Technology today would look entirely different if it wasn’t for the significant contribution of Black inventors, engineers, and computer scientists who led the way. In honour of Black History Month, we celebrate some of the most influential Black people in tech and how their achievements shaped the technological world.
By Grant Longstaff. Published 11 October 2023.
Often referred to as a human computer, mathematician Katherine Johnson worked at NASA for more than three decades. Her calculations of orbital mechanics, trajectories, and flight paths helped put the first American in space, and later the first man on the Moon. She also helped develop return flight paths to ensure the pilots could return to Earth safely, shaped the Space Shuttle Program, and worked on a mission to Mars
In her later years, Johnson encouraged students into STEM subjects, stating, “Some things will drop out of the public eye and will go away, but there will always be science, engineering and technology.” Johnson’s story, along with that of her colleagues Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson (also important contributors to the field), was recounted in the 2016 nonfiction book – and subsequent film – Hidden Figures. She received many honours for her contributions, too many to recount here, but perhaps one of the most significant came in 2015 when Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award existing in the USA.
If you’ve ever used a PC, and the likelihood is you have, then you’ve used a piece of technology designed by inventor and computer engineer Mark Dean. After graduating with a degree in electrical engineering, Dean began working for IBM. He developed the ISA (Industry Standard Architecture) bus, which allowed additional components to be easily added to a machine, and co-created the first IBM personal computer. He currently holds more than 20 patents, three of which are for the first IBM PC.
Early in his career, he faced discrimination, but Dean didn’t give up and challenged the systematic racism. In 2015 he told Engadget, "I ignored the people attempting to block my progress and had no limits to who I talked to and in sharing my opinion.” He offered the following advice for others looking to succeed; “If someone is blocking your ideas…find a different way to expose your proposals [and] innovations. There is often someone at the next level or an associate manager that is willing to listen.”
Never content, Dean also went on to create the first one-gigahertz processing chip. His other work helped in developing the colour monitor and even shaped our tablets and smartphones. In 1995 he became the first African-American to become an IBM Fellow, a position which represents the highest level of technical excellence at the organisation.
If you’ve sent a WhatsApp group message, made a Facebook voice call, or taken part in a dreaded family quiz over Zoom, then you’ve used Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP), technology pioneered by Marian Croak. When she was working for AT&T, an American communications company, Croak began to consider how an internet connection could be used to make a voice call. AT&T were initially sceptical of this suggestion, but Croak continued to develop her ideas on VoIP and fought to be heard. Finally, others started to listen.
Now she has over 200 patents to her name, many of them linked to VoIP. One of the most significant was developed after Hurricane Katrina hit the USA in 2005. Wanting to help those affected by the tragedy, Croak established the technology which allows mobile phone users to donate money to a cause via text message.
In 2022, Croak was inducted into The National Inventors Hall of Fame, one of the first two Black women to receive the honour. She is also a vocal champion of women in technology, telling HuffPost, “I want to encourage women to keep thinking and dreaming -- because no one else can think creatively or imagine what the future of technology will look like quite like you can.”
Roy L. Clay Sr.
Now, Roy Clay is often referred to as the ‘Godfather of Silicone Valley’, but his journey to the top wasn’t easy. As a teenager, Clay was subjected to racism from the police, who moved him on from a predominately white neighbourhood where he was gardening to earn a little extra money. However, he didn’t let the overt racism stop him. Clay, writing of his experiences for Mercury News, credits his mother for encouraging and motivating his drive to do well. She told him, “You will experience racism for the rest of your life, but don’t ever let that be a reason why you don’t succeed.”
He graduated from St. Louis University – one of the first African-Americans to do so – and, after coming up against more discrimination when looking for a job, finally secured work at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. It was here Clay was finally able to show his skills. He developed a program which could track radiation in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion. In 1965 he joined Hewlett-Packard (HP) where he led the team that developed one of HP’s first computers. Clay went on to found ROD-L Electronics and invented the dielectric withstand test, a safety test which checks the effectiveness of an electrical component’s insulation. Most important to Clay however were the programs he started in an effort to encourage more Black people into jobs in tech, telling Forbes, “I’m very happy to have done that.”
Unfortunately, we don’t have space to cover the legacies of many other Black trailblazers and their amazing contributions. Computer scientist Valerie Taylor and her work in high performing computing. John Henry Thompson, the inventor of Lingo, a scripting language capable of rendering visuals in computer software. Or Gladys West, who grew up during segregation and challenged the harmful racial stereotypes at her job on a naval base in 1960’s America. She went on to help develop GPS. Looking back on her career West told The Guardian in 2020, “I knew deep in my heart that nothing was getting in my way.”