How much do you know about black pioneers’ influence on the technology we use today?
When people are asked to name the tech evangelists who changed the world, it will likely be a list of the usual suspects: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Elon Musk, etc.
While they have all undoubtedly had a massive influence on the world we live in today, there is also a glaring lack of diversity in that list. It’s no secret that the tech sector needs to do a better job to promote diversity, and we all have a part to play.
The film Hidden Figures is a good demonstration of the stories we should also be telling. It chronicles the stories of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, whose work at NASA helped to launch its manned space missions, including the Apollo 11 moon landings.
To celebrate Black History Month, here are five more black “hidden figures” who have made a huge impact on technological advancements.
Inventor and computer engineer, Dr Mark Dean is credited with helping to develop several landmark technologies, including the colour PC monitor, the Industry Standard Architecture system bus and the first one-gigahertz computer processing chip.
He became the first African-American to become an IBM Fellow – the highest level of technical excellence at the company – and holds three of the company’s original nine PC patents for the IBM personal computer, released in 1981.
Dean was instrumental in launching the personal computer age, making the machines more accessible and powerful through his work. He was enshrined in the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1997, and his importance in the tech world is so significant, April 25th is now officially marked as Mark Dean Day in Knox County, Tennessee – the state where he was born.
John Henry “JT” Thompson
Designers and Adobe fans should know about Jamaican-American software engineer John Henry Thompson: the inventor of the Lingo programming language.
Lingo is a scripting language that helps to render visuals in programmes and was used as the foundation to help create Macromedia Director, the early studio animation software which later became Adobe Director.
Thompson, known as “JT” to his peers, merged art and technology into software that became industry standard and is still used today. Lingo has now also been used to create flash and shockwave programmes found in animation, web design and video games.
Dr Gladys West is the hidden figure behind the Global Positioning System (GPS). The technology, which is now seamlessly integrated into our daily lives on our phones, got its start from the American mathematician’s modelling of the shape of the Earth. Her work on developing of satellite geodesy models were incorporated into the GPS, and the technology still relies on her accurate mathematical model in order to determine the position of a receiver.
West’s achievements were only recently recognised, and she was inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame in 2018 – one of its highest honours.
Roy L. Clay
Yet another influential innovator is Roy L. Clay, a computer science pioneer, known as the “Godfather of Silicon Valley”.
Clay was one of the first African-Americans to graduate from Saint Louis University with a degree in mathematics in 1951, landing his first job at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory at a time when many other organisations would not hire people of colour.
As he continued to flourish, he was then employed by Hewlett-Packard (HP). Clay developed new software for HP computers, leading the team that created the 2116A: one of HP’s first mini-computers.
Aside from his technical achievements in computer science development, Clay’s other great accomplishment is establishing several initiatives to improve the representation of African-Americans in Silicon Valley and the tech industry.
Known as the Bill Gates of Africa, Herman Chinery-Hesse is the founder of theSOFTtribe, the oldest and largest software company in Ghana.
Chinery-Hesse started the company to prove to his sceptical UK friends that Ghana is a land of opportunity. With no start-up capital and no infrastructure, Chinery-Hesse arrived in Ghana in 1990 with only his personal computer, determination and talent for writing software programmes. Since then, the company has flourished, having partnered with Microsoft and other leading global players in the IT industry.
According to Chinery-Hesse, technology can provide a better future. He has been given many awards throughout his career, being named as one of the top 100 Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy Magazine, as well as joining Roy L. Clay as one of 20 Notable Black Innovators in Technology. In 2019, Chinery-Hesse was introduced as the Commonwealth Chair for Business and Technology initiatives for Africa.
When looking at diversity and representation in the tech world, it is important to realise that there is no lack of talent or expertise from black professionals. These five black innovators, along with many others, have defined our modern world, and their stories should be celebrated.
However, we should be addressing and improving the access to emerging careers in technology and focusing on early education, to provide better opportunities for everyone.