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Today is the last day of February, and it's also the last day of Black History Month. But long after the month is over, the contributions of Black pioneers in the area of computer technology will remain. So let's end this month by commemorating a few of the Black men and women who were and are at the forefront of computer, engineering, and information technology.
First, a bit of history: In 1999 African Americans constituted just one quarter of one percent of computer scientists. Indeed, when I began researching African American pioneers in this field, I had a hard time finding a decent number of people who'd been at the forefront, when computer science as a burgeoning field. There are many contemporary experts in the field, yes, but this month is about history. And as I reached out to the community here at Microsoft, although I was inundated with dozens of names of illustrious African American inventors, mathematicians, aeronautical engineers, and professionals in other science-related industries, I wondered why there were so few in computer science.
And then it hit me. Simply put, historically, the opportunities and education available to white Americans have not been so readily accessible to African Americans. However, exceptional talent wins through regardless, but that takes time, and computer science is still a young study. And so in a few years' time, if I look back and rewrite this post, I'm sure I'll have much more to say on the matter.
Delving into the history of computer science and its pioneers, I continually ran across the same two names —two fascinating and accomplished men—who've both made great strides in the field of computer science and its related technologies. By the advances they've achieved, they are Americans ahead of their time.
Frankly, I think it's a crime that most of you will have never heard of these folks. This week, I make it my mission to change that. And listen, I'm sure there are many more African Americans who have been pioneers in this field; please tell us about who YOU think is a Black pioneer in computer science in the comments section at the bottom of this post.
In 1969, Clarence ("Skip") Ellis was the first African American to receive a Ph.D. in Computer Science. Think about that: 1969. Microsoft wouldn't be founded for another six years and IBM wouldn't release its personal computer with Microsoft's 16-bit operating system, MS-DOS 1.0, for another six years after that. To say that Dr. Ellis IS a pioneer is this field is an understatement.
I think it's germane that I tell you a bit about how Dr. Ellis came to computing, since it was somewhat by accident. (Are there really such things as accidents?) When Ellis was 15 years old, he had a part-time job at a Chicago insurance company as a security guard for the company's new and extremely large computer. (In 1958 microcircuits had not yet been invented.) Although he wasn't allowed to touch this computer, Skip had access to its operating manuals. During his long hours guarding the computer, Skip read all of them. So when crisis struck, when they ran out of punch cards to enter data into the computer (I told you this was history), only Ellis, because of his late-night reading, knew how to reuse the old cards. I'm guessing that a computer scientist was born right then and there, on the south side of Chicago.
After earning a Bachelor of Science degree in math and physics, Ellis pursued his interest in computer science in graduate school and earned his Ph.D.
And then he got really busy; here are a few of his activities:
Read more about Dr. Ellis and the work he does at CU Boulder.
You know that modem or printer connected to your computer that you take for granted will just work? You can thank Mark Dean. And that teeny tiny laptop that has a 3 GHz processor, the one that works faster than you can think? You can thank him for that, too.
In 1980, Mark was working at IBM (a company he'd dreamed of working for) and was instrumental in the invention of the PC ("personal computer"—you've heard of that, right?). He holds three of IBM's original nine PC patents and currently holds more than 20 patents.
After receiving his Ph.D. in electrical engineering in 1992 from Stanford University, Dr. Dean was named an IBM fellow in 1996 (the first African American to be honored with this prestigious fellowship). In 1997, he received the Black Engineer of the Year President’s Award. In 2000, Dr. Dean was honored as one of the "50 Most Important African Americans in Technology" by the California African-American Museum. Other honors have included the Distinguished Engineer Award from the National Society of Black Engineers and the Black Engineer of the Year Award.
Read more about Mark Dean
And once more, I'm sure there are many more African Americans who were (and are) pioneers in this field; please tell us about who YOU think is a Black pioneer in computer science in the comments section at the bottom of this post. I'm sure we'd all like to know about them.
"A lot of kids growing up today aren't told that you can be whatever you want to be. There may be obstacles, but there are no limits." — Mark Dean
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