28 Of The Most Influential Black Innovators In Tech and Science
In the United States, February is Black History Month. It is an opportunity to remember the contributions and triumphs and the struggles as well as sacrifices made by generations of African Americans.
From the creator of the GIF to the Hidden Figures at NASA, the contributions of Black innovators can be seen everywhere. To celebrate Black History Month at LEARN academy, we’ve compiled a list of some of the most influential Black innovators throughout the history of science and tech and honoring their achievements and legacies.
We hope this provides you with an opportunity to learn, reflect, and appreciate all the contributions of these individuals.
Here are the 28 Most Influential Black Innovators In Tech and Science:
- Dorothy Vaughn
- Mae Jemison
- Roy Clay Sr.
- Marques Brownlee
- Valerie Thomas
- Mary Jackson
- Omowunmi “Wunmi” A. Sadik
- Marie Van Brittan Brown
- Kimberly Bryant
- Dr. Mark Dean
- Jerry Lawson
- Saron Yitbarek
- Dr. Gladys West
- Lonnie G. Johnson
- Jasmine Crowe
- John Henry Thompson
- Walter Braithwaite
- Clarence “Skip” Ellis
- Regina Gwynn
- Fey Ijaware
- Joy Buolamwini
- Christine Darden
- Lucean Arthur Headen
- Stacy Brown-Philpot
- Lisa Gelobter
- Katherine Johnson
- Jessica O. Matthews
1. Dorothy Vaughn
For those who have had the chance to read the book or watch the film Hidden Figures, you may already be acquainted with Dorothy Vaughan’s story. Played by one of our favorite actors of all time (Octavia Spencer), she transformed the way staff learned computer programming language to support the incoming machine computers.
She was one of the original ‘Human Computers’ who worked at NASA and assisted Neil Armstrong to land on the moon in the 1960s. However, she is best known for her commitment to teaching herself and her fellow staff the programming language Fortran to prepare for some of the original machine computers.
2. Mae Jemison
Mae Jemison has always reached for the stars as a doctor, engineer, and NASA astronaut. In 1992, Jemison became the first African American woman to travel in space. She has also written several books and appeared on many television programs, including Star Trek: The Next Generation. In addition to her many awards, Jemison has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the International Space Hall of Fame.
As a child, Jemison was inspired by African American actress Nichelle Nichols who played Lieutenant Uhura on the Star Trek television show. At 16, she choreographed a performing arts production called Out of the Shadows about the African American experience. After college, she attended Medical School at Cornell. Fluent in Russian, Japanese, and Swahili, Jemison joined the Peace Corps in 1983 and served as a medical officer in Liberia and Sierra Leone for two years.
Her focus returned to space when Sally Ride became the first woman in space, and Jemison decided to apply to the astronaut program at NASA. She was one of 15 people chosen from over 2,000 applications. Finally, on September 12, 1992, Jemison and six other astronauts went into space on the space shuttle Endeavor. For six years, she was a NASA astronaut and left to start a consulting group that encourages science, technology, and social change.
Currently, Jemison lives in Houston, Texas, and leads the 100 Year Starship project through the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). This project works to make sure human space travel to another star is possible within the next 100 years.
3. Roy Clay Sr.
Roy Clay Sr. is known as the “Godfather of Silicon Valley” and had a very successful computer programmer and scientist career. Like Dorothy Vaughan, he began coding using Fortran during the civil rights era. After his work became more widely known, Hewlett Packard (HP) recruited him to run their computer development business and helped bring the original HP computer (the 2116A) to market in 1966.
In the 1970s, Clay started his own company, Rod-L Electronics, which some identified as Silicon Valley’s first technology start-up, sparking the craze! He also got involved in local politics and became the first African-American to join the city council in Palo Alto and later was elected Vice Mayor in 1976. Clay still lives in Palo Alto at age 92 and remains active in the Silicon Valley scene!
4. Marques Brownlee
Marques Brownlee is a native of Maplewood, N.J. He came by his interest in technology through his father, who works in information technology and programming. But Brownlee took a different path in high school when he joined YouTube at 15 to focus on consumer electronics reviews. He posted his first YouTube videos while in high school, breaking down the inner workings of an HP Pavilion laptop he purchased with his saved allowance. He maintained his channel while earning a degree in Business and Technology at Stevens Institute of Technology. His channel took off after he graduated, and he’s since made YouTube videos on smartphones, headphones, camcorders, smartwatches, tablets, speakers, Nike’s self-lacing boots, and Tesla’s Cybertruck.
