Happy Black History Month! To start this month of celebrating achievements by Black Americans, we’d like to take a look at five Black pioneers who made groundbreaking contributions to our favorite field, information technology.
Evelyn Boyd Granville was only the second African American woman to receive a PhD in mathematics from a U.S. university—earning her degree from Yale in 1949. In 1956, she began work as a computer programmer at IBM, where she became part of the team that worked with NASA on the programs that would guide the early space program. Her work on the Apollo program in particular means she helped get us to the moon.
Roy Clay, Sr. is most well-known for helping to start the Computer Science division at Hewlett-Packard (HP) in 1962. After teaching himself to code, he started a job at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, CA, where he met David Packard. At HP, he became the director of the team that developed the HP 2116A, one of HP’s first minicomputers.Not content with success just for himself, he also used his time at HP to create initiatives that would help other Black computer scientists thrive in Silicon Valley. In 1971, spurred by his interest in electrical safety, Clay left HP to found ROD-L Electronics in Mountain View, CA, where he invented the dieletric withstand test or high potential (hipot) safety test. ROD-L Electronics is now just as well known for their contributions to the local community as they are for their technology.
Clarence “Skip” Ellis was the first Black person to earn a PhD in computer science, earning his degree from the University of Illinois in 1969. He joined a team at Xerox, where he developed systems for computer supported cooperative work (CSCW) and groupware—think Google Docs or Microsoft Teams. His team created OfficeTalk, one of the first groupware systems. In addition to laying the foundations for CSCW, Ellis was also part of the team that worked on Alto, the world’s first PC. The strides he and his team made in developing the hardware, interfaces, and programs for a personal computer would eventually help Apple’s team develop their Lisa computer and Microsoft create their MS-DOS software. Our recent move to remote hybrid work might not have been possible without Ellis’s contributions.
John Henry Thompson created the programming language Lingo, which was used in Adobe Director (previously Macromedia Director) to help render visuals, such as images and video, in code. Another self-taught coder, Thompson learned as many programming languages as he could in order to invent his own. With Lingo, he developed a programming syntax that was more like spoken language, making it easier for beginners to learn and get started coding. Lingo was also instrumental in the explosion of multimedia and interactive programs on CD-ROMs and on the Internet in the 1990s, as the primary programming language of Adobe Shockwave. The Internet as we know it might look very different without Lingo.
Mark Dean is the co-creator of the personal computer that IBM released in 1981—and even holds three of the company’s nine original patents. He led the design team that developed the first gigahertz processor chip, as well as the first color monitor. Working with engineer Dennis Moeller, he developed the Industry Standard Architecture system bus, which allowed PCs to support plug-in devices like disk drives and printers. In 1995, he was named the first African-American IBM Fellow.