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Beyond / Oct 22, 2020 / 3 min read

Black History Month: Black tech innovators who have impacted your life.

During this month we’ve published different articles to celebrate and educate for Black History Month. I’ve been interested in tech my whole life, be it coding mini-games or watching Worldwide Developers Conference with my Grandfather. Even my career has been focused around the tech community. But something I feel that we aren’t educated on enough – and I’m including myself in this – is Black tech innovators. Without the work of these incredible people, large areas of STEM wouldn’t be as we know them. And yet so few people have heard of them.

I’ve really enjoyed taking the opportunity to put together the following list of Black tech innovators that have made an amazing impact on the tech that’s important to us.

Black tech innovators you may not have known about but should:

Gerald “Jerry” A. Lawson

If you’ve ever played a video game, be it on a PlayStation, Xbox, or Nintendo device, you have Gerald A. Lawson to thank. He was director of engineering and marketing for the video game division of Fairchild Semiconductor. In 1976, under his direction, they released the Fairchild Channel F. This gaming console allowed users to play different games on removable cartridges. Before Lawson, you could only play video games that were installed onto the machine already. Lawson’s idea sparked an international business by separating game from console. This revolutionised the gaming industry, shaping it into what it is today.

“The whole reason I did games was because people said, ‘You can’t do it.’ I’m one of the guys, if you tell me I can’t do something, I’ll turn around and do it.” – Gerald “Jerry” A. Lawson

Discover more.

Valerie Thomas

Valerie Thomas’ interest in pursuing science started aged eight when she read ‘The Boys First Book on Electronics’. In 1964, she began working for NASA as a data analyst, where she developed real-time computer data systems which supported satellite operations control centres. It was from this work that she managed the development of Landsat image processing data systems. Landsat is the longest running method of getting satellite imagery of Earth and is still used today.

In 1976, she started working on her illusion transmitter which she received a patent for in 1980. An illusion transmitter uses concave mirrors to create a 3D image that looks like it’s floating in front of the mirrors. NASA still uses this technical that is also used in surgery to better view the inside of patients. It’s also being used in research to create more effective 3D screens for television and video.

Find out about Thomas’ experience working on the Landsat Program from the woman herself.

Marc Hannah

Marc Hannah was one of seven who founded Silicon Graphics, Inc (SGI) in 1982, which specialises in computer graphics technology. Through his work creating computer programmed such as Personal IRIS, Indigo, Indigo2 and Indy graphics, he was named the company’s principal scientist in 1986.

You might not recognise some of these programmes straight away, but you’ll definitely recognise what these programmes were used for. They were used to create effects in classic movies. It’s actually highly likely you’ve watched some! These movies include Jurassic Park, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Hunt for Red October, and Field of Dreams. George Lucas’ special effects company Industrial Light & Magic used SGI’s technology to create Terminator 2.

Discover more.

Dr Shirley Ann Jackson

Dr Shirley Jackson is a theoretical physicist. She is the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She’s conducted research in theoretical physics, solid-state and quantum physics, and optical physics. Not only that but Dr Jackson has been awarded 55 honorary doctoral degrees.

But something you might not know is the scientific research she conducted that resulted in the portable fax, touch tone telephone, solar cells, fibre optics cables, caller ID and call waiting. This research was all done during her time at AT&T Bell Labs, now known as Nokia Bell Labs. Next time you know who’s on the other end of the line without answering the phone, you know who to thank.

“We need to go back to the discovery, to posing a question, to having a hypothesis and having kids know that they can discover the answers and can peel away a layer.” – Dr Shirley Ann Jackson

Find out about the work that Dr Jackson is currently doing as president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the oldest technological research university in the United States.

If you’ve found this article insightful or if you’ve learnt something, I encourage you to do more reading on forgotten Black tech innovators. You’d be amazed at the technologies you never realised were created by marginalised developers, scientists, and creators. I recommend following current Black tech innovators on Twitter to stay updated. You should also check out events and articles over on UKBlackTech, the diverse tech community for BAME in tech.

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