Black History Month: Famous Black Engineers and Scientists


At some point while being a student in the American elementary school system we all learned about how George Washington Carver discovered a variety of uses for peanuts. The reasons why these accomplishments are significant are the challenges that African-American’s faced to get access to education. Carver for instance was born at the end of the civil war when slavery was abolished, but racism still persisted well into the late 1960s. Despite these obstacles he went on to become the first African-American faculty member at Iowa State University, and into the pages of history.

We often dwell so much on the past that we miss some famous African-American engineers and scientists that continue to shape the world we live in such as Shirley Jackson, Mark Dean, and Mae Jaminson.


Shirley Jackson happens to be the first African-American female Ph.D graduate of MIT who later went on to become the president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a prestigious engineering school. While at Bell Labs, she worked on inventions that lead to the creation of caller id and call waiting, trivial and obvious now but not at the time. Her impact on society has gone far past just phones, under her leadership RPI has steadily risen in the rankings and continues to produce high quality engineers.

Mark Dean was part of the original team that created the IBM PC. He holds three of the nine original patents that lead to the creation of the IBM Personal computer. The funniest thing about Mark Dean is that he originally wanted to work on building a PC because he wanted to play Pac Man faster. He also lead the team that designed the first 1 GHz processor and the ISA Bus which allowed multiple devices to be connected to a PC at the same time. He’s still around in IBM as aIBM Fellow, and Chief Technical Officer for IBM in the Middle East and Africa.


Mae Jemison, holds the distinction of being the first African-American female astronaut sent into space in September of 1992. Jemison enrolled at Stanford University at age 16 and went on to receive degrees in chemical engineering and Afro-American studies, and then went on to Cornell to received a degree in medicine. Since leaving NASA, she’s gone on to being a professor at Cornell and has worked hard to get more minority students interested in math and science. Jemison a fan of Star Trek, appeared as a guest star in one episode of Star Trek: TNG and became the first real-life astronaut to portray a Star Trek character.


Black History Month: Jazz Music ♫

In honor of Black History month I’ve decided to write about Jazz music, a quintessentially American creation. Born in New Orleans, a fairly large and diverse city at the beginning of the 20th century to Black and Creole musicians began as a fusion of three types of music.


The first being “ragging” tunes which involved syncopating (Displace the beats or accents in (music or a rhythm) so that strong beats become weak and vice versa: “syncopated dance music) and used military marches, and European folk melodies as inspiration. The second was “spiritual” music which were hymns played in Baptists churches, and the third being the Blues which created a soulful music capable of expressing emotions with its 12-bar sequence. From New Orleans would also come the most famous son of Jazz, Louis “Louie” Armstrong in the early 1920s, whose undeniable talent of improvisation would leave a lasting impact on Jazz.


Like Jazz itself Armstrong would spread his influence and leave New Orleans for Chicago where the most famous city in the Midwest would become the center of the Jazz. From there Jazz caught on to other cities in the northeast such as New York City and Washington D.C, and eventually the entire country.

When I listen to Jazz, I find it so hard to describe, this is where a few musicology classes would have come in handy, perhaps something to consider after I finish my masters degree. Instead of trying to describe what I hear, I think instead I’ll try to describe what I think about, well I think about a large band with a room of well dressed people drinking cocktails and bantering. I also think about jet aeroplanes in the early days of air travel, it was wonderful experience before they started charging for baggage and cut out food service. Boat travel comes to mind as well, moving across Pacific Ocean to a far away destination without knowing what to expect.

Consider some of the finest Jazz musicians of the 20th century:

Ella Fitzgerald

  • Known as the Queen of Jazz, made her career debut at 17 years old
  • Her recording career spanned almost 59 years and she went on to win 13 Grammy Awards and National Medal of the Arts

 Herbie Hancock

  • Known to be a child music prodigy, he later joined the Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet as a pianist
  • Hancock graduated from Grinnell College with a degrees in music and electrical engineering (clearly the music degree was a better choice)

Miles Davis

  • Davis was instrumental in development of several forms of Jazz including bebop and cool jazz
  • In 2009 the US congress passed a symbolic resolution honoring his album Kind of Blue on its 50th anniversary

Louis Armstrong

  • Known for his solo performances and his voice and being very important to the development of Jazz as genre
  • Famous for his song, “What a wonderful World”, known to virtually all audiences

The Great Gatsby and the 1920s

This year I’ve decided to read more well known American literature during the early 1900s, while I’m no Mark Hayes (my former high school English teacher who taught my World literature, and American literature classes). For whatever reason I never read the Great Gatsby when I was in middle/high school like most American students. I wanted to know why it is considered such an important book in American literature.  The book paints a nice portrait of America’s well to do indulging themselves during the 1920s commonly referred to colloquially as the roaring twenties.  Written in 1925 before the great depression, the period was a prosperous time for America, an industrial boom was taking place. Recurring themes in the book: alcohol, infidelity, suspense, heartbreak, and restlessness.

