Sixteen Black Hidden Heroes of Modern Technology – Black History Month

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Nat Chrzanowska

Feb 21, 2023 • 21 min read
Two  colleages discussing ideas using a tablet computer-2

As we think about the greatest pioneers of our times, we turn our heads toward visionary startup founders. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg – we tend to associate the digital revolution with them.

Yet, in reality, many of the most revolutionary ideas happen thanks to hundreds of unseen professionals – engineers, mathematicians, creatives, and all other innovators.

It is them who push the boundaries of what’s possible and make our world a safer, healthier, and more convenient one. From complex mathematical calculations conducted by hand to the tiny app features – hidden professionals build a better future for us all.

As an Innovation Consultancy with over 600 professionals on board, we saw just how much our “little day-to-day jobs” impact the world we live in. That’s when we launched the Hidden Heroes publication initiative to tell the stories about the hard-working and passionate individuals behind the most groundbreaking discoveries.

This month, as we celebrate Black History Month, we want to draw special attention to the black innovators – the individuals that shaped our world, despite all odds, and discrimination that they had to face. Some of their tales, authored by Steven Johnson, a bestselling author, a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, a TED speaker, and TED Interview podcast host, were already featured within Hidden Heroes website.

Today, we want to share more of these inspiring heroes stories and honor their contribution to our world.

Dorothy Vaughan (1910–2008)

Dorothy Johnson Vaughan

Areas of expertise: Mathematics, Computing

Known for: The first African American NASA manager

She started her career in 1943 as a mathematician and programmer at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. She specialized in computing, and flight path calculation. Six years later she was assigned as the acting head of the West Area Computers – a segregated unit, which consisted of only African American women, who were making complex mathematical calculations by hand.

Despite having to face a lot of discrimination due to Jim Crow laws, Dorothy made a stunningly successful career. She became one of the original group of NASA’s “Human Computers”, assisting Neil Armstrong in landing on the moon in the 1960s.

During her career spanning 28 years, she taught women programming languages and other concepts essential to prepare them for the computer-powered future.

Katherine Johnson (1918–2020)

Katherine Johnson

Areas of expertise: Mathematics, Computing

Known for: One of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist

Katherine Johnson was also among the first African American women and “Human Computers” to work as a NASA scientist. She was originally assigned to the group supervised by Dorothy Vaughan.

Katherine became proficient in complex manual calculations and played a key role in pioneering the use of computers to perform calculating tasks.

As part of her job, she calculated trajectories, launch windows, and emergency return paths in support of the Project Mercury space flights. Among her most popular projects, we can find those for astronauts Alan Shepard (the first American in space), John Glenn (the first American in orbit), and rendezvous paths for the Apollo Lunar Module and command module on flights to the moon. Katherine’s work was crucial to the start of the Space Shuttle program.

Over the 33 years of her career, she also worked on the Apollo 13 mission. Her great work on backup procedures and charts supported the ship on its safe way home through a one-star observation system that would allow the crew to accurately determine their current location.

Gladys West (1930–)

Gladys West and Sam Smith

Areas of expertise: Mathematics

Known for: Calculation of the shape of the Earth, which led to the invention of GPS

Gladys West was the one who created the mathematical modeling of the Earth’s shape, mapping its gravitational fields. Her discoveries laid the foundation for the Global Positioning System (GPS).

Gladys figured out that to make GPS work, along with using atomic clocks and satellites, you need to actually map the Earth’s gravity shape. At the turn of the 70s and 80s, she led a team of professionals who used the IBM Stretch 7073 computer to calculate what is now known as the “geoid”.

She was recognized by the Forbes Magazine in an article entitled “GPS Only Exists Because Of Two People: Albert Einstein And Gladys West.”

If her story inspired you to learn more about Gladys, read our “Hidden Heroes” piece depicting her life and career in greater detail.

Nii Narku Quaynor

Nii Narku Quaynor

Areas of expertise: Computer Science, Engineering

Known as: The Father of the African Internet

Have you ever heard about the “Father of the African Internet”, Nii Quaynor? Quaynor was on the team who developed and introduced the Internet throughout the African continent.

He was the one who implemented some of the first connections in the region in the 1990s and was involved in the creation of key Internet organizations, including the African Network Operators Group (AfNOG). He was the founding chairman of the African numbers registry (AfriNIC).

Through the introduction of SWIFT, Internet, and Commerce networks, Quaynor launched the Value Added Networks (VANs) in Africa. In 2000, he took the position of director of ICANN for the African region.

He’s been recognized with multiple awards, including the 2015 ICANN Multi-stakeholder Ethos Award (together with Cheryl Langdon Orr) and the 2007 Jonathan B. Postel Service Award from The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

Currently, Nii serves as the Global Commission on Internet Governance Commissioner.

