Black History Month: Famous Black Engineers and Scientists

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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