The steps of the art institute of Chicago circa 1920
On the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago circa 1920

Set in Long Island, New York we explore the seemingly larger than life character Jay Gatsby, a character who hosts wild house parties at his mansion where many guest invited and uninvited have no idea where or how he amassed his large amount of wealth. Later on in the book we find out that Gatsby was a bootlegger which is how he made his money. From 1920 to 1933 the 18th Amendment prohibited the sale, manufacturing, and transportation of alcohol. Selling alcohol illegal was very profitable it is believed Chicago gangster Al Capone made millions of dollars by smuggling alcohol in from Canada. It’s a bit hard for me to imagine that alcohol was banned for almost 13 years in the United States.

The theme of restlessness and being stuck with someone or something you don’t want to be stuck with or in resonates throughout the story. I suppose a lot of people come into this problem, marrying someone you realize, you shouldn’t have. We see this with Gatsby’s love interest, Daisy who’s husband is carrying on an affair with a woman married to a repair shop mechanic. Furthermore we see her husband who wishes he ran a more successful auto-shop and could make his wife happy. Daisy on the other hand wishes she could be with Gatsby. The interesting double standard we see in the book with regards to affairs is when Daisy carries on an affair with Gatsby her husband gets angry, yet no one questions her husbands affair.

The book got me thinking about life in the 1920s, no alcohol, long train trips across the United States, ocean voyages and no credit cards (strictly speaking all cash payments, although the idea of a line of credit was created). All communication was still relegated to the telephone and mail, from time to time I still write letters and exchange post cards with acquaintances. It probably would have been something to hear reports on the radio about Charles Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. Perhaps this semi-disconnected slower pace of life where information didn’t travel at the speed of light was not too terrible with all the Jazz music to listen to.

Some Famous Events of the 1920s:

  1. Jazz becomes a new music style
  2. Lindbergh crosses the Atlantic Ocean
  3. Sales of the Model-T plateau and a new model will be introduced by 1927
  4. The stock market crashes and the great depression starts in 1929
  5. Penicillin is discovered
  6. Robert Goddard became the first person to launch a liquid-fuel rocket
  7. The Teddy Bear becomes more popular
  8. The first movies with a soundtrack become available

The Boston Big Dig and the Problems with Complex Projects

Big infrastructure projects run into a lot of roadblocks primarily because of unforeseen technical and financial challenges and poor project management, but that does not mean we should not try and tackle them sometime. Any major project that comes to mind, the Space Shuttle, the James Webb Telescope or the Channel Tunnel, was faced with these aforementioned problems. One example that I’d like to focus on is the Boston Big Dig the most complex highway project ever undertaken in the United States has served its purpose to alleviate an eyesore from Boston and reduce traffic congestion, but the project was plagued by massive budget overruns, missed deadlines and corruption. Initially budgeted for 2.8 billion dollars, the budget for the project swelled to 14.6 billion, and some estimates place the final cost at 22 billion dollars.


Before the “Big Dig” the central artery (I-93) existed as a raised expressway highway running north-south through the center of Boston, in 1959 the highway carried 75,000 vehicles a day by the 1990s that number grew to almost 190,000. As the number of vehicles would only increase something needed to be done, then Secretary of Transportation Frederick Salvucci and Bill Reynolds both MIT graduates proposed moving the entire expressway underground. Salvucci believed that putting the highway underground would reconnect downtown to the waterfront and increase the amount of green space in the city.

The project consisted of several segments:

  1. The Ted Williams Tunnel a 1.6 mile tunnel beneath Boston Harbor which was completed on time and on schedule, connects South Boston to Logan Airport
  2. The I-90 Extension entailed bringing the Massachusetts Turnpike underneath the Fort Point Channel and South Boston before connecting with the Ted Williams Tunnel
  3. The Thomas P. O’Neill (Former Democratic Speaker of the House who championed the project) a 1.5 mile tunnel that connects I-93 Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge
  4. The Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge replaced a six lane double-decker bridge (the bridge is now an ionic part of the Boston skyline)
  5. The Storrow Drive Connector Tunnel and Bridge and carries traffic to and from the famed Storrow Drive


During construction many engineering challenges posed a challenge such as building the tunnel without effecting the structural of the above roadway. The tunnel also had leaking issues due to subcontractors failing to remove gravel and other debris before concrete was poured. After the project was finished in December 2007 it was discovered that substandard materials were used that led to a fatal ceiling collapse and it has been recently revealed that the wrong material had been used for light fixtures leading to galvanic corrosion.

From my personal experience as an engineer, I can tell you few products are delivered on time which is why release dates are closely guarded secrets. Computer models guide engineers and planners, but they cannot predict how things will behave once construction or assembly starts with real materials. While cost is something we work toward reducing, managing cost is not up to the engineer, that’s up to the project manager and the financial analysts in fact there have been numerous occasions where as an engineer, I’ve stated the line to a client, “I cannot discuss cost, I’m not authorized to do so.” Part of the problem with defining budget and controlling costs is that many large projects are often under-priced to make them attractable to another party, which is what happened in the case of the Big Dig. Sometime certain costs can’t be taken into account; numerous unusual problems appeared during construction, which is very similar to the electronics industry where unusual problems appear due to uncharted technical territory.  That being said the formula for a project is more complicated such that Y=Output and X= # known variables, X1…Xn, but the problem is there are several unknown variables Z1…Zn that will eventually slow down a major project.

