Black Pioneers Who Revolutionized Tech
By The Fullstack Academy Team
Throughout history, Black pioneers have been at the forefront of technological advancement and innovation, leading the way for some of the most well-known and widely used technologies today. However, many populations, including Black individuals, remain underrepresented in the tech industry. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People published a report on the state of diversity in tech, which found that Black individuals make up 13% of the U.S. population, but just 7% of the computing workforce. Companies in recent years have slowly begun to diversify hiring practices and work environments, adopting new policies and practices. Diversity in tech is important to driving global innovation and paves the way for the future.
Learn about some of the most significant Black pioneers in technology and how their work revolutionized the tech industry and the world.
Dr. Frank S. Greene Jr.: Scientist
1938 - 2009
Dr. Frank S. Greene, Jr., was one of the first African-American pioneering technologists of Silicon Valley. He earned an M.S. in electrical engineering at Purdue University in 1962. After earning his master's degree, he served for four years in the U.S. Air Force and became an Air Force captain. In 1970, he completed his Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Santa Clara University, where he later was elected the first African-American trustee. Later, he joined Fairchild Semiconductor, an American semiconductor company based in San Jose, California.
During his tenure at Fairchild Semiconductor, Dr. Greene developed high-speed semiconductor computer memory systems and was part of the team that patented the fastest chip design at the time. He is also recognized as one of the first Black technologists in the nation.
Annie Easley: Rocket Scientist
1933 - 2011
Annie Easley applied for a job at The Lab—an earlier version of the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, after reading about NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. She went on to work in tech roles from human computer to computer programmer to rocket scientist for decades. During her time at NASA, Easley became a skilled programmer who created and implemented code for energy-conversion systems and alternative power sources.
Easley’s work contributed to the development of electric cars, space shuttles, and the Centaur upper-stage rocket. In addition, she has been an advocate for race and gender rights and representation at work, serving as a teammate, ally, and mentor to Black women at NASA and around the globe.
Dr. Gladys West: Mathematician
1882 – Present
Gladys Mae Brown was born on a farm in rural Virginia. Brown graduated valedictorian of her high school and received a scholarship to Virginia State College, where she earned a B.A. in mathematics. She earned a master’s degree from Virginia State College in 1955. In 1956, she worked as a programmer for large-scale computers at the Dahlgren Division of the Naval Surface Warfare Center and as a data-processing system manager. In 1978, she was selected to participate in a project that collected data on sea surface heights via a satellite. This data was used to construct a computer model of the Earth’s surface.
Using a combination of mathematics, computer programming, and data analytics, West created a model of the Earth’s surface using satellite data. This served as one of the foundations of the Global Positioning System (GPS).
Roy Clay Sr.: Computer Scientist
1929 – Present
Roy Clay Sr. was born in Kinloch, Missouri in 1929. After attending a segregated high school, he went on to study mathematics at Saint Louis University. Clay became a teacher after graduating from college in 1951 and struggled to find employment in technology due to discrimination. After teaching himself to code, he became a programmer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 1958. In 1965, Clay launched and led Hewlett-Packard's Computer Science division, and later went on to direct a team who developed the company’s first minicomputers. Aware of the need for safety testing of electrical products, he left HP in 1971 to launch his own company and became the founding director of ROD-L Electronics.
Clay wasn't only among the first pioneers in the world of computer software during the late '50s, but was one of the first African Americans to enter the field. He is also considered the “Godfather of Silicon Valley,” having founded one of the first start-ups in what is now known as Silicon Valley.
Dr. Clarence “Skip” Ellis: Computer Scientist
1943 – 2014
At age 15, Dr. Clarence “Skip” Ellis started working as a graveyard shift computer operator at the firm Dover. His main duties included preventing break-ins and watching over the computers. Although he had no experience with computers, he used his free time to read computer manuals. After assisting the company during a computer emergency, the company began to ask him for regular assistance. Dr. Ellis double majored in math and physics at Beloit, graduating with his B.S. in 1964. He went on to study with MIT, before graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a master’s degree, and then went on to become the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he worked on the hardware, software, and applications of the ILLIAC IV supercomputer. During his career, he held positions at Bell Telephone Laboratories, IBM, Xerox, Microelectronics, the Computer Technology Corporation, and more.
During his tenure at PARC, Dr. Ellis led a group that invented and developed Officetalk, the first telecommunications system based on icons that allowed remote collaboration between teams and workers. This opened the world to online collaboration and laid the foundation for tools like Google Docs. Dr. Ellis was also the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. in computer science, persevering in the face of adversity.
Dr. Marc Hannah: Computer Scientist, Electrical Engineer, and Computer Graphics Designer
1956 – Present
Dr. Marc Hannah was born in Chicago, Illinois, on October 13, 1956. He earned his B.S. degree in electrical engineering in 1977 from the Illinois Institute of Technology before pursuing his M.S. and Ph.D. at Stanford University. While studying, Dr. Hannah developed an interest in 3-D graphics. This interest would later, in 1982, lead him to co-found Silicon Graphics, Inc., a company that created computer graphics technology. Later, he would be named principal scientist of the company for his work on 3-D graphics systems.
Dr. Hannah is primarily known for the special effects computer equipment he created, as well as the computer programs he was the principal scientist on, including Personal IRIS, Indigo, Indigo2, and Indy graphics. His work, and that of his company, was used to create effects for major films like Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Jurassic Park, and more. To this day, special effects are routinely used in film productions due to his influence.
Jerry Lawson: Electronic Engineer
1940 – 2011
From an early age, Gerald "Jerry" Lawson, born Dec. 1, 1940, had an interest in repairing electronics. In 1970, Lawson graduated from Queens College and City College of New York and began working for Fairchild Semiconductor as an applications engineer. Lawson left Fairchild in 1980 to start VideoSoft, one of the earliest Black-owned video game companies to be developed.
Dubbed by many as the “Father of Modern Gaming”, Jerry Lawson is responsible for creating the first commercial video game cartridge and for creating the Fairchild Channel F video game system. The Fairchild Channel F gaming system was the first console to use programmable cartridges for video games. In place of built-in games, this system used microprocessors and ROM cartridges to house information.
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