Brownlee’s station, now known as MKBHD, is considered the third-most-popular technology channel on YouTube, where he reviews gadgets and offers commentary on the tech industry. His channel has over 13 million subscribers. More recently, he’s scored sit-down interviews with luminaries such as Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg.
5. Valerie Thomas
Do you like seeing images from the vastness of space? If so, it’s Valerie Thomas you have to thank for it. From 1964 to 1995, Thomas worked for NASA to develop computer data systems, conduct large-scale experiments, and manage various operations, projects, and facilities.
Valerie L. Thomas was born in February of 1943 in Maryland. She was fascinated with technology as a very young child. Around the age of eight, her curiosity about how things worked inspired her to borrow a book called “The Boy’s First Book On Electronics.”
Thomas attended an all-girls high school, and at the time, scientific subjects were not considered essential or suitable for women. No one encouraged Thomas to take the advanced math classes offered at her school, and she continued to view her technological aptitude as more of a quest than anything else.
This changed in college when Thomas enrolled at Morgan State University as one of only two women in her class to major in physics. She was an excellent student, and soon she had acquired the knowledge of mathematics that led her to a position as a mathematical/data analyst for NASA.
While managing a project for NASA’s image processing systems, Thomas’ team spearheaded the development of the first satellite to send images from space. NASA uses the technology developed by Thomas to this day.
6. Mary Jackson
Mary Jackson was the first African American female engineer to work at NASA. She graduated from the Hampton Institute in Virginia in 1942 with dual degrees in mathematics and physical science. In 1951, she took a job as a computer at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory of NACA, the NASA precursor. At that time, a computer was a person who manually performed complex mathematical calculations for the program’s engineers. Mary Jackson worked with African American women in the West Area Computing as segregation practices required Black employees to work in separate areas and use separate bathrooms and dining facilities.
In 1953, Mary Jackson worked for an engineer conducting high-speed wind tunnel experiments. The engineer saw Mary Jackson’s talent and suggested she begin an engineer training program that would allow her to be promoted from a mathematician to engineer. She completed the program in 1958, the same year NACA became NASA.
Mary Jackson spent the rest of her career working to improve opportunities for women at NASA. In June 2020, NASA announced the agency’s headquarters building in Washington, DC, renamed the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters.
7. Omowunmi “Wunmi” A. Sadik
Omowunmi “Wunmi” A. Sadik Ph.D. (Distinguished Professor & Chair, Department of Chemistry and Environmental Science, New Jersey Institute of Technology) developed microelectrode biosensors for the detection of drugs and explosives. These biosensors have been used to detect the levels of COVID-19 in wastewater which allows localities to monitor, among other things, the rate of infection. The essence of her work in environmental chemistry is to present research findings to public officials so that public health policy can be made to protect human health and the environment.
She co-founded the Sustainable Nanotechnology Organization to support the development of sustainable nanotechnology to improve society and promote the advancement and application of scientific research related to nanotechnology.
8. Marie Van Brittan Brown
In the 1960s, Marie Van Brittan Brown created the first home security system. Brown created this invention to protect her home in Queens, New York, after coming home late nights after working as a nurse. Her vision consisted of peepholes, a camera, monitors, an alarm button, and a two-way microphone. Marie’s home security system was given a patent in 1969, and it continues to influence modern-day surveillance systems.
9. Kimberly Bryant
An electrical engineer whose career has touched everything from electrical companies to biotechnology, Bryant is working hard to increase the number of women of color in STEM fields with her company Black Girls Code.The program teaches computer programming to school-age girls in after-school and summer programs to teach one million black girls to code by 2040.
10. Dr. Mark Dean
Dr. Mark Dean joined IBM in 1980 and soon became part of the team that developed the revolutionary IBM PC 5150, released in 1981. As part of that process, he co-created the PC’s ISA bus, and he is named on three of the nine original patents that define foundational IBM PC technology. For his numerous achievements at IBM, the firm named Dean an IBM Fellow in 1995, one of only 50 actives and the first African-American honored. In 1999, Dean led a group at IBM to create a 1GHz CPU.
11. Jerry Lawson
Self-taught engineer Jerry Lawson helped change the gaming industry forever. In the mid-’70s, as the head of engineering and marketing for Fairchild Semiconductor’s gaming outfit, Lawson created the first home gaming console with interchangeable cartridges. While Lawson’s gaming system was not as popular as gaming systems that followed it (like Nintendo and Sega), his design changed gaming from single games saved on the hardware to multiple games that could be swapped out.
