Black History Month: Pioneers in Science and Technology
Throughout February, the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) will be highlighting pioneers in science and technology on social media in honor of Black History Month. “I am thrilled that we are recognizing these trailblazers for their contributions,” says Sharnnia Artis, assistant dean of the ICS Office of Access and Inclusion (OAI). “Black History Month allows us to pause and celebrate Black visionaries and pioneers who are often overlooked in our society.”
We start with the following 10 pioneers, whose lives span 1918 to present day. The first was born less than 60 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, and all but two were born during the Jim Crow era. Against this backdrop of legal discrimination, these pioneers led significant advances in the fields of science and technology, all while breaking barriers and challenging stereotypes. A younger generation of leaders is now following suit, achieving ground-breaking success and further expanding access to opportunities for underrepresented communities.
Born in West Virginia in 1918, Katherine Johnson excelled in math as a child and started high school at age 13. In 1939, she was one of three Black students to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools, and in 1953, she was hired by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor to NASA. She worked there for 35 years as an aerospace technologist, performing calculations for U.S. spaceflights, including for Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and for John Glenn’s orbit around Earth. In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom award. She passed away in 2020 at age 101.
Evelyn Boyd Granville
“I always smile when I hear that women cannot excel in mathematics,” says Evelyn Boyd Granville. Born in 1924, Granville became the second Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics when she graduated from Yale University 1949 (the first was Euphemia Lofton Haynes). Granville went on to become a computer scientist for IBM, working on the Vanguard satellite project and Mercury spacecraft program. She also worked at U.S. Space Technologies Laboratories before becoming a professor of mathematics. In 2019, she was recognized by Mathematically Gifted & Black (MGB) as a Black History Month Honoree.
Known as “the Godfather of Silicon Valley,” tech pioneer Roy Clay was born in Missouri in 1929 and was one of the first African Americans to graduate from St. Louis University. While working at Hewlett Packard, he helped develop the first HP minicomputer. He also expanded recruitment, hiring five Black engineers into the computer division. As the first African-American to serve on the Palo Alto City Council, he worked to give others the same opportunities he had. He later founded Rod-L Electronics, which tests for safety in electrical equipment. He was inducted into the Silicon Valley Engineering Council’s Hall of Fame in 2003.
Born in 1930, Gladys West grew up on a farm. Thanks to a scholarship, she attended Virginia State College, where she eventually earned a master’s degree in mathematics. When she started working at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, she was only the second Black woman to be hired to work as a programmer at the base. Her work to invent an accurate model of the Earth laid the groundwork for the creation of the Global Positioning System (GPS). She was inducted into the U.S. Air Force Hall of Fame in 2018.
Annie J. Easley
Annie J. Easley was born in 1933 in Birmingham, Alabama and was raised by a single mom. Like Katherine Johnson, she worked at NACA and NASA. She was a computer scientist, mathematician, and rocket scientist, and her 34-year career included developing and implementing computer code that analyzed alternative power technologies. She also served as an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) counselor, helping address discrimination complaints at NASA. She passed away in 2011, but you can read a 2001 interview conducted with her as part of the NASA Headquarters Oral History Project.
The inventor of interchangeable gaming cartridges, Jerry Lawson, was born in Queens, New York in 1940. His interest in engineering led him to repair TVs as a teen, and after attending college, he worked at several tech companies before joining Fairchild Semiconductor. There, he created the first video game console with interchangeable cartridges, paving the way for the future of gaming. He later founded his own video game company, VideoSoft. Just before he passed away in 2011, he was honored as an industry pioneer by the International Game Developers Association.
Born in 1956 in Chicago, Marc Hannah earned a scholarship from Bell Laboratories to attend the Illinois Institute of Technology. He later earned his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford University. In 1982, he and several other computer scientists founded the computer graphics firm Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI), which created special effects for films such as Jurassic Park and Terminator 2. Hannah has also worked for a number of other high-tech businesses, including SongPro, which created an MP3 player for the Game Boy Advance in 2002. He received a Kilby International Young Innovator Award in 1995.
“While tech giants such as Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs become iconic and revered for their technological achievements, black and brown founders often struggle for both recognition and advancement in the booming technological ecosphere,” wrote Kimberly Bryant in a 2011 blog post. “This lack of visibility has a very direct impact on youth from underrepresented communities.” That same year, Bryant launched Black Girls Code to increase the number of women of color in the digital space. With its “Imagine, Build, Create” motto, BGC is empowering girls of color ages 7 to 17 to be STEM leaders.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering, Aicha Evans eventually ended up at Intel as senior vice president and chief strategy officer. In 2019, she joined Zoox, becoming the first African American female CEO of an autonomous vehicle technology company. That same year, she made Business Insider’s list of 100 People Transforming Business in the transportation category (see a related article), and in 2020, she led the acquisition of Zoox by Amazon for $1.3 billion. She is also an emeritus board of trustees member for AnitaB.org, an organization that supports women in technical fields.
After earning an M.B.A. from Stanford and spending more than a decade working at various companies, Tristan Walker co-founded Code2040. The nonprofit organization aims to dismantle structural barriers that prevent Black and Latinx people from becoming tech industry leaders. Walker is also the founder and CEO of Walker & Co., a startup focused on health and beauty products for people of color. When Procter & Gamble acquired the company in 2018, Walker became the first Black CEO in Procter & Gamble’s 180-year history. He has stressed, “there is no shortage of research out there to suggest that more diverse teams lead to higher profits.”
Be sure to check out ICS social media to learn about more Black visionaries and pioneers throughout the month of February.
— Shani Murray