As Black History Month comes to a close, we salute African-American inventors in the tech field. We wouldn’t be enjoying our gadgets and apps without these amazing innovators. This list of dreamers and scientists include a “godfather”, a “father” and two women, who, along with the rest of these high achievers, have helped shape our modern, digital, connected world.
Ever talked on the telephone—or sung Karaoke for that matter? Well, um, of course you have – and we can thank Dr. West for developing a microphone technology that’s used in over 90% of microphones in use today, including in telephones. A 40-year veteran of Bell Labs, he holds numerous patents, and also has dedicated himself to encourage more people of color to get involved in science-related fields.
Woods’ first two electrical inventions dealt with sound transmission. In 1884 he was granted a patent for a telephone transmitter that improved on Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of a decade earlier, carrying sound more loudly, clearly and over a longer distance, which is still used in modern telephones. Months later, Woods patented a “telegraphony,” a combination telegraph and telephone, which could transmit both oral and signal messages; if a user did not know Morse code (used with the telegraph) one could flip a switch on the telegraph and speak. The message would then be heard and received as speech. Woods sold his patent to the American Bell Telephone Company.
This top tech computer engineer helped design the IBM personal computer. With IBM colleague and co-inventor Dennis Moeller, he helped develop the interior hardware that allows computers to connect to printers, monitors and other devices. Ironically, the man who helped make the PC popular is now using only tablets. He says, in a blog post: “These days, it’s becoming clear that innovation flourishes best not on devices but in the social spaces between them, where people and ideas meet and interact.”
The first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. from MIT (specializing in Physics), Dr. Jackson is currently the President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, one of the Top 50 universities in the U.S. (according to U.S. News & World Report).
While working at Bell Labs, she applied her knowledge of physics to make advances in telecommunications, including developments in solar cell, touch tone phones, and helped make Caller ID (something particularly close to us at WP with our Caller ID app), and Call Waiting.
Boykin patented a type of resistor in 1959 that is still used today in radios, televisions and computers, which control the flow of electricity into components. This makes for products that are safer, longer lasting and cheaper. He also invented a control unit for the pacemaker. In all, Boykin was granted 28 patents for electronic devices: Some of them are still used in the military and in consumer products.
Sometimes called the “godfather of black Silicon Valley”, Clay helped launch Hewlett-Packard’s computer division in the late 1960s and helped break down barriers for African-Americans in technology. He has helped the next generation of black tech innovators with his commitment to recruitment and development of talent.
The inventor of the world’s fastest computer, Emeagwali took knowledge gained from his study of nature and bees and applied the efficiency of their honeycomb structure to create powerful computer processing. Using this construction, in 1989, the “Father of the Internet” used 65,000 processors to build the world’s fastest computer, one that performs computations at 3.1 billion calculations per second.
From 1964-1995, Thomas honed her skills at NASA, where she and her team developed the first satellite to send images from space (Landsat). She also worked on computer programs used for research on Haley’s Comet and the ozone hole. In the mid-’70s, she began experimenting with concave mirrors and finally patented a 3-D Illusion Transmitter in 1980. Today, NASA uses the technology, doctors use it for medical imaging, and when you watch your 3-D television, thank Valerie Thomas.
Thompson taught himself several computer programming languages as a young man. With a degree from MIT in Computer Science and Art, his goal was to merge art and technology. His most famous invention is Lingo: a scripting language that helps create visuals in computer programs. Lingo and other programs he pioneered are used in many programs and apps with interactive graphics, animation, sound, and video. Lingo has also been used to create the flash and shockwave programs that are now prevalent in video games, web design, animation, and graphics.