult in that sense; Whizball was essentially hockey with guns, and 8-bit bloodshed was no doubt considered too intense for children.) While there were duds in Fairchild’s library, Uston said its best games were “timeless; no matter what technological developments occur, they will continue to be of interest.” As we now know, he was wrong.
Video Games magazine didn’t get around to reviewing the Channel F until after it had been discontinued, but looking back from 1983, the writers still had some kind words, saying that while the F was “antiquated” and only worthwhile for nostalgia value, it included “some fascinating games, even by today’s standards,” singling out Casino Royale as “the best card game… made for any TV-game system.”
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: While cartridge-based consoles from decades past don’t seem like a fertile field for game developers, the numerous inherent obstacles haven’t stopped a vibrant homebrew community from springing up. Homebrewing is game development for hardware that wasn’t designed with outside developers in mind, with the homemade games generally distributed for free on the internet. And while the PlayStation 3 or Wii U are obvious choices for homebrew, hackers are making their own games for systems through the ages, from standbys like the NES or original Xbox, to more obscure systems like the Atari Jaguar, the Nuon (a game chip built into certain Samsung and RCA DVD players), and yes, even the Fairchild Channel F.
Further down the Wormhole: Later on, the more complicated game systems would be created by teams of engineers and programmers, but the F was largely the brainchild of one man. Jerry Lawson was Fairchild’s director of engineering, led the Channel F team, and is considered the sole inventor of the video game cartridge. He was also the only black member of the Homebrew Computer Club, a hobbyist group in Silicon Valley that met in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The group thought that owning a “personal” computer would only ever be a niche hobby until two of the club’s members—Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak—turned that notion on its ear.
The former Steve’s rise to one of the most prominent businessmen in American history has been chronicled in several films, including Danny Boyle’s recent Steve Jobs, made-for-TV Pirates Of Silicon Valley, and PBS documentary series Triumph Of The Nerds. The imperiled Public Broadcasting Service has devoted a great deal of its programming through the years to history (far more so than, say, the History Channel). And while the past doesn’t change, our interpretation of it frequently does, in no small part because of historians such as Arnold Toynbee, who posited that history is made by small groups of elites. Toynbee was a household name in his time, and is remembered in bizarre fashion by the Toynbee tiles, an unusual work of public art that name-checks the historian. We’ll try and decipher their message next week.