Black History Month: Technological Advancements in the Last 100 Years

Tech Tips

Black History Month is a time to reflect on the contributions made by black scientists and visionaries. Without these technological advances we would all be falling down elevator shafts and unable to leave voicemails so here are some of our favorites of the last 100 years.


These inventions and advances span multiple industries and include everything from a smart shoe with an adjustable support sole (courtesy of Ronald Demon patented in 1998) to a gas mask that was the precursor to what was used during WWI (thanks to Garrett Morgan in 1914), as well as improvements in nuclear electric power (Cordell Reed from the late 60s to the late 90s) to automatically closing elevator doors which helped prevent death from falling down the elevator shaft (Alexander Miles in 1887).


Similar to Miles’ elevator doors, Marie Van Brittan Brown’s invention was created to improve safety and security. The first video home security system was created in 1969 by Brown and patented by her and her husband Albert L. Brown. It was a camera that moved along a vertical track to peer through 4 different peep-holes, one at the height of a tall adult, one at the height of a small child, and two in the middle. The signal from the camera was relayed wirelessly using radio frequencies to a television screen set up elsewhere in the house. Also included in her system was a remote door lock, two-way speaker to allow communication between the person at the door and the one behind the security monitor, and an emergency button that directly contacted the police. Many components of Brown’s system are still in use today.


Speaking of systems that are still in use today, in 1935 Benjamin Thorton created a device that attached to a telephone and could record messages and forward them, basically the predecessor of answering machines and voicemail. Another inventor who had a major impact on modern communication was Jesse Eugene Russell, often called the “Father of 2G Communication”. In 1984, Russell worked for AT&T Bell Labs when the company was stuck on how to move cellular technology from car phones to our modern cell phones. The difficulty lay in the bandwidth available for cell signals to use; there wasn’t enough room to handle the massive amount of data that would need to be transferred. Russell solved this problem by digitizing speech with low bit rate voice encoding technology. Basically, he allowed cellular technology to transmit data in smaller, yet more amplified pieces. Russell’s work didn’t stop there, he is still a leader in cellular technology making advances in 4G today.


Some of the most notable inventions were improvements to modern computers. While Russell was tackling cell phones, Mark Dean was working for IBM with Dennis Moeller. Together they created a system that paved the way for peripherals (printers, speakers, anything that plugs in through a USB port) to be directly attached to the computer. 15 years later, Dean led a team that created the first gigahertz chip–allowing a billion cycles or calculations per second.


Another pioneer in computer science is Philip Emeagwali of Nigeria. In 1987-89, Emeagwali was given access to the Connection Machine; 65,536 processors owned by the US government. The Connection Machine was the most powerful supercomputer at that time and was underutilized because it had so far proven too difficult to program. Emeagwali explained the difficulty saying, “To program it requires an absolute understanding of how all 65,536 processors are interconnected…It took me 1057 pages to describe the hundreds of mathematical equations, algorithms and programming techniques that I invented and used.”


Emeagwali programmed the Connection Machine to simulate oil reservoirs. At that time, simulated oil reservoirs were one of the greatest challenges in science and engineering. The Connection Machine calculated a record 3.1 billion calculations per second. His programming meant that it was possible to program computers all over the world to talk to each other, thus allowing the internet to explode into greater utility and application.


This last invention is more recent than the previous ones, making advances that we don’t know all of the applications for yet. Joycelyn Harrison and Robert Bryant are two engineers on a six-person team at NASA’s Langley Research Center. Their team created a material called THUNDER (Thin-Layer Composite-Unimorph Piezoelectric Driver). It is flexible, relatively inexpensive to make, tough, uses less power, and weighs less. This material has several potential applications, including motion stabilization, noise cancellation, use in electronics, valves, and even heart pumps.


THUNDER is one of three types of piezoelectric materials being developed at Langley. The main concept behind these materials is to tie electric voltage to motion, where changing one will change the other. As Harrison explained, “Sometimes you need to be able to change a satellite’s position or get a wrinkle off of its surface to produce a better image.” These materials can be used to create machines with morphing parts, self-repairing material, even simulated muscles for robotics. For now, its application has been in actuators and sensors, but the technology has great potential.


From improvements in safety and security to changes in the way we communicate, the technological advancements from black inventors and innovators have vastly improved this world. Here’s to everything we’ll discover in the next 100 years! 


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