The key problems in the Big Dig seem to be accountability, lack of planning for contingencies and oversight, the use of so many contractors made it hard to account for the types of materials used and assuring the same quality of work by each contractor.


Personally, I think the Big Dig has served its purpose as innovative transportation project and establishing Boston as a world-class city with world class infrastructure. Every time, I drive toward Boston I know that I’m approaching my destination once the Zakim bridge is in view, and then I descend into the tunnel and look for my exit. I enjoy walking on parts of the Rose Kennedy Greenway where the previous raised expressway existed.


Some Articles on the Big Dig:


A. Lincoln

“I now leave, not knowing when or whether ever, I may return with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington.”

– A. Lincoln, Farewell address at Springfield, Illinois, February 11, 1861.

Last year I saw the movie “Lincoln”, which covered the closing months of the Civil War and the push by Lincoln to pass the 13th amendment. After I saw the movie I read a biography on Lincoln by Ronald C. White, “A. Lincoln”, and I plan on reading “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Having lived in the great state of Illinois for almost 5 years, I passed car tag after tag with the phrase, “Land of Lincoln”, so I think learning more about our 16th president was in order. On Wikipedia, Lincoln’s profession is listed as a lawyer, he was so much more than just a lawyer in fact Lincoln had several careers, storekeeper, postmaster, surveyor, congressman, inventor, self-taught lawyer, and of course twice elected president. Born in Kentucky to a frontier family that later moved to Indiana, and then finally to Illinois, Lincoln was no stranger to living in different places.

In the late 1840s and 1850s, Lincoln road the Illinois circuit as a lawyer by horseback, as many towns in Illinois were too small to support full-time legal officials. Later horseback travel would be replaced by the railroad that allowed Lincoln and Stephen Douglas to transverse the state of Illinois debating each other which is now known as the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. Without the railroad Lincoln and Douglas would not have been able to debate each other at far ends of the state. Lincoln ended up traveling over 3,400 miles by train, 600 miles by carriage, and 350 miles by boat, during the debates.


Lincoln beat the favorite for the 1860 republican nomination for president, William H. Seward, who was previously the governor of New York and was currently serving as a Senator from New York. The well-traveled and well educated Seward was also anti-slavery was so convinced he would win the nomination he left the United States for a eight-month tour of Europe. This was not unusual presidential candidates did not actively campaign at the time, instead the campaigning was done by surrogates and supporters across the United States. This would be unimaginable today; this would manifest itself in John McCain and Barack Obama staying home while the campaign was underway, there were no debates between the candidates either. It seems a big driving factor behind this was that is was not physically possible to visit all the states in the union in a timely manner.

During his presidency Lincoln utilized the newspaper to spread his speeches and policy, newspapers at the time associated themselves politically with one of the major political parties. It should be pointed out that Lincoln put so much effort in writing his speeches, he prepared for weeks often researching topics, examining facts and looking for inspiration from famous speeches and texts.

A few things that interest me about Lincoln was how he approached problems, whenever Lincoln faced a problem he would write his thoughts down on paper, and jotted down the upside and downside to the topic at hand. Lincoln valued logic and approached things very analytically. When choosing his cabinet, Lincoln did not shy away from people he disagreed with, in fact Lincoln appointed three members of his cabinet that had previous ran against him for the 1860 republican presidential nomination. He also appointed a southern democrat which at the time supported slavery. While Lincoln knew he was president, when he wrote out his choices for his first cabinet, he wrote his name within the list, not above the list. We will never know the true reason Lincoln did this, but we can speculate. However one thing we don’t have to speculate about is that Lincoln and his cabinet members were willing to do what was in the best interest of the country, put aside their differences and worked together to save the country.

Lincoln       Stanton
Seward       Chase
Bates          M.Blair
Dayton       Welles


Lincoln remains the only president to hold a US patent, creating a device that was intended to help boats navigate shallow water. (


Lincoln never one to back away from a challenge and issued the emancipation proclamation which freed slaves in confederate states, Lincoln also signed the confiscation acts of 1861 and 1862 which allowed the seizure of confederate property for the war effort, and allowed African-Americans to participate in the war as soldiers.

The one the thing that frustrated Lincoln the most during the civil war was his generals they always either fought too cautiously or complained incessantly to the President until he found Ulysses S. Grant, who was neither. Lincoln realized that he had to try and get the 13th amendment through congress before the end of the war or justification for the amendment might go away. Unfortunately Lincoln would die shortly after the civil war was won, and before the 13th amendment would be ratified.

One of the reasons why Lincoln remains to me perhaps the best president in US president is the personal sacrifices he endured, two of four children would die while he was alive. His marriage to Mary Lincoln suffered because of his dedication to keep the Union together. During the Civil War, Lincoln had many sleepless nights and was never truly happy until the Civil War ended (April 9, 1865) and was killed shortly after (April 15, 1865), Lincoln being the last causality of the Civil War.