Black History Month: Gerald Lawson


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. (Only years earlier, Mike Markkula, co-founder of Apple Computers Inc., had headed marketing for the company.) Though basic by today’s standards, Lawson’s work allowed people to play a variety of games in their homes, and paved the way for systems such as the Atatri 2600, Nintendo, Xbox and Playstation.

One of the few black engineers in his industry, Lawson later said that colleagues were often surprised to find out that he was African American: “With some people, it’s become an issue. I’ve had people look at me with total shock. Particularly if they hear my voice, because they think that all black people have a voice that sounds a certain way, and they know it. And I sit there and go, ‘Oh yeah? Well, sorry, I don’t.'”

Lawson passed away on April 9, 2011.

Black History Month: Valerie Thomas

ValarieThomasTVFrom 1964 to 1995, Valerie Thomas worked in a variety of capacities for NASA where she developed real-time computer data systems, conducted large-scale experiments and managed various operations, projects and facilities. While managing a project for NASA’s image processing systems, Thomas’ team spearheaded the development of “Landsat,” the first satellite to send images from space.

In 1976, Thomas learned how concave mirrors can be set up to create the illusion of a 3-dimensional object. She believed this would be revolutionary if technology could be harnessed to transmit this illusion. With an eye to the future, Valerie Thomas began experimenting on an illusion transmitter in 1977. In 1980, she patented it. In operation, concave mirrors are set up on both ends of the transmission. The net effect of this is an optical illusion of a 3-dimensional image that looks real on the receiving end. This brilliant innovation placed Thomas among the most prominent black inventors of the 20th century.

NASA continues to use her technology and is exploring ways to use it in surgical tools and possibly television and video.

Black History Month: Dr. Mark Dean

dean As a child, Mark Dean excelled in math. In elementary school, he took advanced level math courses and, in high school, Dean even built his own computer, radio, and amplifier. Dean continued his interests and went on to obtain a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Tennessee, a masters degree in electrical engineering from Florida Atlantic University and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford. He is one of the most prominent black inventors in the field of computers.

Dr. Mark Dean started working at IBM in 1980 and was instrumental in the invention of the Personal Computer (PC). He holds three of IBM’s original nine PC patents and currently holds more than 20 total patents. The famous African-American inventor never thought the work he was doing would end up being so useful to the world, but he has helped IBM make instrumental changes in areas ranging from the research and application of systems technology circuits to operating environments. One of his most recent computer inventions occurred while leading the team that produced the 1-Gigahertz chip, which contains one million transistors and has nearly limitless potential.


Black History Month: Dr. Philip Emeagwali


Dr. Philip Emeagwali, who has been called the “Bill Gates of Africa,” was born in Nigeria in 1954. Like many African schoolchildren, he dropped out of school at age 14 because his father could not continue paying Emeagwali’s school fees. However, his father continued teaching him at home, and everyday Emeagwali performed mental exercises such as solving 100 math problems in one hour. His father taught him until Philip “knew more than he did.”

Growing up in a country torn by civil war, Emeagwali lived in a building crumbled by rocket shells. He believed his intellect was a way out of the line of fire. So he studied hard and eventually received a scholarship to Oregon State University when he was 17 where he obtained a BS in mathematics. He also earned three other degrees – a Ph.D. in Scientific computing from the University of Michigan and two Masters degrees from George Washington University.

The noted black inventor received acclaim based, at least in part, on his study of nature, specifically bees. Emeagwali saw an inherent efficiency in the way bees construct and work with honeycomb and determined computers that emulate this process could be the most efficient and powerful. In 1989, emulating the bees’ honeycomb construction, Emeagwali used 65,000 processors to invent the world’s fastest computer, which performs computations at 3.1 billion calculations per second.

Dr. Philip Emeagwali’s resume is loaded with many other such feats, including ways of making oil fields more productive – which has resulted in the United States saving hundreds of millions of dollars each year. As one of the most famous African-American inventors of the 20th century, Dr. Emeagwali also has won the Gordon Bell Prize – the Nobel Prize for computation. His computers are currently being used to forecast the weather and to predict the likelihood and effects of future global warming.