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Five Black Inventors You Should Know

Updated: Feb 22, 2023

Black History Month is a time to commemorate and reflect on the remarkable achievements of African Americans throughout history. While every day is a good one to be aware of these achievements, the month of February is an opportunity to increase visibility, continue conversations about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and uplift and amplify the contributions in the past and present of Black scientists, developers, and experts in their fields.

Check out these five Black pioneers in science and engineering whose contributions have paved the way for modern technology.

Jerry Lawson

Gerald Anderson Lawson (December 1, 1940 – April 9, 2011) was an American electronics engineer. In the mid-1970s, Lawson helped create the Fairchild Channel F, a home entertainment machine that was produced in 1976 by Fairchild Semiconductor, where he worked as director of engineering and marketing. He is known for his work in designing the Fairchild Channel F video game console as well as leading the team that pioneered the commercial video game cartridge. He was dubbed the "father of the videogame cartridge" according to Black Enterprise magazine in 1982. He eventually left Fairchild and founded the game company Video-Soft.

Inspired as a child by the work of George Washington Carver, Lawson dabbled in electronics growing up, repairing televisions to make money before enrolling at Queens College. His interest in computing led him in the 1970s to Silicon Valley's Homebrew Computer Club, of which he was the only Black member at the time.

Lawson's work allowed people to play a variety of games in their homes and paved the way for systems such as the Atari 2600, Nintendo, Xbox and Playstation.

Play the Google Doodle in tribute to Jerry Lawson!

Valerie Thomas

Valerie L. Thomas (born February 8, 1943) is an American data scientist and inventor. She invented the illusion transmitter, for which she received a patent in 1980. She was responsible for developing the digital media formats image processing systems used in the early years of NASA's Landsat program.

Thomas was born in Baltimore, Maryland. She graduated from high school in 1961, during the era of integration. She attended Morgan State University, where she was one of two women majoring in physics. Thomas excelled in her mathematics and science courses at Morgan State University, graduating with a degree in physics with highest honors in 1964.

Thomas began working for NASA as a data analyst in 1964. She developed real-time computer data systems to support satellite operations control centers (1964–1970). She oversaw the creation of the Landsat program (1970–1981), becoming an international expert in Landsat data products. Her participation in this program expanded upon the works of other NASA scientists in the pursuit of being able to visualize Earth from space.

In 1990, SPAN became a major part of NASA's science networking and today's Internet. She also participated in projects related to Halley's Comet, ozone research, satellite technology, and the Voyager spacecraft.

Thomas has earned many awards, such as the NASA Equal Opportunity Medal and Goddard Flight Center Award of Merit.

Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson

Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson (born August 5, 1946), a theoretical physicist and famous black inventor, has been credited with making many advances in science. She first developed an interest in science and mathematics during her childhood and conducted experiments and studies, such as those on the eating habits of honeybees. She followed this interest to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she received a bachelor, and doctoral degree, all in the field of physics. In doing so she became the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. from MIT.

Jackson conducted successful experiments in theoretical physics and used her knowledge of physics to foster advances in telecommunications research while working at Bell Laboratories. Dr. Jackson conducted breakthrough basic scientific research that enabled others to invent the portable fax, touch tone telephone, solar cells, fiber optic cables, and the technology behind caller ID and call waiting.

Jackson was the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (1999-2022), the oldest technological research university in the United States, and recently ranked by U.S. News and World Report as one of the nation's top 50 universities. The mission of Rensselaer since its founding in 1824 has been to "apply science to the common purposes of life." Dr. Jackson's goal for Rensselaer was "to achieve prominence in the 21st century as a top-tier world-class technological research university, with global reach and global impact.”

Mark Dean

Born (March 2, 1956) in Jefferson City, Tennessee, Dean received his undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Tennessee, his master's in electrical engineering from Florida Atlantic University and his Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University. Early in his career at IBM, Dean was chief engineer working with IBM personal computers. The IBM PS/2 Models 70 and 80 and the Color Graphics Adapter are among his early work; he holds three of IBM's original nine PC patents.

Dean was chief technical officer for IBM Middle East and Africa, was named an IBM fellow in 1995, and in 1997 received the Black Engineer of the Year President's Award. After retiring from IBM in 2013, Dean joined the faculty of the College of Engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and currently is emeritus professor. Dean holds more than 40 patents.

Mark Dean and his co-inventor Dennis Moeller created a microcomputer system with bus control means for peripheral processing devices. Their invention paved the way for the growth in the Information Technology industry by allowing the use of plug-in subsystems and peripherals like disk drives, video gear, speakers, and scanners.

Lonnie Johnson

Lonnie George Johnson (born October 6, 1949) is an American inventor, aerospace engineer, and entrepreneur, whose work includes a U.S. Air Force-term of service and a twelve-year stint at NASA, where he worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He invented the Super Soaker water gun in 1989, which has been among the world's bestselling toys ever since.

As a teenager, Johnson attended an all-black school in Mobile, AL. He drew much of his inspiration from George Washington Carver. In 1968, Johnson represented his high school at a science fair, where he was the only black student attending the fair; This was a time when African Americans had very little presence in science. There, he presented a robot he created, which he named "Linex," taking home the first-place prize. The robot was powered by compressed air.

In 1969, shortly after graduating from high school, Johnson attended Tuskegee University, obtaining a B.S. in mechanical engineering in 1973 and a master's degree in nuclear engineering in 1975. He also holds an honorary Ph.D. in Science from Tuskegee University. He then worked for the U.S. Air Force, where he worked on the stealth bomber program, before eventually joining NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1979.

Johnson holds more than 250 patents, most of which are for his Super Soaker. Johnson was awarded the Air Force Achievement Medal and the Air Force Commendation Medal. He received several awards from NASA for his work in spacecraft system design at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In 2008, he was awarded the Breakthrough Award from Popular Mechanics science magazine for his work related to JTEC and was inducted into the State of Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame in 2011. In 2015, the Super Soaker was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame.

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