Every October the UK holds Black History Month (the equivalent in the US is National African American History Month in February) to celebrate the achievements and positive contributions of countless black people over the centuries. Computer science is often portrayed as a white, male middle class subject so this page aims to redress the balance recognising the achievements of black computer scientists past and present based on profiles from cs4fn.
Find our cs4fn page on Black Computer Science History here.
Mark Dean: Computer Architecture
Mark Dean helped create the first personal computers at IBM, creating the architecture that allowed peripherals like keyboard, printer and mouse to be connected to the motherboard.
Gladys West: Satellite positioning
Gladys West’s work on accurate positions of satellites underpins satnav and other location aware services we rely on. She also worked on the first sea observation satellite, vital in understanding climate change.
Clarence Ellis: Groupware
Once working at a computer was a lonely endeavour: one person, one computer, doing one job. Clarence Ellis pioneered ways for people to use computers in ways that meant they could work together more effectively rather than less so. In particular, he developed crucial ideas behind how people could edit the same text document at the same time without the document becoming hopelessly muddled. This was one of the earliest forms of what is called computer supported cooperative working. Now with, for example Google Docs, this is common. Before that he was also part of the team that invented graphical user interfaces (GUIs) when working at Xerox Parc, and is credited with inventing the idea of clicking on an icon to run a program.
Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan: Space-age computations
NASAs ‘hidden figures’ worked on calculations like the trajectories of spacecraft and their launch windows. They helped kick off the space age. Their pioneering lives have been made into a film.
Jeremiah Onaolapo: Cyber Security Specialist
Jeremiah Onaolapo is a PhD student at UCL (as of 2018). He has been creating cyber-honeypots and finding out how cybercriminals really operate.
Abdigani (Abdi) Diriye: solving the challenges of Africa
Abdi focusses on how technology can solve the massive challenges facing Africa. He received a PhD in Computer Science from University College London and is now a Research Manager at IBM. He describes himself as “a computer scientist and advocate for innovation and technology in Africa” and was selected as one of the “35 innovators under 35” by MIT Technology Review. He founded and is a Director of Innovate Ventures which nurtures technology start-up companies in Somalia / Somaliland through funding and coding camps.
Lisa Gelobter: Multimedia via the web
Lisa led the product teams that developed Shockwave, software that allows multimedia (video and games) to be included in web pages and ultimately used by 96% of web users. She received her degree in computer science from Brown University in the USA. She worked for various companies in the early days of computer graphics on the web, and her work was one of the inspirations behind the GIF image format. She was also the driving force behind tEQuitable a company she set up to help support and promote equality and diversity in the technology industry. Lisa also held the post in the White House as its Chief Digital Service Officer with the United States Department of Education.
Philip Emeagwali: Supercomputing
Born in Nigeria Philip dropped out of school early as his family couldn’t afford the fees. Undaunted he studied at home and eventually won a scholarship to Oregon university. He graduated with a BSc in mathematics and went on to study for three more degrees, two masters and a PhD. Fascinated by the natural world he realised how efficient bees were in building honeycombs in the hive, and used these ideas to create a supercomputer in 1989. His super computer was reportedly able to do over 3 billion calculations per second, and his computers are used to predict the weather and the effects of global warming. For his pioneering work he was awarded the Gordon Bell prize, seen by many as the Nobel prize for computing.
Victor B Lawrence: High speed Communications
Born in Ghana, Victor B Lawrence‘s work has helped everyone to send data faster. He studied electrical engineering at Imperial College London and is now based in the US. He was honoured by the National Academy of Inventors for his work in the 1980s and early 1990s which enabled high-speed communication. His application of digital signal processing techniques to data communications helped information being transmitted over telephone lines or via satellite get there faster.
Safiya Noble: Bias in search engines
Sociologist Safiya Noble is an Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California. Her book “Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism” looks at how a bias against people of colour can be (even unintentionally) baked into search engine algorithms.
Kimberly Bryant: Black Girls Code
Kimberly Bryant is an electrical engineer who worked in biotechnology before founding Black Girls Code to teach programming to black girls. She was motivated to do this after her daughter enrolled on a computing summer camp and was the only African American girl present.
Segun Fatumo: Bioinformatics
UK-based Segun Fatumo has put his computing know-how to use in genetic research and bioinformatics, studying the genetic basis of cardiovascular and infectious diseases in African populations.
Roy L Clay Sr: Making Computers Accessible
Roy L Clay Sr, originally from Missouri, led Hewlett-Packard’s first computer division in the 1960s, his goal was to “make computers more accessible to more people.” Forbes magazine profiled him in 2015: From Ferguson To Silicon Valley: A Black Pioneer Gives Back.
Evelyn Boyd Granville: Coding for Apollo
Evelyn Boyd Granville was the second African American women to receive a PhD in maths from an American University. She was a computer programmer writing software for IBM’s computers in the 1950s and later went on to work on NASA’s Apollo space programme.
More to come (of course)