Recognizing Black contributions to engineering
In 2022, Black Americans accounted for 12.6% of the employed population over age 16, but they made up only 6.7% of the workforce in architectural, engineering, and related services and 6.7% in construction. Some might interpret these statistics to mean that Black Americans are uninterested in science and technology careers, but history shows nothing could be further from the truth. Black Americans—both trained professionals and self-taught inventors—have been contributing to the field of engineering for most if not all of U.S. history. Here are just a few who have made advancements in transportation and transit, building systems, CAD programming, communications hardware and software, and office technology.
Elijah McCoy (1844–1929)
Born free in Canada to African-American parents who had escaped enslavement in Kentucky, Elijah McCoy grew up in America and became one of its most prolific Black inventors and patent holders. He primarily invented lubrication systems for steam engines.
McCoy’s path to engineering success was not a straightforward one. He attended segregated schools as a child before being sent to Scotland at age 15. He apprenticed as a mechanical engineer and, after studying at the University of Edinburgh, earned his mechanical engineering certification. But when he returned to the United States, the only work he could find was as a fireman and oiler at the Michigan Central Railroad.
Undaunted, McCoy used his access to the railroad’s machine shop to work on improvements to steam engine equipment. He invented both the displacement lubricator and automatic lubricator, the latter of which he patented in 1872. These and other lubrication enhancements enabled trains (and ships) to run faster for longer, making them more profitable as they spent less time out of commission for maintenance.
According to the Michigan Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics, by 1899 the McCoy lubricator was in use on almost all North American railroads. Some claim that he lends his name to the expression “the real McCoy”— but you’ll have to do your own research to decide the truth of that.
William Hunter Dammond (1873–1956)
Although he was born a generation or two after Elijah McCoy in another state, William Hunter Dammond shares a connection to him via the Michigan Central Railroad (MCR). Dammond was the first African-American to graduate from the Western University of Pennsylvania (now known as the University of Pittsburgh) in 1893; unfortunately, even with a civil engineering degree, he also found it difficult to secure employment as an engineer. After a string of unrelated jobs, he went to work for the railroad in the early 1900s.
Officially, Dammond was a bridge engineer with MCR. But while he was there, he developed a new, automatic railway signal system to replace the traditional hand-signal system, which was prone to human error. Called the Dammond circuit, the system used an alternating current with a battery backup to provide audio and visual signals within the driver’s cab to indicate an oncoming train. This system was patented in 1903, and versions of it were used on the Long Island Rail Road, Pennsylvania Railroad, New York Central Railroad, and New York City Subway.
In 1906, Dammond went on to patent an additional safety mechanism to signal the conditions on approaching track. This system used the now-familiar color scheme of green, amber, and red to indicate “clear,” “caution,” and “danger” respectively.
Garrett Morgan (1877–1963)
Garrett Augustus Morgan Sr. made wide-ranging contributions to American industry through improvements to existing technology and new inventions. His earliest inventions were related to a job where he repaired sewing machines: he created both a belt fastener and a zigzag attachment.
While working on one such innovation, a lubricant for sewing machine needles that prevented them from burning fabric while sewing, Morgan accidentally discovered that the liquid could also straighten hair. He made the liquid into a cream, patented it in 1913, and launched a hair care products company. Among his other cosmetic creations were a black hair oil dye and a hair straightening comb.
Shifting gears again, Morgan developed an early version of a gas mask, known as a smoke hood. The design incorporated a moist sponge to filter and cool polluted air, and a series of dangling tubes that allowed the wearer to breathe the relatively clean air that exists closer to the ground in a smoky environment. Later models added an airbag that could store up to 15 minutes of fresh air.
The contribution most familiar to engineers today, however, comes from his work on traffic signals. Like William Hunter Dammond before him, Morgan was concerned with safety—in Morgan’s case, motorist and pedestrian safety. At the time, traffic signals were manually operated and had two positions, “stop” and “go.” Morgan invented a switching system that enabled a third position between the other two, “all stop.” This allowed vehicles and pedestrians to clear the intersection before the traffic flow changed.
Today, Morgan’s traffic signal system is analogous to the way traffic with the right of way slows down and prepares to yield before all signals briefly sync on a red light.
David Crosthwait, Jr. (1898–1976)
David Crosthwait Jr. is another notable American inventor whose background is in mechanical and electrical engineering. He dedicated his career to air ventilation, central air conditioning, and heat transfer systems. His expertise in refrigeration methods, temperature regulation devices, and vacuum pumps helped him secure 39 U.S. patents and 80 international patents. He also wrote and revised codes, standards, guides, and instruction manuals related to HVAC systems.
He was particularly interested in climate control for large buildings, and in the 1920s and 1930s he developed a vacuum pump, boiler, and thermostat control specifically for that purpose. His most recognizable works are the heating systems inside the Rockefeller Center and New York’s Radio City Music Hall.
Walter Braithwaite (1945–)
Before the 1970s, designers and manufacturers relied on manual drafting and mockup processes to develop prototypes. Even in advanced fields like aerospace, engineers were dependent on pencil and paper methods to create new models.
Enter Walter Braithwaite, a Jamaican-born engineer with a background in diesel engineering and degrees in mechanical engineering, computer science, and, later, business management. Braithwaite joined Boeing’s Fabrication Division as a tool engineer in 1966 and rose to the position of senior engineer by 1975.
Braithwaite advocated for the use of computer-aided drafting (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) programs at Boeing. He also led the development of the Initial Graphics Exchange Specification (IGES), a protocol for sharing digital information between CAD/CAM systems.
