…and Why They Should Matter to You!
By Victoria Figueiredo
You may think you know everything you really need to know about technology and its storied history. Sorry to be the one to burst your bubble, but there’s a whole world of important and influential people out there beyond Tesla, Edison, and Musk. One demographic that doesn’t get enough notoriety? The P.O.C. who invented, discovered, and perfected all the technology we use today and all the outreach that will make a difference tomorrow! In celebration of Black History Month, let’s take a look at four notable figures in STEM history who are the definition of black excellence.
Do you use phones, lightbulbs, or air conditioning in your life? If so (and we’ll assume your answer was yes, since you’re reading this on a phone or computer and are clearly participating in modern society), you have Lewis Latimer to thank! Not only did Latimer worked his way up from office hand to head draftsman while working at a patent law firm, he improved the manufacturing process for Edison’s carbon filament so bulbs wouldn’t burn out so quickly and drafted the patent for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone design. Beyond being an expert draftsman who was very well-versed in patent law, Latimer was basically an engineering savant who went on to share his intellectual wealth by teaching mechanical drawing and English to immigrants in New York, where he lived for the rest of his life. Pretty cool guy, if you ask us!
First of all, huge props to Jackson for breaking gender AND racial barriers in STEM – at NASA, no less! Becoming the space program’s first black female engineer is no small feat, but Mary Jackson had bigger fish to fry. By studying air flow, thrust, and drag forces, Jackson helped improve U.S. planes and provided indispensable information to Project Mercury, which you may know as the Space Race. Yep, this is one of the women whose work inspired the book and movie Hidden Figures. Jackson started off working under another engineer who encouraged her to take the necessary classes to become an engineer herself. What’s really cool is that after petitioning the City of Hampton to let her take the graduate level math and physics courses she needed to get promoted, she killed it at work, became a legend, and used her influence to help other women and minorities follow career paths in science, engineering, and math at NASA. In conclusion, Mary Jackson is the definition of a boss. Take notes.
Lonnie Johnson is the genius we should give thanks to every day for making our childhoods hilariously fun and full of fond summertime memories. Why, you ask? Have you ever heard of a Super Soaker? Or, if water guns weren’t your thing, maybe Nerf guns were. That’s right. Johnson is the reason we ever smiled at all between ages seven and, like, forty if you’re particularly young at heart. Now you know. Awesome toys may be where Johnson made his fortune (and for that we thank him), but this guy is responsible for so many other important developments in the science community. He worked in the Air Force weapons lab, he was an engineer on the team for the Mariner Mark II Spacecraft and Saturn Orbiter Probe, and he teamed up with scientists from a couple universities to work on making green energy more affordable for everyone. Luckily for you, Lonnie Johnson is alive and well, so you still have time to send him a thank you card for being a total badass.
Computer goddess, trailblazer, inclusion expert, hero to girls and women everywhere – don’t mind us, we’re just giving you a few ways to describe Kimberly Bryant to your friends when you finish reading this. After studying high-voltage electronics at Vanderbilt University and working for Westinghouse Electric, DuPont, Pfizer, Genentech, and almost every other huge and impressive company you can think of, Bryant did the coolest thing ever. In response to her daughter’s interest in learning computer programming and the clear lack of coding courses geared toward girls or P.O.C., Bryant started Black Girls Code, a program that provides “young and pre-teen girls of color opportunities to learn in-demand skills in technology and computer programming at a time when they are naturally thinking about what they want to be when they grow up.” In a few years, we’re going to be seeing a lot more girls and women of color in STEM fields, and we have Bryant to recognize for opening that door. You’re forgiven if you find yourself getting a little misty-eyed at that idea.
Although that’s the end of our list for now, you should know that the world of technology was, is, and will continue to be made so much better by the efforts of black scientists, engineers, and inventors. Take the time to dig into the ways P.O.C. have broken barriers, racist attitudes, and cultural norms to make the world a better place to live! Not only will you learn something new, you’ll be more aware of how you can become an ally and use your privilege to help the fight for racial equity that’s still going on today. Educating yourself is the first step!