12. Saron Yitbarek
Saron Yitbarek is a developer and the founder of CodeNewbie. CodeNewbie is a supportive community of programmers and people learning to code. Like many of us in the LEARN community, Saron learned to code by joining a Ruby on Rails bootcamp. (Yay, career transitioners!)
While working as a developer, she began a Twitter chat to connect new devs to share lessons learned, swap resources, and support each other through the challenging process of learning to code. The popularity of the chat grew into a podcast where Saron interviews people of all skill levels, from beginners to tech leaders, discussing their journey. In addition, Saron uses her platform to promote inclusion in technology and support newbies everywhere!
13. Dr. Gladys West
We can all thank Dr. Gladys West for quickly accessing driving directions and sharing a location on Instagram. In addition, we can thank her for changing the landscape of mapping technology and how we function daily because she invented the Global Positioning System (aka GPS). In her published paper titled “Data Processing System Specifications for the Geosat Satellite Radar Altimeter” (1986), she documented the calculations for making position identification with high accuracy using data collected from satellites.
Dr. Gladys West is a true example of a life-long learner. In her late 80s, despite having suffered a stroke that compromised her vision, hearing, and mobility, she went on to earn her Ph.D. in 2018! Only recently has news of her crucial work in GPS technology come to light (decades after its popular applications) due to a sorority sister discovering Gladys’ achievements through a short bio written for senior members in Alpha-Kappa-Alpha. As a result, she was inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame in 2018.
14. Lonnie G. Johnson
Lonnie George Johnson is an African-American inventor, aerospace engineer, and entrepreneur who made enormous contributions to the Air Force and NASA. However, one of his most known contributions is to children’s toys. He invented two toys near and dear to my childhood, most likely yours – the Super Soaker and Nerf Gun.
During his time at NASA and the Air Force, Lonnie worked on multiple projects, including developing the nuclear power source for the Galileo mission to Jupiter, an engineer on the Mariner Mark ll Spacecraft series for the Comet Rendezvous and Saturn Orbiter Probe missions, as well as the stealth bomber program.
15. Jasmine Crowe
A social entrepreneur, Crowe has been lauded widely for leveraging her company to channel her passion for ending hunger and obliterating the practice of wasting food. Goodr is a real-time mobile app that connects firms with local charities to arrange deliveries of leftovers to those in need. Every day, Crowe and her team deliver meals across metropolitan Atlanta. Soon, the company plans to expand to other cities. After that, the goal is for Goodr to go global. Crowe’s tireless work has won her several awards, accolades, and copious media coverage.
16. John Henry Thompson
John Henry Michael “JT” Thompson was born June 15th, 1959. His most significant contribution to tech was the invention of the Macromedia Director Lingo scripting language. Lingo is the primary programming language inside Adobe Shockwave, which was used to develop desktop application software, interactive kiosks, CD-ROMs, and Adobe Shockwave content.
He is also a former professor in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts. In addition, he has helped inspire a generation of multimedia artists, as well as helping to promote computer science education in Jamaica.
17. Walter Braithwaite
Before the 1970s, commercial airlines were still using hand-drafted documents to develop aircraft, which was expensive, labor-intensive, and error-prone. Enter Walter Braithwaite, who joined Boeing’s Fabrication Division as an associate tool engineer. After nearly a decade, he became the senior engineer responsible for developing Boeing’s computer-aided technology in designing commercial airplanes.
His quiet leadership and migration to use CAD technology were deployed to develop the 707, 727, 737, 747, 757 programs and eventually “Triple Seven” 777, the first commercial aircraft to be entirely digitally designed. In 1991, he became vice president of information systems and architecture at Boeing and held various high-ranking executive roles. After 36 years with Boeing, he retired in 2003.
18. Evelyn Boyd Granville
Becoming the second African-American woman to ever receive a Ph.D. in mathematics from an American University is a prestigious achievement, but this was not the only accomplishment in the exemplary life of Evelyn Boyd Granville.
Born May 1, 1954, Evelyn earned her degree in mathematics from Yale University 1949. From 1956 to 1960, she went to work at IBM, where she worked on Project Vanguard and Project Mercury space programs. During this tenure, she worked on analyzing orbits and developing computer procedures. Evelyn then went on to work on the Apollo program, where she worked on celestial mechanics, trajectory computation, and pioneering work in “digital computer techniques.”
