7 Black Tech Pioneers Who Shaped the Future

2021 marks the 51st anniversary of Black History Month, an annual celebration created by the Black United Students at Kent State University in 1969.  From then, the month has gone on to be officially recognised by the United States and Canadian governments but also observed by the United Kingdom and Ireland.

The month aims to celebrate and recognise contributions and events from the African diaspora throughout all of history. We’d like to take this time to bring to light some of the technological innovations that would have been impossible without the contributions of Black people.

Here are 7 amazing tech pioneers to celebrate:

Mary W. Jackson

Mary Jackson is perhaps best known because of the film (and book by the same name) ‘Hidden Figures’, which aimed to introduce the lives of NASA’s forgotten ‘human computers’: herself, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan, all of whom were instrumental to the success of NASA.

Jackson graduated her high school with the highest honours, then went on to graduated from Hampton University with a bachelor’s in Maths and Physical Science. She didn’t immediately jump into the space programme after university. In fact, it took her four career changes to get to where she was going: mathematics teacher to bookkeeper, receptionist to stay-at-home mum, army clerk to – finally – one of NASA’s ‘human computers’, women who calculated the maths and science necessary for aircraft and space missions.

In 2020 NASA renamed their Washington, D.C. headquarters to the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters. And rightfully so! Jackson was NASA’s first black female engineer, which she was only allowed to be after fighting to take part in the training she needed at the previously all-white University.

Roy Clay Sr. 

If you’ve ever been computer shopping, you’ll definitely have seen a HP computer. You might even have seen the Christian Slater-fronted adverts that have been airing this year. They’ve been a staple in the computer scene since 1965, and it’s all thanks to tech pioneer Roy Clay Sr.

Clay Sr. was awarded a scholarship to study mathematics at Saint Louis University and was one of the first African American students to graduate. Prior to graduating, Clay Sr. worked as a gardener in Ferguson, Missouri, where the local police strongly encouraged him to leave the mostly white town. Afterwards, his mother told him, ‘You will face racism for the rest of your life, but don’t ever let that be the reason you don’t succeed.’

When Clay Sr. joined HP, he worked hard to convince them to let him launch the computer division – a decision they would ask his help in reversing almost twenty years later, with the director saying, ‘you helped us get into this sector, you can damn well help us get out of it.’

Dr. Gladys West

From a young age, West knew she wanted to make more of her life than the hand she was dealt. Her family belonged to a community of sharecroppers and, while she spent a large part of her childhood working alongside them, she made an early decision that education was her way out.

After studying hard and taking on a babysitting job to financially support her schooling, West graduated high school as valedictorian, and won one of two full-ride scholarships to Virginia State College. From there, it was only a matter of choosing her major – not an easy feat, considering she had excelled in all her subjects.

Ultimately, West chose the largely male-dominated field of mathematics – a decision that would go on to change the future of mapmakers everywhere. Once she was hired at the Naval Proving Ground in Dahlgren, Virginia (as the second black woman ever hired, no less), she began work on her second master’s degree in public administration.

Her impressive work ethic allowed her to dominate in her field, where she worked on an award-winning astronomical study the regularity of Pluto’s motion in relation to Neptune and became project manager for the first satellite that could remotely sense oceans (a project that’s processing time was cut in half thanks to Dr. West’s consistent overtime).

So, when you’re darting about from A to B, or fondly remembering the time Sat Nav’s would send you long distance swimming to get to your destination, thank Dr. Gladys West, a true tech pioneer.

Dr. Mark Dean

Dr. Dean (along with his co-worker Phillip Don Estridge) created IBM’s first personal computer in 1981, and later went on to help create the colour PC monitor, the first gigahertz chip (which can run billions of calculations a second), and the Industry Standard Architecture system that allowed things like monitors, printers, and disk drives to be plugged directly into a computer.

After graduating top of his class at the University of Tennessee in engineering, it’s no surprise that Dean’s career was filled with innovation. He went on to hold 17 more patents, gain his Ph.D. from Stanford University, and was named the first African American IBM Fellow in 1995.

Despite being one of the pioneers of the personal computer, Dean claims to only use a tablet now.

“A lot of kids growing up today aren't told that you can be whatever you want to be. There may be obstacles, but there are no limits.”

Dr. Marsha Rhea Williams

Mostly known for being the first black woman to achieve a Ph.D., Dr. Williams has gone on to be a very successful academic and educator. She was among the first African Americans to have a position in Engineering or Computer Science at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, and later became fully tenured at Tennessee State as a professor in Computer Science.

Dr. Williams didn’t stop at her own academic successes, but instead worked in communities of colour to speak, mentor, and increase participation in STEM fields. She has been a vocal advocate for increasing education in smaller communities, founding the Association for Excellence in Computer Science, Math, and Physics, and advising the National Society of Black Engineers.

