In the United States, during the month of February, we recognize the impact and contributions African Americans have had on U.S. history. This is known as “Black History Month”. The terms "Black" and "African American" are used interchangeably. (In the UK, Black History Month is celebrated in October.)
Specific to the field of technology, some of America's most amazing innovations have come from Black people, although they often don't get the recognition they deserve. To get a sense of why that may be, it's important to understand the history of what we now call the United States from the perspective of the Black experience.
In the year 1619, approximately twenty Africans were kidnapped from their villages near what is known today as Angola and arrived in the state of Virginia. The current year, 2019, marks the 400th anniversary of the first time slaves arrived in what we know today as the United States. For over two centuries, Africans were hijacked from their homeland, forced on ships where 250–600 of them were chained in the cargo area, and sold across Europe and throughout the Americas. Once these humans were purchased, they were bred to primarily perform manual labor where they suffered physical abuse.
The U.S. Constitution originally considered African Americans 3/5th of a citizen. Later, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, the 14th Amendment granted former slaves full citizenship, and the 15th Amendment granted Black Men the right to vote. Soon after, African Americans were considered "separate but equal". This forced segregation meant that African Americans could not attend the same schools, eat at the same diners, and drink from the same water fountains as White Americans. During the mid-1900s, segregation in the United States began to end, and the Civil Rights era brought forth the process of greater fairness and inclusiveness for all minorities.
Forced segregation meant that African Americans could not attend the same schools, eat at the same diners, and drink from the same water fountains as White Americans.
This history is important to keep front of mind for two primary reasons. First, Black people were and continue to be innovative, creative, and brilliant, irrespective of the experience of constant oppression. And, it is precisely because this oppression has led to a lack of awareness of said innovation, creativity, and brilliance, that we highlight their accomplishments during Black History Month.
Second, all too frequently when we think of Black History month, the spotlight focuses only on the most high profile figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. & Malcolm X and their roles in the civil rights movement, Harriet Tubman acting as the “conductor” of the Underground Railroad, and Jackie Robinson becoming the first Black person to end segregation in baseball. It's not that Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman aren't important; it's just that there are so many other African Americans who have played a key role in U.S. history have not had their contributions recognized.
In this blog, we will elevate the profiles of Black people who have made an impact specifically on the history of technology. You can find more information on each of these innovators by clicking on their names below.
"There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know." Harry S. Truman, 33rd President of the United States.
Anyone who owns a Sony Playstation, Nintendo Switch, or Xbox should know Lawson's name. He created the first home video game system that used interchangeable cartridges, offering gamers a chance to play a variety of games. This approach also gave video game makers a way to earn profits by selling individual games, a business model that exists today. Lawson, who died in 2011 at age 70, was just beginning to be recognized by the gaming industry for his pioneering work prior to his death.
After witnessing an accident between a horse-drawn carriage and an automobile, Morgan had an idea. His three-position traffic signal, patented in 1923, helped save lives at a time when cars, horses, and pedestrians all shared the road. But this wasn't even his most famous invention. Morgan received a patent in 1912 for his safety hood and smoke protector (a precursor to today's gas mask). His forward thinking led to saving the lives of countless people across the globe.
Anyone amazed by the special effects showcased in modern day movies should thank Hannah. The computer scientist is one of the founders, in 1982, of the software firm Silicon Graphics (now SGI), where the special-effects genius developed 3-D graphics technology that would be used in many Hollywood movies. Donkey Kong fans also owe a debt of gratitude to Hannah as he was instrumental in designing the Nintendo 64 gaming system.
In an era when girls weren't even encouraged to study math and science (a problem that still persists in the US today), Thomas eagerly sought information about technology. She would eventually earn a degree in physics and land a job at NASA in the mid-1960s, where she would work into the 1990s. In 1980 she received a patent for the illusion transmitter, an early form of 3-D technology. Uses for the technology have yet to be fully realized, but with the increased interest in 3-D, her work will surely be an integral part of the future.
Dean is one of technology's top innovators. This computer engineer helped design the IBM personal computer, introduced in 1981, that became a staple on desktops. He, along with co-inventor and IBM colleague Dennis Moeller, helped develop the interior hardware that would allow computers to connect to various peripherals, such as printers and monitors. Ironically, the man who helped make the PC popular is now using only tablets, noting in a blog post, "When I helped design the PC, I didn't think I'd live long enough to witness its decline."
Jackson is known for her innovative work in theoretical physics and semiconductor theory. In 1995, U.S. President Bill Clinton appointed the physicist chairwoman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, making her the first woman and first African American to hold this prestigious position. In 2002, Discover Magazine named her one of the 50 Most Important Women in Science.
Harry S. Truman, the 33rd President of the United States, is quoted as saying, "There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know." These six Americans are prime examples of how no obstacle can prohibit us from achieving our goals. With focus and determination, no matter what our struggles, we can each make an impact in our own way.
Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Le Var S. shares examples of how his guiding principles lead him to drive impact and affect change, and how we all can do the same.
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