19. Clarence “Skip” Ellis
In 1969, Clarence “Skip” Ellis became the first African-American to earn a P.h.D. in computer science from the University of Illinois.
Clarence also lived a well-accomplished life in the tech industry and is considered a pioneer in operational transformation, which is found in multiple applications that we use today, including Google Docs. However, he is most well known for his pioneering work in groupware and computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW) systems.
Following his tech career, Clarence held teaching positions at Stanford, University of Texas, MIT, the Stevens Institute of Technology, and CU Boulder. He regularly taught the intro CS course and advanced courses on groupware.
20. Regina Gwynn
Regina Gwynn is the co-founder and CEO of TresseNoire and the co-founder of Black Women Talk Tech.
TresseNoire was launched in 2014 and was Regina’s first tech start-up. It is a platform created to celebrate the natural beauty of black women. TresseNoire is a virtual beauty assistant that helps teach women of color which natural hair products are best for their hair profile and connect them with professional stylists.
She is also the co-founder of Black Women Talk Tech, an organization used to identify, support, and encourage black women to build the next billion-dollar business.
21. Fey Ijaware
From across the pond in the UK, we have a huge culture of amazing black people in tech. Fey Ijaware is just one of the countless black women who lead, create, guide, and inspire there. Fey is a Software Developer who specializes in Web and Android Development. She founded Code Possible, a software development learning resources platform for developers, and CodeandStuff, a coding, and networking community for women and non-binary developers in Manchester. She also helps organize FreeCodeCamp Manchester and Codebar Manchester, both incredible free resources that promote diversity in the tech space.
Fey now is a Senior Front-End Developer at the Department of Work & Pensions (DWP) Digital, using her skills to help make a positive difference to the lives of millions of people that use the digital public service. Fey was also recognized in the Northern Power Women Future List 2019 and as one of Tech Nation’s 50 Most Inspiring, Prominent, and Influential Black Voices in Tech 2019.
22. Joy Buolamwini
Joy Buolamwini, a computer scientist and poet of code, has brought awareness to the social implications of artificial intelligence. While working with facial analysis software at MIT, she uncovered an alarming problem with algorithmic biases. After this, Joy founded the Algorithmic Justice League to raise public awareness and fight the coded gaze – harmful bias in artificial intelligence. Joy has pioneered techniques that are now leading to increased transparency in using facial analysis technology globally.
Joy’s featured TED Talk on algorithmic bias reaching over 1.4 million viewers discusses the need for accountability in machine learning. In 2020, Joy’s journey was depicted in the documentary “Coded Bias” and was the first Black researcher to appear on the cover of Fast Company’s “Most Creative People” issue.
23. Christine Darden
Christine Darden is well known as one of the “human computers” working at the precursor to NASA, as featured in the book Hidden Figures. Christine was an exceptional student graduating valedictorian from high school in 1958. She went on to earn a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Hampton Institute, a historically Black college in Virginia. She taught mathematics at Virginia State University while pursuing a Master’s degree.
In 1967, Christine worked in the segregated “West Area Computers” pool, solving computations for engineers at Langley Research Center. She was eventually promoted, becoming one of the few female aerospace engineers. She later became the first Black woman at Langley to be promoted into the Senior Executive Service, the highest position at Langley Research Center. Her research made her known as one of NASA’s preeminent experts on supersonic flight, and she was named head of Langley’s Sonic Boom Team, working to lessen the effects of sonic booms during supersonic flight. In 1983, she earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering. She retired from NASA in 2007.
24. Lucean Arthur Headen
Polymath, Pilot, Racer, Inventor, and Engineer: Lucean Headen was one of the first black aviators and an inventor of aeronautical patents still cited for modern airplane equipment today. Born in Carthage, North Carolina, in 1879, Lucean hailed from a line of tradespeople. By his mid 30’s he had already become a pilot and inventor. He had spent multiple years flying in air shows as a barnstormer (a form of entertainment in which stunt pilots performed tricks—either individually or in groups called flying circuses).
Although he eventually settled down with his wife and found safer work means, he never stopped inventing. Lucean was known for two notable inventions. The first was a mirror system designed to hide navy ships from german U-boat submarines. This contract was almost developed by the Royal British Navy, except that the war ended before it was implemented. The second is a contemporary car to the model T Ford that made double the Headen Pace Setter horsepower. At 52 years old, he immigrated to England and started an engineering firm. He lived in a township called Frimley Green until he passed away in 1957.
