African American History Makers in Technology

(February 1, 2019) – For more than a century, African Americans have been helping to shape the future of technology in our country. However, their contributions are often overlooked.

Connected Nation’s mission to find innovative solutions to expand access to and boost the adoption of broadband (high-speed internet) and its related technologies is rooted in the idea that everyone belongs in a digital world. No one should be left behind. That means it’s important to be more inclusive in all the things we do – including as we look at our history in technology.

In honor of Black History Month, Connected Nation will be sharing what African Americans have done and are doing within this space. We’ll have several in-depth profiles of some incredible African American inventors, engineers, advocates, and others who have helped shape our technology and/or are working to create a more diverse and inclusive approach to closing the Digital Divide for good.

To kick off this month, here’s a quick rundown of African American innovators in technology. This is only a sampling of the many contributions of minorities in these industries:

1872: Elijah McCoy – invented and patented an automatic lubricator for oiling the steam engines of locomotives and ships. Rumor has it that his name is where the term “The Real McCoy” comes from, supposedly because railroad engineers wanted to make sure they got his superior oil-drip cup invention and not a fake.

1885: Granville Woods – invented a device that allowed train stations to communicate with moving trains.

1959: Otis Boykin – patented a type of resister still used in radios, television, and computers.

1962: James Edward West – developed the foil-electret microphone that is now used in almost all current microphones, including cell phones.

1966: Marie Van Brittan Brown – inventor of the home security system and first closed-circuit TV.

Late 1960s: Roy L. Clay – dubbed the “godfather of black Silicon Valley,” he helped launch Hewlett-Packard’s computer division.

1972: George Carruthers – principle inventor of the Far Ultraviolet Camera/Spectrograph used during Apollo 16’s lunar landing.

1973: Shirley Ann Jackson – first African American woman to earn doctorate from MIT in any field. She later worked as a theoretical physicist at Bell Laboratories and chaired the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

1976: Jerry Lawson – led the development of the Fairchild Channel F Console, which used swappable game cartridges rather than ROM storage.

1980: Valerie Thomas – patented a 3-D Illusion Transmitter that’s now used by NASA. Doctors also use it for medical imaging, and it’s used in 3-D television.

1988: Jesse Russell – led the first team from Bell Laboratories to introduce digital cellular technology in the United States. He also patented dozens of innovations in wireless technology, including base station tech that transmits radio wave signals to and from mobile devices.  

2006: Janet Emerson Bashen – became the first black woman to obtain a software patent.

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