How Black inventors shaped our tech

How Black inventors shaped our tech
Table Of Contents

Ah, modern-day telecommunications — such an enigma! Living in the days of smartphones and wearables, it feels like we’ve taken our access to knowledge and connectivity for granted. From streaming movies on the go to video conferencing for work or school, the capabilities of modern-day phones leave little to be desired.

It feels like a distant dream to imagine making phone calls by landline or needing to wait five minutes for an internet page to load (ah, the sweet crackling sounds of AOL trying to connect). We've quickly adapted to our new reality, as we humans do. But that makes it easy to forget about the technological leaps that made our current reality possible — and about the brilliant Black minds that spearheaded the technological and telephone-y transformations.

This Black History month marks an opportunity to collectively revel in the innovations of extraordinary Black inventors. At Burner, we want to recognize these individuals and their invaluable contributions to science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM), and overall innovation. We hope that by celebrating their innovations, we can be a small part of creating an inclusive culture and igniting an inspiring spark of passion for other Black inventors and brilliant minds in our community.

To kick us off, let’s journey back to the 1800s to explore the origins of modern telecommunications as we know it. We’re taking it all the way back to the blueprints for the original telephone itself (you know, the ones that were wired into the wall and not glued to your hand).

Lewis Latimer brings us the original telephone

Lewis Latimer is an inspiring example of African Americans' groundbreaking impact on telecommunications. Coming from humble beginnings as a draftsman, he worked closely with Alexander Graham Bell to patent the telephone in 1876, changing communication for-e-ver

This amazing innovator didn’t stop there, though. Lewis designed an improved railroad car bathroom and an early air conditioning unit. The next time you cozy into your cool house on a hot summer day (or use the bathroom on a moving train), don't forget to thank Lewis Latimer for his brilliant contributions to these life-changing inventions.

Simply put, Latimer walked so decades worth of Black inventors could run — exemplary of how far Black inventor’s achievements have helped shape contemporary life today. 

Granville T. Woods improves the telephone

Granville T. Woods cemented his place in history as the true inventor of the modern telephone (more on the Woods vs. Edison drama below). Born in 1856, he registered nearly 60 patents throughout his lifetime, the most important being the patent for an improved telephone transmitter in 1884.

Not only was Woods practically the father of the modern telephone, but his Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph enabled communications between train stations and moving trains, remarkably revolutionizing the railway system and likely saving thousands of lives over the years.

What's more impressive is that Granville's inventions enabled him to prevail over Thomas Edison in a patent lawsuit (take that, Edison). Granville also showed some serious business acumen by creating his own company to design, manufacture, and sell electrical appliances. 

In a time where it often feels difficult just to respond to that one email you’ve left unread in your inbox for over a week, we can all take great inspiration from Granville's sheer grit and determination (60 patents y’all…60 patents).

James Edward West sends your voice through the air

Have you ever thought about how you can speak into your little phone and have your voice heard by the person on the other end? Think hard for a second about the inner workings of that type of technology, and you’ll likely find yourself mind blown, to say the least.

The man behind that technology is James Edward West, an icon, a star of modern-day telecommunications. West, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Johns Hopkins University, was the brains behind the glorious invention of the electric microphone in the early 1960s — an invention that makes up a whopping 90 percent of all microphones worldwide.

West’s invention single-handedly enabled much of the world's connectivity and the bright, vibrant sound production that we now enjoy every time we use Burner, FaceTime, or any other type of calling or audio reproduction device (including all of those true crime podcasts you listen to on your daily commute).

Jesse Eugene Russell cuts the cord

In a time where it often feels like we’re more divided than ever, it’s helpful to remember Jesse Eugene Russell's impact on the world of communications and modern-day life as we know it. After all, he not only changed the way we communicate, but he also made us more connected. 

While Russell worked as an engineer at AT&T-Bell Laboratories in 1988, his creativity and innovation led him to develop a concept for the first wireless digital cell phone. He aimed to make mobile phones more user-friendly by transmitting signals between handsets and cell phone towers instead of limiting them to vehicles. 

Jesse's invention opened the door for other technological advancements in communication technology, propelling inventions like smartphones and 5G internet into our lives. He succinctly summed up his achievement: "Most of the time, people are not in their cars. I said, 'Well, that seems like an easy problem to solve, right? Why don't we just take the phones out of the car and put them on the people.'" 

While he probably couldn’t have predicted we’d all be almost permanently connected to our phones today (what was the point of cutting the cord, amiright?), his innovations truly have shaped the way we live and communicate with each other.

Dr. Philip Emeagwali searches for connectivity

The base for modern-day search engines was a program made of over 60,000 widely scattered microprocessors capable of running more than 3.1 billion calculations per second. 

The man behind the genius idea? Dr. Philip Emeagwali, a computer scientist born in the 1950s in Nigeria, moved to the US to study Mathematics and marine engineering. Dr. Emeagwali's inspiration came from watching bees work as a collective unit; this sparked the idea he could build a network of computers that could operate and communicate with each other like a beehive. 

