Few industries have a long history of Black representation and leadership like the STEM fields. Throughout the years, black technologists have blazed trails and made impactful contributions to the science and technology fields. This article will explore 6 of those revolutionary minds and their work, in hopes of highlighting the achievements that need to be recognized and celebrated.
From inventors like Garrett Morgan, who invented the first gas mask, to entrepreneurs like Mae Jemison who became the first African-American woman to travel in space, these 6 change makers impacted history in big ways.
We will also look at their life works and legacies, with a focus on how they changed approaches to problem solving, made advancements that still hold true today, and opened doors for other black technologists to follow.
So, get ready for an inspiring journey — it’s time to meet 6 revolutionary black technologists!
Ada Lovelace – The First Computer Programmer
Ada Lovelace was a British mathematician who, in the 1840s, is widely regarded as the first computer programmer. Working with inventor Charles Babbage, Lovelace wrote an algorithm for his mechanical computer – something completely revolutionary for its time. This algorithm was even able to anticipate future capabilities of computers such as music composition and graphics production.
In her notes on the algorithm, Lovelace noted that the potential of Babbage’s machine was not just limited to computations but could create patterns and evolve on its own, indicating a greater potential than originally thought. Although she published under a male pseudonym due to her gender, Lovelace’s work went largely unrecognized until after her death in 1852 – but today she is remembered and heralded as a forerunner of modern computing.
Margaret Hamilton – Software Engineer and Innovator
Margaret Hamilton is considered one of the pioneers of software engineering. She was born in 1936 and earned degrees in Mathematics, although she switched to computer science while working at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
At MIT she worked on the Apollo 11 guidance computer and provided a key contribution to the success of the mission. Her software allowed Astronaut Neil Armstrong to land on the moon safely, even after an unexpected disruption was sent from the onboard computer.
By 1969, Hamilton had created a revolutionary new approach for developing software called developmental operational software, or DOPS. DOPS allowed for design elements such as “zero-defect” programming, isolating error sources and post-testing evaluations. These elements are still integral parts of modern software design today.
Her work prompted NASA to give her credit as “the pioneer of software engineering” and even coined a term: “software engineer”. With this recognition she became the first woman in history to be listed in an Apollo 11 Flight Report and her achievements were written into 1997 US Presidential Commission report describing her accomplishments as “one of history’s unsung heroes in Software Engineering”.
Raymond Samuel Tomlinson – Electronic Mail Pioneer
Few would have guessed when Raymond Samuel Tomlinson was born in Amsterdam, New York, in 1941 that he would become one of the most significant technologists of his time.
Raymond helped revolutionize the way we communicate with each other by developing the use of electronic email. His work allowed for messages to be sent to different computers on the ARPAnet, forerunner of the Internet. He single-handedly created the “@” symbol to separate a username from a destination address and put an exclamation mark to signify that a message had been sent.
Tomlinson’s hard work meant people no longer had to rely on postal mail or telexes. It allowed us to communicate instantly with anyone, anywhere in the world – in essence, electronic mail changed how humans interacted with their friends and families forever.
Today, thanks to his innovation and dedication, billions of emails are sent every day making Tomlinson one of history’s greatest technological contributions!
Mark Dean – Inventor of the Personal Computer
Mark Dean is one of the most influential figures in the development of personal computing. He was a key player in the development of the IBM Personal Computer and held three of the company’s original nine patents.
As one of the first African-American engineers to join IBM, Dean is credited with helping to bring diversity in both talent and perspective to the tech industry. His work on computer architecture and design has made him one of the most influential technologists in history.
Dean also helped to develop several successful products during his tenure at IBM, including:
- The Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) bus
- The Color Graphics Adapter
- The AT Attachment (ATA) interface
- The Micro Channel Architecture (MCA) bus
- And more
These were all groundbreaking developments that helped propel IBM and other companies into a new era of computing. Dean’s influence on the technology industry continues today, through his current role as Chief Technology Officer for Computer Engineering at Alcatel-Lucent.
Kenneth L. Johnson – Holography Scientist and Engineer
Kenneth L. Johnson is a scientist and engineer who revolutionized holography. He was born in 1950 and graduated from Morehouse College with a degree in Physics. After graduation, he went on to study at the University of Maryland, achieving a Master’s degree in Applied Physics in 1981 and a Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering four years later.
Having started his career at the Philips Research Labs (now known as Philips Lighting), Johnson explored the potential of holography to use light sources with different spectral ranges, allowing him to create images with three-dimensional qualities. His patented invention, the “chromophotographic” process, allowed him to produce colorful 3D images on paper as well as on television screens – something that had never been done before.
In addition to creating groundbreaking technology, Johnson also sought to make it accessible: he wrote manuals for holographers that simplified complex theories and made them easier for beginner scientists to understand. He also set up conferences for like-minded people interested in discussing holography, which brought people from all over the world together under one roof.
Today, Johnson’s work is still highly regarded in the field of holography, making him an unsung hero of both science and Black history alike!
Mary Jackson – NASA’s Human Computer
Mary Jackson was an African American mathematician and aeronautical engineer who made significant contributions to NASA’s human computer program during the 1960s. She was born in Hampton, Virginia, in 1921 and decided to pursue a career in science after attending classes at the Hampton Institute.
Jackson quickly rose through the ranks of NASA, becoming the first Black female aerospace engineer at their Langley Research Center in Hampton. Her accomplishments included co-authoring a research paper about shockwaves, as well as serving as a mentor for aspiring engineers.
She used her position to ensure that her colleagues had access to advanced degrees from segregated schools. Jackson also acted as a liaison between Black scientists and other members of NASA’s engineering community.
Her efforts extended beyond the research lab and into her community—Jackson was an active member of both local and national organizations that worked towards racial equality in education, science, and technology. Mary Jackson’s commitment to advancing the cause of equal opportunity within the scientific community was groundbreaking and inspirational.
These Black men and women offer a glimpse into the unstoppable innovation and creativity of a marginalized population. Their persistent journey and success demonstrate that their work is essential to the progress of science and technology. Their accomplishments also prove that with enough resilience and tenacity, any individual can leave his or her mark on the world. As they continue to make history, we should celebrate their stories, support their ideas and projects, and ensure that their knowledge, influence, and presence are never forgotten.