Marie Van Brittan Brown (1922–1999)

Marie Van Brittan Brown

Areas of expertise: Innovations

Known for: The invention of home security system

Marie Van Brittan Brown’s name will forever be remembered as the inventor of the video home security system.

Working irregular hours and having to deal with a rising crime rate in the neighborhood, Marie – a nurse, with the help of her husband, Albert – an electrician, came up with the idea of the first home safety system.

Her initial, highly innovative concept was the foundation of the security systems we use today. Up until this day, the idea was cited in at least 32 patent applications.

For her invention, Marie was recognized by the New York Times and received an award from the National Science Committee.

Clarence Ellis (1943–2014)

Clarence Ellis

Areas of expertise: Computer Science

Known for: The first-ever multi-collaborative system

Clarence Ellis was the first African American with a Ph.D. in Computer Science. He’s the innovator behind the first collaborative tool that enabled people to work remotely on the same projects. His invention, the Officetalk, was the inspiration for such multi-collaborative systems as Miro, Google Docs, and more.

From 1976 to 1984, he was the head of a group working on the Officetalk at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). The team built the first groupware system to use icons and Ethernet to allow people to work together from a distance.

A big part of Ellis’s legacy is his involvement in providing teaching opportunities to the youth. As an emeritus professor, he insisted on periodically teaching introductory computing classes and helped launch the “10-week Summer Multicultural Access to Research Training (SMART)” for students.

In 2013, he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, allowing him to conduct research and teach in the computer science department at Ashesi University.

Warren M. Washington (1936–)

Warren M. Washington

Areas of expertise: Science

Known for: Uncovering the way to predict future states of the atmosphere

Warren M. Washington is a world-renowned atmospheric science and climate research expert. He specializes in computer modeling of the Earth's climate and was one of the pioneers behind the creation of atmospheric computer models that use fundamental laws of physics to predict the upcoming states of the atmosphere.

Together with Akira Kasahara, they laid the groundwork for scientists trying to understand climate change. Washington’s work is the basis of all current weather, and wind forecasting apps.

Washington was also the second African American with a Ph.D. in atmospheric sciences.

In 2010, Warren was recognized by President Barack Obama and awarded the National Medal of Science.

Valerie Thomas (1943–)

Valerie Thomas

Areas of expertise: Data Science

Known for: The invention of the illusion transmitter that “turns” 2D into 3D images

Valerie Thomas is the inventor of the illusion transmitter that uses concave mirrors to produce a three-dimensional picture from two-dimensional images. Originally, her invention was developed to send out 3D images across a distance, making them look as if they were in front of a mirror.

During her career at NASA, she was responsible for the creation of digital media format images, and real-time computer data processing systems that supported satellite operations control centers. She supervised the creation of NASA's Landsat program and became a globally recognized expert in its data products.

Valerie’s patented illusion transmitter is still in use today, being adopted in various fields, including TVs, cinemas, video screens, and surgery.

All her hard work earned Valerie the Goddard Space Flight Center Merit Award and the Equal Opportunity Medal.

Jerry Lawson (1940–2011)

Drew Verbis and Jerry Lawson

Areas of expertise: Engineering, Gaming

Known as: The Father of the Video Game Cartridge

Jerry Lawson, “the father of the video game cartridge”, was a visionary of the video game industry. He created the Fairchild Channel F video game console and was the leader of the crew behind the commercial video game cartridge.

When working for Fairchild Semiconductor, he developed a coin-operated arcade game called “Demolition Derby”, which was among the first microprocessor-driven games that used the F8 microprocessors.

Back then, most systems had their programming build-in, so it couldn’t be changed or removed. Together with his team, Jerry developed a new technology that enabled games to be stored as software on removable ROM cartridges. This invention allowed gamers to buy more games and opened a major revenue stream for the gaming industry at the same time.

For his revolutionary work for the gaming industry, Jerry was recognized with the ID@Xbox Gaming Heroes award at the 21st Independent Games Festival.

Frank S. Greene (1938–2009)

Frank S. Greene

Areas of expertise: Science, Engineering

Known for: The invention of the high-speed semiconductor that achieved the fastest memory chip speeds at the time

Frank S. Greene was the founder and a general partner at New Vista Capital, which makes early-stage investments in tech companies owned by women and minorities.

In the course of his career, he founded two software companies and has been named among the top 100 black-owned businesses by Black Enterprise.

He holds a patent for an integrated circuit that helped Fairchild Semiconductor become a leading semiconductor company in the 60s. Thanks to Greene’s invention, the company was able to own the fastest memory chip speed at the time.

He earned a Ph.D. from Santa Clara University and taught electrical engineering and computer science at a number of universities.

