The Black Women Who Made Tech
The chronically overlooked women who made technological dreams a reality.
It’s no secret that the tech world is heavily dominated by white men. In fact, it’s estimated that 72.89% of high-tech professionals are white and only 26.7% overall are women. Looking beyond that, a staggering 1.7% of the tech workforce are Black women.
Black women have played a critical role in the development of technology since its inception but have been chronically overlooked, demeaned, and taken credit from. To kick off our Black History Month article series are some of the influential inventors, scientists, and engineers that shaped modern American technology.
Inventing the 1800s
Before the word technology meant computers and coding, Black women were taking the reins on inventing in early America. Throughout western history, women have been forced to perform unpaid labor in the home or work a small number of professions that were considered acceptable for a woman to have. In her article for Smithsonian, Leila McNeill’s highlights the first four Black women that broke down these barriers and were granted patents for their inventions.
Sarah Goode’s cabinet-bed
Sarah Goode, a furniture store owner in late 1800s Chicago, saw a new problem cropping up as urban America grew. In order to accommodate the growing population in cities, apartments were made increasingly smaller. Due to high rates of poverty, families were often forced to share space as well.
To address this problem, Sarah envisioned a bed for small homes that folded into a cabinet. Not only did her creation serve as both a desk and a bed, but it also provided storage. In 1885, Sarah Goode became the first Black woman to be granted a patent for her invention.
Miriam E. Benjamin’s Gong and Signal Chair
If you’ve flown on an airplane, you’re probably familiar with the little button above your seat that calls over a flight attendant. The quiet and discrete notification allows you to get the assistance you need without disturbing other passengers, and we have Miriam E. Benjamin to thank for it.
A schoolteacher in Washington, D.C., Miriam noticed that there wasn’t a proper system for hotel guests to call over attendants. Without a system in place, guests had to wave down attendants or shout to get their attention. To fix this problem, Miriam created the Gong and Signal Chair. By pressing a button on the back of the chair, a gong would sound and a red light would display. This provided a streamlined way to notify attendants that a guest needed assistance. Her patent was granted 3 years after Sarah Goode’s in 1888.
Sarah Boone’s modernized ironing board
An unavoidable task, ironing is considered to be a rather low excitement activity. While it may not be our favorite thing to do, it was made exponentially easier by dressmaker Sarah Boone of New Haven, Connecticut.
Before Sarah’s modernization, ironing boards needed to be propped up between two chairs. Their large, flat design made it difficult to iron women's garments in particular, adding time and energy to an already laborious process. To address this problem, Sarah designed an ironing board that was thinner, curved, and padded to specifically cater to the ironing needs of dresses.
From her 1892 patent application, Boone stated that her purpose was to, "produce a cheap, simple, convenient and highly effective device, particularly adapted to be used in ironing the sleeves and bodies of ladies' garments”.
Ellen Elgin’s clothes ringer
In a period where handwashing was the norm, Washington, D.C. housekeeper Ellen Elgin was in search of an easier way to wring the water out of clothes. Her innovation included specialized gears that not only allowed the speed of the machine to be altered, but made it so thicker fabric could be wrung.
In 1888, Ellen sold the rights to her clothes wringer to a white man for only $18, approximately $562.35 in 2023 money. She hoped that her innovation would be more successful if consumers didn’t know it was invented by a Black woman.
To the moon and back
Thanks to the box office hit Hidden Figures, worldwide recognition and praise was brought to the Black women who powered NASA. The three women the movie is based on - Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson - served their country as human computers and engineers. With their highly skilled teams of mathematicians and scientists, these women’s contribution to space exploration became indispensable.
West Virginia born and raised, Katherine Johnson was recognized as a math prodigy from a young age. In 1953, she began working for NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’, in their all-Black computing section. Following the launch of Sputnik in 1957, she began working on projects like flight analyses. Katherine’s most notable work came in 1962 when she calculated the orbital equations by hand to confirm the IBM computer’s accuracy and send John Glenn into space.
Dorothy Vaughan, a Wilberforce University graduate for Kansas City, started working for NACA 10 years before Katherine in 1943. After 6 years working at Langley, Dorothy was promoted to Section Head of the computing group. She was noted for consistently advocating for her girls fair treatment and compensation, as well as providing them opportunities for growth. Dorothy worked at NACA, which became NASA in 1958, until her retirement in 1971.
A graduate of The Hampton Institute and lover of science, Mary Jackson created a notable career as an engineer at NACA. Originally working as a computer, Mary was recruited to work on a supersonic pressure tunnel by engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki in 1953. In 1979 she ceased her work as an engineer in favor of a program manager position. There, she worked to help break down barriers stopping women from being compensated and promoted fairly.
Contemporary tech leaders
Lisa Gelobter of tEQuitable
A computer scientist, engineer, co-founder, and CEO, Lisa Gelobter is a prominent figure in modern technology. She’s worked on a number of projects, ranging from Shockwave, a platform used for streaming, to co-founding tEQuitable. Lisa created tEQuitable in 2016 to help address inequity in the workplace. Her confidential model works to help employers address bias in their organizations and provide valuable tools to create a better workplace.
Black Girls in Tech
Founded with the goal of uplifting Black women in the white male dominated field of technology, Black Girls in Tech provides opportunities, community, and education to help Black women advance their careers. Co-founded by CEO Karen Emelu, Valerie Oyiki, and their 8 woman team, Black Girls in Tech is paving the way for the next generation of Black tech leaders.
Google engineer and inventor Marian Croak
Have you ever used a video conferencing program? What about sent a donation to charity over text? Then you’ve benefited from the many innovations of engineer Mariam Croak. Starting her career at AT&T in 1982, Marian created incredible improvements to the online voice and data systems that support multiple online services. Currently, Marian serves as Vice President of Engineering at Google.
While this is just a glimpse of the Black women who have made contributions to innovation, there are leagues of unnamed women to thank for many tools and technologies we use today. To learn more about the women in this post, check out the links below.
HubbleIQ co-founder Belinda Batdorf
Originally from Zambia, Belinda Batdorf has led an impressive career in entrepreneurship and tech. She started her first business at just 20, capitalizing on the lack of industrialization on imports. After moving to the United States, Belinda switched career paths to start working in technology.
With the world suddenly sequestered to their home during COVID, she saw that many schools, businesses, and organizations were struggling to manage their user's online experience. Belinda and her co-founder began working on a software to help organizations keep their users online and bridge the gap in tech inequity. HubbleIQ launched in 2020 and continues to serve users around the world.
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These Four Black Women Inventors Reimagined the Technology of the Home
Black History Month Innovation: Sarah E. Goode
Miriam E. Benjamin: African American Inventor
Black History Month #20 - Sarah Boone's Modern Ironing Board
Katherine Johnson Biography | NASA
Dorothy Vaughan Biography | NASA
Mary W. Jackson Biography | NASA
Black Girls In Tech - About Us