In honor of Black History Month, we’re taking some time to celebrate the achievements of Black tech innovators over the years.
Black engineers, mathematicians, computer scientists, and inventors have played a central role in the development of the technology that keeps our world running today. In fact, some of their advancements led to the very device you are reading this article on!
Whether or not you have heard the following names before, the contributions of these innovators have made the technology you use every day possible. Let’s get to know them a bit.
If you saw the 2016 film Hidden Figures, you’ve heard some of Katherine Johnson’s story.
A physicist, mathematician, and engineer, Johnson had a distinguished 30-year career at NASA. She worked as a “human computer” beginning in 1953, making calculations that enabled our first flights into space. For instance, she helped calculate the path for Freedom 7, putting the first U.S. astronaut in space. Her work was also essential to the success of many other early projects, including Project Mercury and the Apollo 11 mission. As NASA transitioned to using digital computers for their calculations, she worked to confirm the accuracy of those calculations.
President Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, and in 2016 NASA named a facility after her — the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility.
Evelyn Boyd Granville
Evelyn Granville was one of the first Black American women to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics (at Yale in 1949). She worked as a computer programmer for IBM beginning in 1956, writing software programs for the IBM 650 computer, among other accomplishments. She also worked in IBM’s Aviation Space and Information Systems division, where she contributed to various projects for NASA’s Apollo space program, including digital computer techniques.
Roy L. Clay
Roy Clay was an inventor and computer scientist. Born in 1930, he attended St. Louis University and taught himself to code before working as a computer programmer at Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in California (now known as Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory).
In 1965, Hewlett-Packard recruited Clay to set up their computer development business. He led their entrance into the computer market with the 2116A computer, and his contributions significantly influenced the development of not only Hewlett-Packard, but also Silicon Valley as we know it today.
Often called the “Godfather of Black Silicon Valley”, Clay was inducted into the Silicon Valley Engineering Council Hall of Fame in 2003. He later founded his own company, ROD-L Electronics. A pioneer for product safety testing, his company created the first Safety-Certified Hipot and Ground Continuity Testers.
Clarence “Skip” Ellis
Clarence “Skip” Ellis was a computer scientist and the first Black American to earn a Ph.D. in computer science (at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1969). He was also the first Black American to be named to the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM). He also served as Emeritus Professor of Computer Science and Cognitive Science at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
As part of his graduate work at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Ellis worked on hardware, software, and applications of the ILLIAC IV supercomputer. Later he worked for Xerox PARC and Stanford University, where his work contributed to icon-based GUI, object-oriented programming languages, Groupware technology, and Operational Transformation (OT).
A computer engineer and inventor, Mark Dean was the co-creator of the IBM personal computer that was released in 1981. His work contributed to the development of the color PC monitor, the first gigahertz chip, and the Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) system bus (the early architecture used to connect peripheral devices to PCs). He currently holds three of IBM’s nine PC patents.
Dean was the first Black American to become an IBM Fellow — an honor that represents the highest level of technical excellence — and he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1997. And in Knox County, Tennessee, April 25th is officially known as “Mark Dean Day”.
Dean currently serves as the John Fisher Distinguished Professor at the University of Tennessee.
John Henry Thompson
John Henry Thompson is a computer scientist and inventor, best known for inventing Lingo, a scripting language that renders visuals in computer software.
Early on, Thompson taught himself several programming languages such as FORTRAN, PLI, COBOL and JCL, and then attended MIT where he obtained a degree in Computer Science and a minor in Visual Arts.
As Chief Scientist at Macromedia (purchased by Adobe, Inc in 2005), he developed Macromedia Director, a multimedia application-authoring platform. His work was instrumental in bridging the early gap between art and technology and served as the foundation for modern video games, web design, animation, and graphics.
Gerald “Jerry” Lawson
If you’re a gamer, you owe your favorite pastime to Gerald Lawson.
Sometimes called the “Father of Modern Gaming”, Lawson served as Chief Hardware Engineer at Fairchild Camera and Instrument (now known as Fairchild Imaging). There, as head of the video game division, he led the team that invented the commercial video game cartridge and designed the Fairchild Channel F video game console — the first console to use interchangeable cartridges. At this time, he was one of only a few Black Americans working in the computing industry.
You can view a permanent display of Lawson’s work at the World Video Game Hall of Fame in New York.
Kimberly Bryant founded Black Girls Code in 2011, a nonprofit that teaches computer coding and programming languages to young women of color. The mission of Black Girls Code is to give underrepresented girls better opportunities and introduce programming and technology to a new generation of coders.
In 2013, Business Insider named Bryant one of the 25 most influential African-Americans in Technology. That same year, she was honored by the White House as a Champion of Change for Tech Inclusion.
Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson
Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson is currently the President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She previously served as a director for IBM, Medtronic Inc., Public Service Enterprise Group Incorporated, and FedEx. She was the first Black woman to earn a doctorate degree from MIT as well as the second Black woman in the U.S. to earn a doctorate in physics.
Known for advancing telecommunications research at AT&T Bell Laboratories, her work there led to the creation of the touch-tone phone, portable fax machine, and caller ID technology.
James E. West
James E. West is best known for developing the foil electret microphone, which is still used in modern microphones. He began his career as an acoustic scientist at Bell Labs where he helped develop small microphones for mass production. He then became a research professor for Johns Hopkins. He holds over 250 patents for the design of microphones and techniques for creating polymer foil electrets.
West has been recognized by the National Academy of Engineering and the Acoustical Society of America, where he served as president-elect. He joined the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1999, and received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation for his foil electret microphone in 2006.
The former Associate Chief of NASA Space Science Data Operations, Valerie Thomas is known for inventing the illusion transmitter, which is still used today. She received a patent for it in 1980.
Thomas earned a degree in physics at Morgan State University, and began her career as a data analyst for NASA. There, she developed innovative computer data systems for satellite operations control centers and spearheaded NASA’s first satellite to send images from outer space. She has earned many awards, including the NASA Equal Opportunity Medal and Goddard Flight Center Award of Merit.
There is no doubt that these innovators have been instrumental in advancing technology that has changed the world in immeasurable ways. And this list is not exhaustive — there are many more Black tech innovators who paved the way for our current technology, and countless others who continue to work toward the technological advances of the future.
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