Every day I ask my daughter what she learned in school. This week she informed me that she learned Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. This is simply not the truth. That honor goes to Granville T. Woods.
African Americans are shamefully underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Of the many socio-historical factors that have contributed to this gap and one of the most important, is the omission of African-American contributions to the field.
The First Innovation
African Americans must be made aware of their contributions in the STEM fields. According to the great Senegalese scholar, Cheik Anta Diop in his great work, Civilization or Barbarism, Africans created math. How is that for a contribution to STEM?
Africans Have Always Been Inventors
The earliest direct evidence of tool usage is found in Ethiopia within the Great Rift Valley, dating back 2.5 million years ago. The oldest artifacts with drawings that depict wheeled carts date from about 3000 B.C. Master innovator, Imhotep, was considered the first multi-disciplinary genius. There is a long list of innovations from Ancient Egypt long before the Egyptians ever had contact with Europeans.
Coming to America
After arriving in America and being placed under some of the most oppressive systems ever, Africans continued to innovate. During the colonial period, the commodity of the day was rice. According to Bruce Sinclair, in his book Technology and the African American Experience, Africans brought with them the techniques and science for controlling the water to cultivate rice, thereby increasing economies in the region in which they were enslaved.
The Industrial Age
The contributions continued during the industrial period. These innovations include Andrew Baird’s jenny coupler (an automatic device which secures two train cars when they are bumped), and Frederick McKinley Jones’ mechanical refrigeration units for railroad cars and trucks. As the country transformed from the industrial economy to the digital age African Americans continued to make significant contributions.
The Black Digital Elite
According to John T. Barber in his book The Black Digital Elite, African Americans continued to innovate. Leaders such as Mark Dean and Dr. Clarence Ellis have carried the torch honorably. Dr. Ellis was part of the team who built Alto, the world’s first personal computer as well as interfaces, software and languages. Mark Dean was on the team that created the first personal computer at IBM. Dean is most noted for the architecture he designed for the PC AT. He has over 200 patents and led the team at IBM that developed the first Gigahertz chip. These are foundational contributions to the world of computing and should be recognized as such.
This is but a brief overview of the rich history of innovative technological contributions of both Africans and African Americans. It is my hope that opening the door to knowledge about our history will ignite a passion in our young people to become innovators and inventors. We must make our young people aware of the contributions of our ancestors as well as make our young people aware of those engineers and scientist who are among them today.