More “Hidden Figures” – African American Contributors to Technology You Use Every Day
February 13, 2017
Mary van Balen
Who knew that Katherine Johnson, an African-American mathematician and one of NASA’s “human computers,” calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard’s flight in 1961 or was asked by John Glenn to verify calculations made by a computer before he would launch into his first orbital flight? Not me. Television had provided Americans with a window into a room full of white men with crew cuts, wearing collared shirts and skinny black ties nervously monitoring every aspect of the flights. I don’t remember seeing any women, black or white.
Thanks to Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, and the movie, “Hidden Figures,” based on it, we now know.
During Black History month, I began to wonder about other African Americans whose stories are not well known but whose research and inventions have contributed to the computer technology that businesses around the world count on every day. Here are four:
Dr. Mark Dean (b. March 2, 1957)
One of the most prominent black inventors in the field of computers, Dr. Mark Dean earned his PhD in electrical engineering from Stanford University. In 1980 he began working at IBM, helped develop the IBM PC released in 1981. Along with colleague Dennis Moeller, Dean developed interior hardware that enables computers to connect with monitors and printers. He led the team that built a gigahertz chip. Dean was the first African American to become an IBM Fellow, the company’s highest level of technical excellence.
Dean now holds over 20 patents. Always a tinkerer, while at IBM he worked on the idea of the electronic tablet.
Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson (b. Aug. 5, 1946)
Dr. Jackson received her PhD in nuclear physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the first African American woman to earn a doctorate at MIT. (She was the second African American woman in the U.S. to earn a Ph.D. in physics. The first was Willie Hobbs Moore from the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor). She is currently the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Her work in theoretical physics laid the groundwork for others to make advancements in areas of telecommunications such as the portable fax, fiber optic cables, touch tone telephones, caller ID, and call waiting.
James E. West (b. Feb. 10, 1931)
James E. West, inventor and acoustician, received his BS in physics from Temple University and holds over 250 U.S. and foreign patents for the production and design of microphones and creating polymer foil electrets. What does that have to do with business computers? Along with Gerhard Sessler, West developed the foil electret microphone in 1962 while working at Bell Labs. It was lightweight and small enough to be used in hearing aids. Ninety percent of microphones today are based on this invention. You might find one in your cell phone, tablet, or headset.
Otis Boykin (b. Aug. 29, 1920 d. March 13, 1982)
Otis Boykin was a pioneer in the field of electronics. Without adequate funds to pay tuition, he was unable to complete his graduate education at the Illinois Institute of Technology, but lack of a Master’s Degree didn’t hold him back. He received a patent in 1959 for a wire precision resistor and in two years, improved on it with one that could withstand extreme temperature changes and shock and was inexpensive to manufacture. Its reliability and cost made it popular with the U.S. military, consumer electronics manufacturers, and IBM. He continued his electronic innovations, and his resistors found their way into familiar products including televisions, radios, and yes, computers. In his lifetime, he invented 28 electronic devices, one of which was a control unit for the pacemaker.
So many “hidden figures”
This month, whether telecommuting from home or sitting at a desk in an office building, when you power up your computer, use a fax, cell phone, or tablet to conduct business think of these four African American pioneers and the others like them whose vision and hard work helped create technological advances we now take for granted.
Here are two sites with more information on African American scientists and inventors:
Mary van Balen is based out of Columbus, Ohio and is a writer for Delphia Consulting. Mary contributes to the Delphia blog on Human Resources issues and Delphia Consulting and Sage product related updates.