From the hairbrush to potato chips, Black inventors have been shaping the way we’ve lived our lives for centuries. Throughout the Scientific Tech Revolution to our current Digital Revolution, many of the crucial pieces of technology that brought us here were created by Black people. In this edition of our Black History Month article series, we’ll be highlighting some of the revolutionary Black-made inventions and advancements that changed the world of technology.
The gigahertz chip
In 2023, the only time we think about how long it takes for our computers to do calculations is when it’s slightly slower than usual. The lightning fast computing speeds we enjoy today are all thanks to IBM engineer Mark Dean. In 1999, Dean and his team of engineers created the first gigahertz chip.
These chips are like little clocks that beat at incredibly high speeds in a computer’s processor. The more beats, or hertz, a CPU has, the more opportunities it has to make calculations that determine the computer's speed. The chip that Dean created allows computers to operate with over a billion beats per second. This was a massive upgrade from the previous megahertz, and allowed computers to become exponentially faster. Dean and his coworker Dennis Moeller are also credited with creating the system that allows external hardware to be plugged into PCs.
Fairchild Channel F video games system
If you love video games, then you have Jerry Lawson to thank for the console that set the stage for modern gaming. The Fairchild Channel F was the first system ever to allow users to play more than one video game on the console. Lawson helped to engineer the console in the 1970s with it eventually was manufactured and sold by Fairchild Semiconductor in 1976.
No matter where you need to go, the exact directions you need are available at the tap of a button. The GPS, or Global Positioning System, was invented by the United States military to ensure the presence of a “robust, stable satellite navigation system” (NASA). One of the leading contributors to this project was Dr. Gladys West, a revered mathematician from West Virginia.
In 1978, Dr. West was working on the Seasat surveillance satellite project at the U.S. Naval Proving Ground weapons laboratory. During her work, her team developed technology that allowed satellites to observe the ocean as well as calculate the shape of Earth. This technology was implemented into the GEOSAT, which was able to create accurate models of the Earth’s surface. This technology eventually culminated in the development of the GPS, which has the ability to pinpoint nearly any location on Earth.
Modern computer graphics
What do Jurassic Park, Aladdin, and The Hunt for Red October all have in common? They all used electrical engineer Marc Hannah’s computer graphics technology to create their movie magic, of course! The 3-D special effects systems that Hannah developed changed the way we use computer graphics.
Hannah and his co-founder Jim Clark founded Silicon Graphics, Inc in 1987, a company that would go on to create computer graphics software that revolutionized film and TV. Not only was Hannah’s technology used on the big screen, but it’s also been used in engineering, research, and military endeavors.
The modern traffic signal
The next time you just barely make it through an intersection on a yellow light, make sure to think of Garret Morgan and his modernized traffic signal. After witnessing a car accident in an especially rough intersection, Morgan acquired the patent for a modernized version of the traffic signal that contained three lights; one to go, one to slow down, and one to stop. His invention has helped keep millions of people out of car accidents, and he later sold the patent for $40,000 to General Electric.
Modern cellphone technology
This indispensable block of metal and wires that sits in each of our pockets is available thanks to engineer Jesse Russell. Holding over 100 patents and contributing numerous pieces of groundbreaking innovations to cellphone technology, Russell was one of the largest helping hands on the cellphone’s development.
One of his most notable inventions is the digital cellular base station. A base station is a piece of hardware that serves as a communication point for your cellphone. He also holds patents for the high-power linear amplification and low-bit-rate voice encoding technology, which help to optimize the voice transmission experience on cellphones.
The home security system
Keeping ourselves and our families safe is one of the most important things we can do. Thanks to inventor Marie Van Brittan Brown, we have the modern home security system to help us out.
As Rebecca Hill in her article for Black Past describes, Brown’s security system consisted of 5 parts to cover multiple parts of the home; peepholes, a camera, monitors, a two-way microphone, and a button that would alert the police upon being pushed. If you have a wired video doorbell like Ring, you’ll recognize her original feature that allowed homeowners to speak to visitors at their door from inside. Brown’s invention of the home security system has helped countless people enjoy peace of mind for their homes and their families.
This is just a small glimpse into the technological works that Black scientists, mathematicians, and engineers have contributed over the years. If you want to learn more about any of the inventors we mentioned, check out the links below.
Mark Dean: co -inventor of the PC
Mark Dean - Inventions, Education & Computers
Jerry Lawson - Video Games, Death & Life
Gladys West | Biography, Accomplishments, Hidden Figure, GPS, Mathematician, & Facts | Britannica
Marie Van Brittan Brown (1922-1999) •
Jesse Russell, Cell Phone Inventor born - African American Registry.