This ingenuity allowed Dr. Emeagwali to accomplish a computing breakthrough and earn him the 1989 Gordon Bell Prize from the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers. Simply put, Dr. Philip Emeagwali propelled us towards a new era for communication with computers by enabling them to better understand each other's data sets and instructions virtually faster than ever before.

For example, every time you Google something or search for yet another dating app in the app store (it’s tough out there, huh?), you’re using Emeagwali’s technology. While that’s impressive, Dr. Emeagwali’s legacy lives on in even more impactful ways, as his powerful computers are still being used to this day to help predict the future effects of global warming.

Dr. Shirley Jackson knows who’s calling

Dr. Shirley Jackson is a remarkable figure in American science, breaking down notions of what an African-American woman could accomplish. In 1973, Dr. Jackson became the first African-American woman to earn her doctorate in nuclear physics from MIT and has achieved incredible groundbreaking work since then. 

Dr. Jackson is credited with inventing the touch-tone telephone, the portable fax, caller ID, call waiting, and fiber-optic cable — all revolutionizing science and telecommunication for everyday use worldwide. Now Dr. Shirley Jackson is the 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, cementing her place as a powerful force to be reckoned with in American history and beyond. 

So next time you decline a call on your Burner because you see it’s coming from “MARK TINDER DO NOT ANSWER,” remember to give a little thanks to Dr. Shirley Jackson. She’s the one who made it all possible.

Gladys West puts us on the map

If you’ve recently used Waze, Uber, or even DoorDash, then you’re familiar with the works of Gladys West. Her groundbreaking work in mathematics and geodesy has opened up the world for us by allowing satellites to track our every move.

Don’t worry; it’s not as creepy as it sounds. In fact, we’d all still be printing off MapQuest directions if it weren’t for Gladys West (please tell us you remember that; none of us are that old yet, are we?). She played an integral role in developing GPS as we know it today. It all started when she began programming an IBM 7030 Stretch computer that generated an extremely accurate model of the shape of the Earth.

Gladys used complex algorithms to account for…well, a lot of scientific data that we have no business even trying to understand. At one point, though, her team discovered an error during the study, and Gladys managed to singlehandedly find a solution. As a result of Gladys's data, we now have access to GPS, which has changed global navigation and transformed our lives. 

Gladys West is indeed an American hero (again, if you ever had to read MapQuest directions off a piece of crumpled computer paper while you’re about to miss a turn…you’d think so too).

Lisa Gelobter animates our communications

What would modern communication be without GIFs? While we’re half-joking, really take a step back and think about how different life would be without GIFs. 

GIFs uniquely capture a feeling or sentiment perfectly and can add emphasis, provide context, bridge conversational gaps, or inject a bit of levity when needed. They transcend language and culture. And you can thank Lisa Gelobter for that.

Lisa Gelobter is a pioneering computer scientist with a well-deserved reputation as a culture connector. Lisa's inventions have been essential to the seamless streaming, gaming, and online chatting that take place worldwide. 

One of Lisa's most memorable achievements was creating Shockwave — the groundbreaking program that developed animation technology for digital media. As a result, Lisa enabled one of the most popular symbols of human communication: GIFs! 

Through Lisa Gelobter's creativity and hard work, our lives are connected in ways once unimaginable (and they’re a whole lot more fun; who doesn’t love the subtle nuance of a perfectly placed GIF within a conversation?).

Marian R. Croak digitizes our conversations

The pandemic (and how we work in today’s digital, remote-driven world) would have been a lot different if Marian R. Croak never chose to pursue a career in technology. She is an incredible leader and innovator in the technology industry, who offers her name to over 200 patents, many of which are integral components of our everyday internet lives. 

Marian was a pioneer in switching from wired telephone services to voice over internet protocol (VoIP), enabling us to freely communicate with multimedia calls over our networks. Over the last few years, her idea has been used more than ever, as millions have turned to video conferencing software like Zoom, Skype, and (of course) Burner. 

Marian’s influence reaches much beyond the technological field. She also believed that phone network services could enable the general public to easily donate money to humanitarian causes  — an impactful innovation we continue to rely on today. Marian is an inspiring example of what can be achieved when driven by creativity and ambition.

Burner celebrates the innovations of Black inventors

Without the contributions of Black inventors, we wouldn’t have the advancements that make telecommunications today so efficient, effective, and reliable. 

We also wouldn’t have Burner.

So we're endlessly grateful for these innovators and their contributions to modern technology. These incredible individuals are a reminder of what can be achieved with hard work and dedication (and, in our case, a lot of fun and collaboration).

To continue learning about the incredible impact that several other Black inventors, engineers, and scientists have had on how we communicate, check out the resources below:
These organizations help support people of color in STEM:
And, to learn more about the work we still have left to do as a collective society in fighting racism and inequality, read these insightful articles:

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