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Five Black inventors who changed the world

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Black History Month - observed in October in the UK - is an opportunity to reflect on and celebrate the contributions of Black people to society. Diversity in the tech industry remains an issue, with minority groups continually underrepresented. According to Colorintech, only four per cent of the UK tech workforce is Black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME); a figure that goes nowhere towards representing the diversity in our society. 

Today, we want to share the stories of five Black tech inventors, without whom the world may be a different place! These are just some of the many stories of the immense contribution of Black people to the tech industry. We hope that by telling these stories we highlight the need for increased diversity and inclusion in the tech workforce, and inspire young Black people who are considering careers in tech to pursue these dreams.

Mark Dean: Developing the PC

Mark Dean worked as chief engineer on the personal computer project at IBM, leading the team on the design and development of personal computers that were both powerful and accessible, ultimately launching the PC age.

Dean's inventions include the Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) systems bus, a new system that allowed external devices like disk drives, printers and monitors to be plugged directly into computers. His work at IBM included developing the first colour monitor, changing personal computing forever, and creating the first gigahertz chip - a revolutionary piece of technology that is able to do a billion calculations a second!

Dean holds three of IBM’s original nine patents, and now has over 20 patents in his name. In 1996, Dean was named an IBM fellow - the highest honour a scientist, engineer, or programmer at IBM can achieve. He was the first African American ever to receive the honour.

Valerie Thomas: Developing space knowledge

Valerie Thomas was a major contributor to the study of space and her inventions allowed us to see space like never before.

Attending an all-girls’ school in the 1950s, Thomas was not encouraged by her parents or school teacher to pursue her interests in science and technology. Despite these hurdles, Thomas went on to study at Morgan State University; one of just two women majoring in Physics at the time. After graduating, she started working for NASA, where she stayed until she retired in 1995.

At NASA, Thomas designed and developed real-time computer programs to examine Halley’s Comet, the ozone layer, and other large-scale experiments. She also led the team that developed Landsat, an image processing system that sent the first images from satellites to Earth, and the illusion transmitter, a device that produces optical illusion images via two concave mirrors. The illusion transmitter technology was subsequently adopted by NASA and has since been adapted for use in surgery as well as the production of television and video screens!

Granville T. Woods: Inventing telegraphony

Known as ‘Black Edison’, Granville T. Woods was a serial inventor. By the time of his death in 1910, Woods had invented 15 appliances for electric railways and had nearly 60 patents in his name, many of which were assigned to major manufacturers of electrical equipment that are a part of today's daily life.

In 1885, Woods patented an apparatus which was a combination of a telephone and a telegraph, 'telegraphony’. This allowed telegraph stations to send voice and telegraph messages over a single wire. In 1887 he developed arguably his most important invention: the multiplex telegraph, also known as the ‘induction telegraph’. The device allowed for messages to be sent from moving trains and railway stations. By allowing dispatchers to know the location of each train, it created greater safety on trains and a decrease in railway accidents.

Thomas Edison - who famously invented electric power generation, mass communication and sound recording, among other things - challenged Woods’ patent for the multiplex telegraph in a lawsuit, which Woods won. Woods subsequently turned down Edison's offer to make him a partner, and thereafter became known as ‘Black Edison’.

John Henry Thompson: Developing the Lingo programming language

John Henry Thompson developed a programming language that displays images: Lingo. Lingo is a scripting language that displays visuals in computer programs. It’s used to incorporate graphical formats like JPEG and PNG in multimedia applications. This helps combine art and tech in web design, animation, graphics and video games. It’s used by some of the most popular design software, including Adobe Director and other Adobe programs.

Garrett Morgan: Inventing the three-way traffic signal

After witnessing a traffic collision, Morgan decided to build a non-electric three-way traffic signal that featured stop, go, and an interim ‘warning’ light. This was the predecessor of today’s amber light. Though Morgan’s was not the first traffic signal, it was an extremely important innovation: by introducing the third ‘warning’ light, it regulated crossing vehicles more safely than earlier signals had.