Black History Month: Black Innovators In History February 1, 2022

As a company steeped in diversity, equity and inclusion, Brand Labs is excited to once again celebrate Black History Month, the annual celebration of achievements by African Americans and a time for recognizing their central role in U.S. history.

The brainchild of noted Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson, and other prominent African Americans, every U.S. president since 1976 has officially recognized February as the month the country – even Canada and U.K. – serve to extoll the contributions of those who’ve made their mark on not only history, but black history.

This year, we are highlighting the innovators who were (and still are) noted and instrumental for bringing technology to the forefront, helping make it what it is today. Appropriate, too, since a 2013 survey revealed that approximately only 1% of tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley are black.

We kick off the list of innovators with the first documented inventor, Thomas Jennings. Born in 1791, Jennings was only 30 years old when he was granted a patent for his invention, a dry-cleaning process and, subsequently, believed to be the first African American inventor to receive a patent.

Thomas Jennings

Moving into the digital age, inventor Mark Dean (along with his co-creator), helped develop the once-ubiquitous IBM PC, holding three of IBM’s nine original patents. Their invention paved the way for the growth in the information technology industry, allowing us to plug into our computers peripherals like disk drives, video gear, speakers, and scanners. In 1999, he sought to create a voice-activated tablet, and wrote in 2011 that he uses a tablet as his primary computer. Dean is now the CTO for IBM Middle East and Africa. Dean received his undergraduate degree from University of Tennessee in electrical; his MSEE from Florida Atlantic University; and his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford University.

In 1996, Dean would be named an IBM fellow and in 1997 he received the Black Engineer of the Year President’s Award. Dean holds more than 20 patents and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1997.

Piggybacking off Dean is Dr. Frank Crossley, also an electrical engineer and a pioneer in the field of titanium metallurgy. In the 50s, few African Americans were visible in the engineering fields, but Crossley excelled in his field. He received seven patents—five in titanium base alloys that greatly improved the aircraft and aerospace industry.

And don’t think only men dominated the technology space. Women also paved the way for many advances still employed today. Notably, Valerie Thomas, inventor of the patented illusion transmitter that transmits by cable or electromagnetic means a three-dimensional, real-time image–NASA adopted the technology. She received several NASA awards, including the Goddard Space Flight Center Award of Merit and the NASA Equal Opportunity Medal. (We’d be remiss not to recall “Hidden Figures,” the movie about African American female mathematicians who worked during the Space Race).

Valerie Thomas

Valerie Thomas Celebrating

For more than 200 years, the contributions of black innovators, everything from major advances in agriculture, transportation and communications to cosmetics, manufacturing, and electricity, have been undeniable.

Brand Labs salutes yesterday’s, today’s and tomorrow’s innovators. Day in and day out, their contributions are undeniable.

Until next time, we’ll leave you with what many consider the Top 20 Notable Black Innovators in Technology.

1. Frank Greene

Developed high-speed computer systems in the 1960s. He also founded the software companies Technology Development Corp. and ZeroOne Systems, Inc.

2. Roy Clay Sr.

Silicon Valley pioneer, research and development director of Hewlett-Packard (HP)’s computer division, working on the design and construction of the company’s first computers in the 1960s. He later founded Rod-L Electronics, which tests for safety in electrical equipment.

3. Mark Dean

Mark Dean helped develop the once-ubiquitous IBM PC

4. Guion Bluford Jr.

First black man in space; engineer and colonel in the US Air Force before participating in four space shuttle flights

5. Mae Jemison

First black woman in space; a physician by trade, has received numerous awards and honorary doctorates

6. James E. West

Invented the first practical electret microphone, commonly used in cellphones, cameras and digital recorders around the world. Won the Benjamin Franklin Medal from the Franklin Institute in 2010.

7. Philip Emeagwali

Researched how to simulate the detection of oil reservoirs through the use of 65,000 microprocessors, instead of the proposed 8 supercomputers, breaking computation speed records.

8. Kennedy Reed

Theoretical physicist at the University of California’s Lawrence Livermore National Lab. He received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring in 2009.

9. Al Zollar

Worked for IBM for over 30 years as general manager of IBM Tivoli Software in charge of strategy and profit and loss management. He has a degree in applied mathematics from the University of California at San Diego, where he was recently named one of 50 distinguished alumni.

10. John Thompson

Chairman and CEO of computer security software company Symantec, he was the only African American to hold such a position at a major tech company. He is now the CEO of Virtual Instruments and is the only black man on Microsoft’s board of directors.

11. Emmit J. McHenry

Co-founded Network Solutions, Inc., one of the early leading Internet domain services providers. In 1995, he founded NetCom Solutions International, a telecommunications and engineering company that has won awards from IBM, NASA and others.

12. Gerald Lawson

In the 1970s, created the first video game console with interchangeable cartridges at Fairchild Semiconductor, paving the way for the future of gaming.

13. Wanda Austin

President and CEO of the Aerospace Corporation, she was senior vice president of the Engineering and Technology Group in the early 2000s, she led a staff of 1,000 engineers and scientists.

14. Lester Lyles

Chair of the National Academies Committee on the rationale and goals of the U.S. civil space program. Holds degrees in mechanical and nuclear engineering; served as the Air Force’s vice chief of staff and as the commander of the Air Force Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio; appointed to President Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board.

15. Dixie Garr

Served as Cisco Systems’ vice president of customer success engineering and drove change throughout the company’s engineering processes and business practices around the world. She has been awarded several honors, including the 1997 Black Engineer of the Year Award.

16. Lori Perine

Currently the managing principal at InterpreTech (previously president and CEO) and consults companies in economic innovation, science, energy and technology. Perine also once served as deputy to the associate director of the White House Office of Science and Tech Policy.

17. Herman Chinery-Hesse

Born in Ireland, studied in the US and worked in England, returned to his roots in Ghana to start a software company called SOFTtribe. He has been called “Africa’s father of technology” and is often likened to Bill Gates.

18. Chad Womack

Director of STEM education initiatives and the fellowship program at the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). He is also a biotechnology scientist and he serves on the board of directors of the National Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Association.

19. Robin Petgrave

Founder and executive director of Tomorrow’s Aeronautical Museum, where at-risk youths are introduced to aviation, math and science. His students have broken several aviation world records.

20. Kimberly Bryant

In 2011, launched Black Girls Code, an organization devoted to teaching young girls of color computer coding and programming languages, such as Scratch and Ruby on Rails, and hope to grow the number of black women in technology and give underprivileged girls better opportunities.