When the movie Hidden Figures hit the big screen in 2016, it told a story that much of America was unaware of, specifically the role of three unknown female African American mathematicians involved in helping the U.S. in the race to beat the Russians to space. In the 1940s, NASA started intentionally hiring African American women as “computers” at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, the main research center for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Initially, the African American “computers” were segregated, but the teams did work together and were assigned the same kind of work. While Hidden Figures highlighted the work of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, there are many other African American engineers and inventors in electronics that remain mostly invisible.
As a drafter by degree, one might expect to learn about the history of drafting in manufacturing and the development of CAD/CAM integration, as well as the development of the Initial Graphics Exchange Specification (IGES). Yet I didn’t. Jamaican-born American engineer Walt Braithwaite was an integral part of Boeing’s technological transformation. During his almost four decades at Boeing, Braithwaite helped transform the field of aerospace design from a manual time-consuming process to one done almost entirely on computer. The Boeing 777 airplane became the first “paperless jet” under his leadership. At the time of his retirement as the President of Boeing Africa, he was the highest-ranking Black employee in the company’s history. IGES, as imagined by Braithwaite, has led to fully modern manufacturing developments and is still in use in Benchmark’s Precision Technologies facilities.
Meanwhile, at IBM, Mark Dean was the chief engineer of the team that designed the company’s first PC. He was also involved in the transformation of an industry through his involvement in developing the Industry Standard Architecture bus with Dennis Moeller, laying the groundwork for color PC monitors as well as leading the team that created the first gigahertz microprocessor. He holds three of the company’s original nine patents and was the first Black IBM Fellow. Both Braithwaite (1995) and Dean (1997) were recognized with the Black Engineer of the Year Award.
While this is just a shortlist, there have been many notable Black innovators that have shaped our industry. Black History Month is the perfect time to highlight their innovative thinking and thank them for their contributions to our high-tech world.
Businesses have a role in ensuring that today’s Black engineers and inventors are visible. This includes offering opportunities for students, offering incentives for employees to generate patents and present their ideas to relevant industry groups, and creating a culture that embraces diversity. At Benchmark, this diversity helps us to solve complex problems with our customers, creating innovative products that no one imagined were possible.
Benchmark, because people matter.