Remembering innovation in black history

Remembering innovation in black history

October marks UK’s Black History Month.  First celebrated in 1987, UK Black History Month is a way of remembering important events and achievements from black people across history and the contributions they have made to the society we live in.

Black people have been instrumental in many examples of world changing innovation and technology – from the invention of the traffic light system to popular consumer products such as hair straighteners and lemon squeezers.

What is perhaps most striking is the number of black women that have left their imprint on the (historically male dominated) technology industry.

Bringing telecommunications to life

Users of the modern mobile phone networks, for example, owe a debt of gratitude to physicist Shirley Jackson.  She was the first African American woman to earn a doctorate at MIT in 1973.

While working at Bell Labs, Shirley conducted breakthrough scientific research into telecommunications that led to the invention of the portable fax and touch tone telephones. She was also responsible for the technology behind caller ID and call waiting. She was appointed an International Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering (FREng) in 2012.

Innovation in health and wellbeing

Birmingham born Dame Elizabeth Anionwu began working in the NHS at the age of 16 and has dedicated her career and life to supporting the black and minority ethnic communities in London, as a nurse, health visitor and tutor. Elizabeth helped set up the first nurse-led UK Sickle & Thalassaemia Screening and Counselling Centre – a service that led to nationwide screening of babies for these conditions – undoubtedly saving and improving thousands of lives.

In a hugely decorated career, Elizabeth has received a CBE for services to nursing, a Fellowship of the Royal College of Nursing, a lifetime achievement award from Pride of Britain and a Damehood (DBE).

Say yes to GPS

91-year-old Gladys West is a mathematician that helped contribute to the mathematical modelling on the shape of the Earth.

Having graduated from Virginia State College, she became a teacher before returning to university to achieve a master’s degree in mathematics.

She was only the second woman to be offered a job at a naval base in Dahlgren, Virginia and – at the time – one of only four black employees. Gladys worked at the naval base for more than 40 years, contributing significantly to the development of the GPS positioning system that we use today for accurate mapping and navigation.

Black History Month is an opportunity to recognise the contribution of black innovators to our society and we salute those who have helped create the technology-led world we live in today.

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