Dr. Clarence 'Skip' Ellis

 At the age of 15 years old, Dr. Clarence Ellis, called Skip by his friends, applied for the graveyard shift at the manufacturing firm Dover to help earn money for his family. His role was essentially a glorified security guard, with Ellis only being allowed to walk around at night to prevent break-ins. He wasn’t allowed to touch the computer, but during his free time read the dozens of computer manuals back to front and back again.

This forward thinking would prove handy when, two months after he started the job, the company was caught in an emergency. Being the only one who knew how to solve the problem, Ellis opened the computer and found the solution. From then on, he was called upon by the company when any tech issues arrived, and was allowed to operate and program the computer, a role which ignited his passion for computing.

From there, it was a straight line up. He attended summer school programmes, worked hard, and was awarded a scholarship by the church he and his family went to. The college he attended was gifted an IBM 1620, which he helped set up as the start of Beloit College’s computer lab.

Beyond being known as the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in Computer Science, and the first African American to be elected as a Fellow of the ACM, Dr. Ellis pioneered Operational Transformation – a set of techniques that enables real-time collaborative editing of documents. So, if you’re still stuck at home, thank Dr. Ellis for not having to send a million different versions of the same spreadsheet.

Dr. Frank S. Greene Jr. 

To wrap up, who better to talk about than Dr. Frank S. Greene Jr., one of the first black technologists. A true business renaissance man, Greene Jr. was a venture capitalist, high-tech business executive, teacher, researcher, and trailblazer of technology.

Growing up in the segregated U.S., Greene spent a large part of his youth taking part in sit-ins. Once, after finding a pizza joint where the owners were willing to serve them, Greene and his friends found themselves without money. "The problem was that between us we didn't have enough money for one order, so from that day, I've always said, 'You have to be prepared for opportunity when it arrives. ... You've got to be prepared for success.' We weren't expecting to succeed, so we didn't take any money,” he said on the incident.

There’s no doubt that this experience helped to give him the drive that would take him to the start of two software companies and a New Vista Capital venture firm that focused on minority-and-female led firms.  If that weren’t impressive enough, Greene also became the first African American to compete the four-year US Air Force ROTC program (and later became an Air Force Captain). In the 1960’s, he also developed a high-speed semiconductor computer-memory system at Fairchild Semiconductor R&D labs.

His life has been rife with success and hardships, and before his death Dr. Greene made sure to leave a legacy of wisdom and altruism, saying, “success in life is not about ‘me’ but about what you can do to help others.”

Looking to the Future

Black History Month doesn't just stop at the end of October, so we encourage you to look for ways to continue educating yourself and helping Black communities as you go forward. We've compiled a small (and not comprehensive) list of charities to support.

Generating Genius

Generating Genius has been working for 15 years to ensure that talented and able students from disadvantaged backgrounds are positioned to excel in STEM careers. For us to accomplish this goal, we must ensure students can gain a place to study at top universities and attain good jobs in top businesses.

BBStem

We aim to encourage, enable, and energise individuals in business, industry, and education to widen participation and contribution of Black individuals in STEM. Our professional network of BBSTEM members aims to inspire the young Black British generation to pursue STEM subjects in university and beyond. Our principal mission is to have Black parity in the UK’s STEM workforce, from school to the highest level in industry.

Reach Society

Reach Society was conceived by Donald Palmer, Rob Neil OBE and Dwain Neil OBE who discussed their concerns about the government’s decision to end the grant funding of the national REACH role model programme after three years. Each of them had been involved with the programme and saw its positive impact on Black boys and young Black men; and so they knew that something needed to be done to maintain this work that was transforming young lives.

Once they had conceived a model for Reach Society they lead a series of conversations with serving role models in order to identify other professional Black men who felt the same way; to test whether they would choose to continue to help boys and young men from their cultural backgrounds; and test whether they could work with the Reach Society model. In this way a movement of Black professional men choosing to help boys and young men was initiated.

The Amos Bursary 

We bring together universities and businesses looking to diversify their student intake and workforce, with a pool of exceptional talent.We are transforming lives and changing the negative narrative and perceptions surrounding young black men and women. We are normalising success.

Voyage Youth

VOYAGE is a social justice charity that aims to EMPOWER marginalised black young people and provide them with the self-awareness and motivation to TRANSFORM themselves and their communities. The mission of  VOYAGE is to encourage and assist young people bridge the gap between their schools, communities and criminal justice system whilst supporting young people to SUSTAIN successful partnerships and meaningful relationships.

100 Black Men of London

The media is filled with numerous examples of the negative narrative of young people in London. We at the 100 Black Men of London, seek to change that narrative, determined to create positive examples through positive actions and experiences. Our young people are achieving wonderful things and all possess the potential for greatness, they have seen a better way through our intervention and turned their lives around; we are so proud of them as an organisation that we continuously celebrate them and ensure their accomplishments are recognised.