Black History Month – Notable African Americans in STEM HistoryIvy Gutierrez
Harry S. Truman, the 33rd President of the United States, said once “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” Since February is Black History Month, we wanted to remember some notable black people in STEM. So, let’s dive into what may or may not be new. 😉
Thomas Jennings (1771 – 1856)
Most historians agree that Jennings was the first African-American man to be awarded a U.S. patent. In 1821, he received a patent for inventing a way to clean clothes using a dry-scouring process. Today, we refer to this as “dry cleaning”.
The first African American woman to receive a U.S. patent was Judy Reed, who was granted a patent in 1884 for a dough kneader and roller. It is unknown if she was able to read, write, or even sign her name, as her patent is signed with an “X”.
Granville Woods (1856 – 1910)
Most of us have heard of Thomas Edison, but have you heard of “Black Edison”? Granville Woods, aka Black Edison, was the inventor of 15 different appliances for the electric railways and a holder of over 50 patents at the time of his death.
His most famous creation is the multiplex induction telegraph, which allowed people to communicate by voice over telegraph wires, preventing train accidents. Following this creation, Edison sued Woods in a failed lawsuit, then tried to offer Woods partnership. Woods refused Edison and earned his nickname.
George Carver (1860s – 1943)
George Washington Carver was the most prominent black scientist of the early 20th Century. He was an agricultural scientist and inventor. He actively promoted alternative crops to cotton and methods to prevent soil depletion.
Carver developed techniques to improve soils depleted by repeated plantings of cotton. He wanted poor farmers to grow alternative crops such as peanuts and sweet potatoes as a source of their own food and to improve their quality of life.
Roy Clay (1929)
“The godfather of black Silicon Valley,” Roy L. Clay, was told in 1955 by McDonnell Aircraft there were “no jobs for professional Negroes” despite his math degree from Washington University. A year later, he was its first computer programmer. In the 1960 and 1970s, Clay ran the Hewlett-Packard’s first computer division and supervised all computer-related research and development.
He helped break down barriers for African-Americans in technology. The next generation of black tech innovators has greatly benefited from his commitment to recruitment and talent development.
Gerald Lawson (1941 – 2011)
Gerald A. Lawson was a largely self-taught engineer. He became a pioneer in electronic video entertainment, creating the first home video game system with interchangeable game cartridges. This approach also gave video game makers a way to earn profits by selling individual games, a business model that exists today.
In March 2011, Lawson was honored as an industry pioneer by the International Game Developers Association. Tragically, only a month after receiving the award, Dawson died of complications of diabetes.
Guion Bluford (1942)
Guy Bluford became the first African American man in space on Aug. 30, 1983, aboard the Challenger on NASA’s eight space shuttle mission (STS-8). Guion “Guy” Bluford is a former NASA astronaut who was the first African-American to fly into space. He flew four shuttle missions.
Bluford, one of three African-Americans in that 1978 barrier-breaking class of astronauts, believes he was selected for the history-making mission because of his complement of pilot and engineering experience. “All of us knew that one of us would eventually step into that role…I probably told people that I would probably prefer not being in that role…because I figured being the No. 2 guy would probably be a lot more fun.“
Mae Jemison (1956)
The first black woman in space was Mae Jemison, an engineer, physician, and former NASA astronaut. Jemison joined NASA’s astronaut corps in 1987 and was selected to serve for the STS-47 mission, during which she orbited the Earth for nearly eight days on September 12–20, 1992.
Jemison left NASA in March 1993. She went on to teach at Dartmouth College. She also founded her own company, the Jemison Group, which seeks to encourage a love of science in students and bring advanced technology to schools around the world.