In honor of Black History Month, we here at Modis would like to honor these five men and women for their vital contributions to the history and development of Information Technology (IT) and Engineering. These individuals fought and overcame racism while at the same time bringing their creative genius to the world.
Why would Granville Woods, a 19th century railroad man and electrical engineer, be included in a roundup of notable African Americans who have made significant contributions to IT?
In 1885, Woods invented a device that allowed both voice and telegraph signals to be sent over a single wire, which he called telegraphony. Then, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, he invented a variation called the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph, which allowed stations and operators to know the exact position of moving trains. In this way, collisions could be avoided, problems with the tracks could be identified, and dispatchers could locate trains as needed.
Woods sold his patent for the invention to Alexander Graham Bell's company for so much money that he was able to quit his job and become an inventor full-time. In his lifetime he held more than 60 patents and went on to form the Woods Electric Company. The concept of multiplexing signals foreshadowed today's multiplexing of data and voice over copper wire, wireless transmissions, and fiber optic cables, allowing millions of signals to travel over a single channel – paving the way for the the world-wide internet.
Evelyn Boyd Granville earned a PhD in mathematics in 1949 – only the second African American woman to do so at the time. She taught mathematics at Fisk University and then worked for the National Bureau of Standards.
In 1956, she joined IBM as a computer programmer, eventually moving to Los Angeles where she performed pioneering work writing software to perform orbit computations. She was part of the team that calculated the paths of manned space vehicles, beginning with NASA's Project Vanguard & Project Mercury, and later the Apollo program.
When the IBM division relocated, Granville elected to stay in Southern California. She joined the faculty of California State University, Los Angeles, to teach mathematics. After retiring from CSULA, she moved to Texas, where she continued to teach mathematics at the university level, develop math curriculum for K-12 schools, and advocate for women and minorities in STEM careers.
Philip Emeagwali was born in a Nigerian farming village and was forced to quit school at the age of 14 due to poverty and civil war. With the help of his father, who daily set 100 math problems for him to complete in an hour, he never stopped learning. At the age of 19, Emeagwali immigrated to the US. After earning several college degrees, he started a PhD research project at the University of Michigan working on the problem of discovering and recovering underground oil reserves using a computer simulation.
Emeagwali wrote software that connected more than 65,000 microprocessors in an abandoned supercomputer at Los Alamos National Laboratory. While scientists there had failed to make it work, Emeagwali turned it into the world's first operational supercomputer, able to make 3.1 billion calculations per second which broke computational speed records.
Using his invention, Emeagwali correctly solved the oil reserve problem, causing a sensation within the computer industry. He received the 1989 Gordon Bell Prize, considered the Nobel Prize of computing, for outstanding achievement in high-performance computing applications.
The blockbuster 2016 movie, Hidden Figures, told the story of a group of African American women who overcame pervasive racism to work as “human computers," helping NASA and the American space program succeed in landing a man on the moon. Annie Easley, another African-American “computer" helped write computer models for the Centaur rocket stage that led to the successful flight of the Cassini spacecraft to Saturn.
Easley grew up poor in the segregated South, but her mother told her, “You can be anything you want to, but you do have to work at it." Easley studied pharmacy for two years in college, but then married and moved to Cleveland. After reading an article about women working as computers at the NASA Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland, she applied for a job the next day, becoming one of just four African Americans at the Lab.
Easley's work on rocket propulsion was important for launching many other spacecrafts, including the Viking and Voyager missions, as well as the Space Shuttle and weather and military satellites. While working full-time at NASA, she earned a degree in mathematics and kept up with new programming languages, such as FORTRAN. Later she wrote code that modeled efficient energy storage and conversion systems for solar power and hybrid vehicle batteries.
Mark Dean grew up in a segregated town in East Tennessee and graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in Electrical Engineering. Dean went to work for IBM and later became one of the inventors of the IBM personal computer, holding three of the nine original patents.
Dean returned to graduate school, earning a PhD at Stanford, all while working for IBM. Along with colleague Dennis Moeller, he developed the Industry Standard Architecture bus (ISA) which allowed external devices, such as keyboards and speakers, to be plugged into the PC. He led development of the first color monitor for the PC, and the team that developed the first gigahertz chip, able to make a billion calculations per second.
Dean was the first African American to be named an IBM Fellow. He received the Black Engineer of the Year President's Award and was inducted into the National Inventor Hall of Fame. Dean retired from IBM in 2013 and now serves as a professor and interim dean of engineering at the University of Tennessee.