The biggest names in the computing era have been the owners and visionaries, such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. There are many that are overlooked, despite defining the capabilities of computing, and creating the possibility for the future we are now in. Included amongst these overlooked names are some of the greatest minds America has seen, and all featured below had to navigate through early racism and unnecessary scrutiny in order to prove they were up to the task. Moser would like to recognize the following inventors and computer scientists for their significant contributions made to the tech industry, as well as civil rights.
Katherine Johnsons career and notoriety started when she was selected to be one of 3 black students to integrate into West Virginia’s graduate schools. Born in Sulfur Springs, West Virginia, Katherine was quickly identified to be very adept at math, beginning High School courses at the age of 13. Graduating at 18, she enrolled at West Virginia State College. She was soon selected to integrate West Virginia University for the first time on the main campus. After leaving the University to pursue the beginning of a family, she returned to teaching, before hearing of an opportunity at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ Langley laboratory. A historically all black team, she began studying flight patterns and publishing research on the mathematics behind flight. After the launch of the Sputnik satellite, her math was featured in a 1958 document titled, Notes on Space Technology. After recognition of her work, she was given a higher position, and stayed on board when the NACA soon became NASA. Beginning with trajectory analysis on the 1961 Freedom 7 mission, best known for the first human spaceflight, Katherine was determined to be a vital part of NASA’s team. Later working on the orbital mission of John Glenn, she computed difficult space orbital equations that would be necessary for the flight guiding system, with the astronauts being quoted saying “If she says they’re good - then I’m ready to go.” Retiring in 1986, Katherine’s influence and mathematics are still respected today, earning her a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2015, before she passed away in February of 2020.
Evelyn Boyd Granville
Born in Washington D.C., Evelyn was raised by her mother and Aunt. She graduated valedictorian from a segregated high school, Dunbar High School. She went on the graduate Summa Cum Laude at Smith College in 1945, before earning her graduate degree in mathematics at Yale as one of the first african-american women with a Ph.D in mathematics. After working in academia as a researcher and professor, Evelyn worked at Diamond Ordnance Fuze Laboratories before starting her most well-known position at IBM. At IBM Evelyn was an influential and successful computer engineer. When IBM received a contract from NASA, Granville worked on the Apollo programs, doing celestial mechanics and trajectory computation using digital computer technologies.
Roy L. Clay, Sr.
Clay was born in Kinloch, Missouri, and faced many hardships due to his race as a child and early in his career. While gardening during his summer holiday in a predominantly white neighborhood, he was encouraged to leave town. Eventually graduating from a segregated High School, Roy went on to study mathematics at Saint Louis University. After struggling to find work due to his race, Clay became a teacher, before teaching himself how to code. In 1958, this self-teaching finally payed off, earning him a job at California’s Lawrence Radiation Laboratory. His work there included a massive project in creating a radiation tracking system to inspect previous nuclear explosions. While working there, Clay met David Packard and applied at Control Data Corporation, which later yielded a job at Hewlett-Packard. He was well known for helping to start and launch the computer development division, and helped create their first computer, the 2116A, released by HP. Being inducted into the Silicon Valley Engineering Council’s Hall of Fame in 2003, he was widely recognized as a pioneer for African Americans in the tech industry. Clay also became the first African-American to join the city council of Palo Altos, California, becoming the Vice Mayor in 1976.
Clarence “Skip” Ellis
Born in Chicago, Illinois in 1943, Clarence fell in love with computers while he was young. Applying for a job as a graveyard shift computer operator for Dover, Clarence was left with free time to study the computer but was not allowed to actually touch it. Proving himself capable after a major failure of the computer system, and a lack of punch cards caused an error, Clarence fixed the system and was subsequently allowed computer use and called upon whenever there were issues with the system. After High School, Clarence attended Beloit, where he was asked to help his professor set up a new computer during his junior year. This began the Beloit Computer Lab, where he became the director. After graduation with degrees in both Mathematics and Physics, Clarence attended MIT. This arrangement didn’t last long due to his civil rights activism, and he later enrolled at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where he was the first African-American man to graduate with a Ph.D in Computer Science. He then began his professional career at Bell Labs, where he worked with probability theory applied to the theory of computing. Later working at MIT as a professor, Clarence was well known for helping to develop ARPANET, which was one of the first networks to use the TCP/IP suite. This project was a huge development, and part of what led to the capabilities seen in the Internet today. Later moving to work with Xerox PARC and Stanford University, Clarence developed icon-based GUI, programming languages, and groupware systems. Clarence also famously collaborated on the ILLIAC IV supercomputer.
Mark was identified at an early age as capable and loving to build, after constructing a tractor from scratch with his father. Born in Jefferson City, Mark attended Jefferson City High School where he graduated with straight A’s. He then decided to pursue an education at the University of Tennessee, where he graduated with a degree in engineering. Soon after college, Mark began at IBM where he garnered many accolades. Dean developed the new Industry Standard Architecture systems bus which allowed for devices such as disk drives, printers, and monitors to be plugged directly into the PC. Deans work also famously led to the development of the first color PC monitor, and the first gigahertz chip, which drastically increased computing power. IBM credited him as an IBM fellow, representing the highest level of technological excellence, and was the first African American to do so.
John Henry Thompson
Spending part of his early childhood in Jamaica, John Henry Thompson’s family moved first to the U.K., then the United States in search of better opportunity. In High School, in New York, John taught himself many programming languages. After High School, John Henry studied at MIT where he graduated with a degree in Computer Science with a minor in visual arts. Utilizing these two disciplines, as chief scientist at Macromedia he created many products, most notably the programming language Lingo. This language renders visuals in computer software and was used in Macromedia Director which could process multiple image file types. Lingo has been used for anything from flash games to MediaMaker and other professional applications.
Kimberly grew up in Memphis, Tennessee and studied Computer Science at Vanderbilt University graduating in 1989. Earning several awards for her efforts, Kimberly has been awarded the Champion of Change for Tech Inclusion by the White House in 2013 and was the recipient of Smithsonian Magazine's American Ingenuity Award for Social Progress in 2014. These awards followed Bryant’s creation of Black Girls Code. Black Girls Code teaches computer programming to school-age girls in after-school and summer programs. She created the program when she realized her daughter had a similar interest in coding, and that there was a gender and race gap that made it hard for her daughter to feel included. The organization has been able to successfully teach over 3,000 African American women learn to code in their 7 locations in multiple cities.
This article was based on research from multiple sources and from an infographic on the New Relic website at https://blog.newrelic.com/culture/black-history-month-computer-science-infographic/
Note from New Relic site: You are welcome to download and share this infographic