25. Stacy Brown-Philpot
Stacy Brown-Philpot has more than 15 years of consumer technology experience, leading the growth and scale of large and small enterprises in the digital economy. She is the former CEO of TaskRabbit, the leading task management network connecting skilled Taskers with clients to handle everyday services in the home. TaskRabbit was named one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies in 2017. In 2017, Stacy led the successful acquisition of TaskRabbit by the IKEA Group. TaskRabbit continues to operate independently but with the added benefit of growing exponentially through the purchase.
Before joining TaskRabbit, Stacy served as Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Google Ventures, lending strategic expertise to the firm’s portfolio companies. Before that, she spent nearly a decade leading global operations for Google’s flagship products, including Search, Chrome, and Google+, and serving as Head of Online Sales and Operations for Google India. She also brings a background in finance from her experience at PricewaterhouseCoopers and Goldman Sachs.
Ranked by Business Insider as one of the 46 Most Important Blacks in Technology, Stacy frequently speaks on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Notably, she founded the Black Googler Network, a seminal component of diversity initiatives at Google and the larger technology industry.
26. Lisa Gelobter
If you ever enjoyed an animated GIF on the web, then you have Lisa Gelobter to thank!
Lisa Gelobter is a computer scientist, entrepreneur, and technology executive. Gelobter worked on several pioneering internet technologies, and she is credited with developing the animation used to create GIFs. In addition, she served as the Chief Digital Service Officer for the U.S. Department of Education during the administration of President Barack Obama.
She is the CEO and Founder of Tequitable. She has been integrally involved with the advent of several pioneering internet technologies, including Shockwave, the genesis of animation on the web, and the emergence of online video by Brightcove, Joost, and The FeedRoom.
27. Katherine Johnson
“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” This quote that Neil Armstrong spoke while strolling about the moon’s surface marked a successful mission due to the dedication of a Western Computer. Unlike the electronic devices that we click and clack on throughout the day, this Computer was a woman of African descent named Katherine Johnson. Katherine’s calculations were so trustworthy that John Glenn (the first man to orbit Earth) requested her verification that an electronic computer had planned his flight correctly. The success of these famous missions were just a few of the many accomplishments of Mrs. Katherine Johnson.
Katherine’s mathematical intelligence and zeal for science had been recognized since her youth. In 1928, she started high school at the age of 10. She was an 18 year old with Bachelor’s degrees in Mathematics and French. Of course, she graduated with honors! She was amongst the first three African American students in a graduate program at West Virginia University in 1939. What a fantastic journey that led to her working at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA)’s West Area Computing Unit, which became desegregated with its name change to National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958.
As a NASA employee, Mrs. Johnson was afforded many unsung accolades: authoring 26 research reports for the Space Task Group; calculating the flight path for Freedom 7, Friendship 7, and Apollo 11 missions; and many contributions to the space shuttle program. Unfortunately, this brilliant mind had to face mindsets tainted with biased social customs. “I didn’t allow their side-eyes and annoyed looks to intimidate or stop me. I also would persist even if I thought I was being ignored. I just ignored the social customs that told me to stay in my place.” As Katherine’s words portray on this screen, her boldness led her to become a great asset to NASA up to her retirement in 1986. Fortunately, she was alive to receive her rightful recognition after publishing “Hidden Figures” in 2015. She would also reach another milestone: living up to 101 years old!
28. Jessica O. Matthews
The list of impressive accomplishments this innovator holds under her belt is not only forward-thinking but uplifting as well! Jessica’s career started at the age of 19 with her invention of the SOCCKET, an energy-generating soccer ball that produces kinetic energy during play that can be used to power several devices– an invention that she anticipated in countries like Nigeria would benefit from during sporadic blackouts. Her research and career focus on the intersection of disruptive technology, renewable energy, human behavior, and the psychology of self-actualization. Jessica is a dual citizen of Nigeria & the US– she has a degree in Psychology and Economics from Harvard University an MBA from Harvard Business School. She is listed on over 12 patents and patents pending. Her success in entrepreneurship led to a White House invitation from President Barack Obama to represent small businesses to sign the America Invents Act in 2012. Today, she inspires as a member of the advisory board of several community projects in NYC.