Before IGES, each system had its own proprietary “language,” and programs operated by different companies and public sector groups were unable to “speak” to each other. Braithwaite’s concept of a standard data representation, which enabled the Boeing 777 to be completely design on a computer and is still in use today, allows professionals to share 2D and 3D information between applications like Autodesk, AutoCAD, SOLIDWORKS, and SketchUp.
Jesse Russell (1948–)
If you own a mobile device with an internet connection, you have Jesse Russell to thank. Russell has spent more than 20 years in the wireless communication field inventing and innovating in the area of broadband wireless networks, technologies, and services—anything you would typically think of when you hear “4G.”
Russell was not always interested in technology, or even academics. An athlete from economically depressed neighborhoods in Nashville, Tennessee, his interest in STEM wasn’t sparked until he went to a summer educational program. From there, he decided to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from Tennessee State University, earning top honors from the university’s School of Engineering. After graduation, Russell was hired by AT&T Bell Laboratories, the first African-American to be hired directly from a Historically Black College or University (HBCU).
Russell has a staggering 100+ patents granted or in process related to wireless communication systems, radio access networks, end-user devices like data-capable mobile phones, and in-building wireless communication systems. He is best known for inventing the digital cellular base station, more commonly known as the cell tower.
Kerrie Holley (1954–)
Whereas Jesse Russell has focused his career on hardware, contemporary Kerrie Holley has dedicated himself to software engineering. In particular, he has advanced the study and practice of information architecture and software engineering through scalable services, service-oriented architecture (SOA), and APIs—concepts that are no doubt familiar to our asset management and IT professionals.
Holley grew up on the south side of Chicago and excelled at math and science from a young age. He earned Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics and a Juris Doctor Degree from DePaul University, which he parlayed into a career with IBM: first as an advisory systems engineer, then as an analytics consultant, and finally as Chief Technology Officer of the SOA Architecture Center of Excellence.
Service-oriented architecture offers a solution to one of the greatest challenges in enterprise software system development: what do you do when things change? If you build one large, complex piece of software, then changing one element might require painfully re-working the whole system. SOA, on the other hand, relies on a collection of discrete modules, called services, to collectively provide the desired functionality. Changes can often be isolated to one or a few services, reducing the amount of overall disruption.
Service-oriented architecture can be found in the operations of just about every industry, including digital communications, finance, healthcare, and utilities like electricity.
Ursula Burns (1958–)
Xerox has been a staple of the document production and reproduction business for decades, and it is not uncommon for engineers to turn to them for wide-format printing of plans and construction documents. In the early 2000s, however, the company’s financial future seemed tenuous: bankruptcy was not out of the question. Ursula Burns turned things around.
Burns grew up in a New York City housing project, the daughter of Panamanian immigrants raised by a single mother. She earned a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute (now New York University Tandon School of Engineering) in 1980. She went on to complete a master of science degree in mechanical engineering at Columbia University just one year later.
During the summer between her bachelor’s and master’s programs, Burns took an internship with Xerox. She performed well and joined the company permanently a year later, after completing her master’s degree. Over the two decades that followed, she worked in various product development, planning, and corporate leadership roles.
Burns became the first Black woman CEO to head a Fortune 500 company, and was also the first woman to succeed another woman as head of a Fortune 500 company. While at the helm, Burns led the acquisition of Affiliated Computer Services and initiated the split that turned Xerox into two independent companies: Xerox Corporation and Conduent Incorporated. Together, these changes transformed Xerox from a struggling document management business on the brink of bankruptcy to a profitable business services company.
Burns is also noteworthy for her role as the leader of the White House National STEM program from 2009 to 2016.
Mark Dean (1957–)
Mark Dean, a contemporary of Ursula Burns, has also made significant contributions to the modern office environment. An American inventor and computer engineer, Dean was involved in three major computer science developments that help today’s engineers.
First, he is one of the co-creators of the IBM personal computer released in 1981. In fact, he holds three of the nine patents for the PC. The majority of personal computers today are descendants of Dean’s co-creation.
Second, he invented the Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) bus, also in 1981. In simple terms, a bus is a communication system that transfers data between components inside a computer. The central processing unit (CPU) communicates with the system’s memory using a bus, and Dean’s ISA bus allowed separate peripheral cards to communicate with the memory in the same way. Since peripherals typically operate at different speeds and using different protocols than the CPU does, the ISA bus was designed so that peripherals would not slow down system performance.
Third, Dean led the team that built a 1 GHz computer processor chip, which can do one billion calculations per second. Today’s commercially available processors, which can clock in at a staggering 5.7 GHz, are possible because of the groundwork laid by Dean.
Dean attributes the love of tinkering that drove these inventions to a childhood spent tagging along after his father, a Tennessee Valley Authority dam supervisor who was responsible for inspecting turbines and generators.
Jerry Lawson (1940–2011)
As well-documented fans of video games (check our credentials here, here, and here), we would be remiss if we didn’t show our appreciation for Jerry Lawson, who designed the Fairchild Channel F video game console. While the Channel F was outshone by the Atari Video Computer System released the following year, Lawson’s real contribution to games was the creation and use of the first programmable ROM cartridges, which were adopted by Atari, Coleco, Mattel, Nintendo, SNK, Sega, and Sony, among others.
Lonnie George Johnson (1949–)
For those who spent more of their playtime outside than inside, you may well have Lonnie Johnson to thank for your summertime fun. Johnson is best known for inventing the Super Soaker water gun, which was the top-selling toy in the United States from 1991 to 1992. He was also involved in the development of later Nerf guns. In addition to holding 250+ patents, Johnson is a retired U.S. Air Force service member, a former member of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and a green energy advocate.
George F. Grant (1846–1910)
Although George Grant was not an engineer himself—he was a dentist by profession and Harvard University’s first Black faculty member—he did make a key contribution to a beloved pastime of engineers with the invention of an improved wooden golf tee.
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