John Henry Thompson (1959–)

John Henry Thompson

Areas of expertise: Programming

Known for: The development of the Lingo language

John Henry Thompson is the inventor of the Lingo programming language.

As a young man, he wanted to learn as many programming languages as possible, including PLI, FORTRAN, JCL, and COBOL, in order to create his own. By combining computing science skills with visual arts, John wanted to connect two different worlds: tech and art.

During his career, he developed a number of products, including the Lingo language. While he was working as a chief scientist at Macromedia™, he was able to create the unique language, which is now used in many different fields that involve interactive graphic and audio simulations, including video games, animation, and web design.

For his invention and dedication to teaching, Jerry was honored with the Silver Musgrave Medal for Science in 2012 by the Institute of Jamaica (IOJ).

Mark Dean (1956–)

Mark Dean

Areas of expertise: Computer Science

Known for: The Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) bus invention, which enabled multiple devices, such as modems and printers, to be connected to personal computers

Mark Dean is the brain behind the Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) bus – the 16-bit internal bus of IBM PC/AT and other similar computers based on the Intel 80286 platform.

His invention has allowed multiple devices – such as modems and printers – to connect to personal computers. Dean was also the leader of the design crew responsible for creating a one-gigahertz computer processor.

He currently holds more than 20 different patents, including 3 out of 9 PC patents for the co-development of the 1981 IBM personal computer.

Mark was also the first African American who became an IBM Fellow – a recognition awarded to the top tech professionals at the company.

Herman Chinery-Hesse (1963–)

Herman Chinery-Hesse

Areas of expertise: Telecommunications, Entrepreneurship

Known as: The Bill Gates of Africa

Herman Chinery-Hesse is the founder of theSOFTtribe, the first and biggest software company in Ghana, Africa. You may have heard of him being referred to as the “Bill Gates of Africa”.

His company has provided us with a number of groundbreaking products, including government payroll systems, ERP systems, nationwide utility billing systems, electronic payment systems, point of sale systems, and a low-cost, mobile-based emergency alert system for Africa called “Hei Julor”.

Herman has been recognized multiple times, for instance, in the following lists: 20 Notable Black Innovators in Technology, the Top 100 Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy Magazine, Africa's Top 20 Tech Influencers, and the Top 100 Most Influential Africans of our Time.

Evelyn Boyd Granville (1924–)

Evelyn Boyd Granville

Areas of expertise: Mathematics, Computer Science

Known for: The computer software to analyze satellite orbits for NASA space program.

Evelyn Boyd Granville is the creator of computer software that analyzed satellite orbits for NASA space programs, including Project Vanguard and Project Mercury.

Her role was one of the fundamental elements of the computer age. During her work for the National Bureau of Standards, she helped in the development of missile fuses. After that, she moved on to a NASA contractor, IBM, and launched a career in the American space program.

Evelyn was the second African American woman in history to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics. She holds honorary Doctorate degrees from Yale University, Spelman College, and Lincoln University.

Walter Braithwaite (1945–)

Walter Braithwaite

Areas of expertise: Computer Science

Known for: Introducing the use of computer technology in the design of Boeing's commercial airplanes

Walter Braithwaite is the innovator behind the development of Boeing’s first-ever computer-powered technology used in designing commercial airplanes.

His work was crucial to the introduction and use of CAD/CAM and IGES technology at Boeing. For his merits, he’s been named the President of Boeing Africa.

In 1991, he took the role of vice president of information systems and architecture at Boeing. Three years later, Braithwaite became the vice president of all information systems activities for Boeing Commercial Airplane Group. At the time of his career at the company, he also introduced a special mentoring program.

The renowned Walt E. Braithwaite Legacy Award is named in his honor. For all his work, he was awarded the Black Engineer of the Year.

Roy Clay Sr. (1929–)

Roy Clay Sr.

Areas of expertise: Computer Science

Known as: The Godfather of Silicon Valley

Roy Clay Sr. was one of the first computer software innovators in the 50s. He was named the “Godfather of Silicon Valley”.

Clay was a founding member of the computer division at Hewlett-Packard. He led the team who launched the software for the first HP computer, the HP 2116A, in 1966. He founded the HP software development facility and ran the computer division.

Later on, he created Rod-L Electronics, an electrical-safety testers manufacturer, where he invented the dielectric withstand test and high potential (hipot) safety test.

Uncovering the stories of “Hidden Heroes”

The stories of these inspiring individuals are but a few of the many tales that need to be told and heard. I hope this list gives us all a good reason to look further in the search of the unseen innovators of our modern world, and thank them for their hard and groundbreaking work.

If you’d like to get to know more stories of the unseen visionaries in the tech world, you can read about them in our tribute to “Hidden Heroes”:

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Nat Chrzanowska

Creative Producer at Netguru
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