Breaking Barriers: The Unsung Black Heroes of Communications Technology

June 19, 2023

Black innovators have revolutionized the way we communicate today, despite facing systemic barriers. From the invention of Voice over IP (VoIP), touch-tone phones, caller ID, and call waiting, these contributions have changed the face of modern communications.

These innovations have not only made communication faster and more efficient, but they have also paved the way for future developments in the field. In this article, we’ll celebrate Juneteenth by recognizing eight Black innovators who changed the face of communications technology forever.

1. Granville Woods (1856 – 1910)

Granville Woods developed several inventions that made communication faster, more efficient, and more accessible. Woods was a self-taught electrical engineer whose technical expertise was unmatched. He held more than 60 patents for inventions related to communications technology. One of Woods’ most significant contributions was the development of the multiplex telegraph. This device allowed multiple messages to be transmitted over a single wire at the same time, which revolutionized the telegraph industry. Prior to this invention, telegraph companies had to lay multiple wires to accommodate the increasing demand for communication. Woods’ invention saved these companies a significant amount of money and created a more efficient system for sending messages.

Another important invention by Woods was the induction telegraph. This device used electrical induction to transmit messages wirelessly over short distances. The induction telegraph was a precursor to modern-day wireless communication systems and paved the way for future innovations in wireless communication technology.


2. Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson (b.1946)

Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson is a theoretical physicist who was the first Black woman to earn a doctorate from MIT. She has made significant contributions to the field of communications technology, including the development of touch-tone phones, caller ID, and call waiting. Thanks to her contributions, we can now enjoy faster internet speeds, clearer phone connections, and more reliable communication channels than ever in history.

One of Dr. Jackson’s most notable contributions is her work in fiber optic cables. She was one of the first researchers to study the behavior of light in glass fibers, which laid the foundation for the development of high-speed telecommunications networks. Her research focused on using light to carry information instead of traditional electrical signals, which allowed for faster and more efficient communication.  This enabled us to transmit information over long distances at incredible speeds.

Another significant contribution made by Dr. Jackson was her work on caller ID technology. Dr. Jackson’s research focused on developing algorithms and software that accurately identify incoming calls and display their information on the recipient’s phone.

Dr. Jackson’s work on touch-tone telephone technology was a significant improvement over the older rotary dial system, as it allowed for faster and more accurate dialing. Dr. Jackson’s research focused on developing new materials and manufacturing techniques that made it possible to produce touch-tone buttons that were more reliable and durable than ever before.

Dr. Jackson’s has received numerous awards and honors for her work, including being elected to the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences. She has also been awarded the National Medal of Science, which is the highest honor given to scientists in the United States.


3. Otis Boykin (1920 – 1982)

Otis Boykin was a self-taught engineer who invented a number of crucial components used in televisions, radios, and computers.

One of Boykin’s most notable inventions is the variable resistor, which is used in almost every electronic device today. This device regulates the flow of electricity by reducing its voltage, making it safer and more efficient. Boykin’s resistor was more reliable and cheaper to produce than previous models, as well as making it easier to use in a variety of technologies.

Another one of Boykin’s important contributions to the field of communications technology was his work on the IBM computer. He designed and developed a new type of resistor that was used in IBM’s early computers, which greatly improved their performance and reliability. This innovation helped pave the way for modern-day computers, which are faster, more powerful, and more reliable than ever before.


4. Dr. Mark Dean (b. 1956)

Dr. Mark Dean is best known for his technical contributions to the development of personal computers and their components. He co-invented the ISA bus architecture, which made it possible for peripherals like printers and modems to be connected to a computer.

One of his most notable contributions was his involvement in developing the first color PC monitor. With this innovation, personal computers became more than just tools for writing documents and crunching numbers – they became platforms for entertainment and creative expression.

Moreover, he was also a key contributor to the development of the first gigahertz microprocessor, which is the heart of modern computing devices. This chip made it possible for computers to process information at unprecedented speeds, which paved the way for the development of more powerful software applications, multimedia content, and other advanced technologies.

In addition to his contributions to computer hardware, Dr. Dean has also worked on improving software and networking technologies. He co-invented TCP/IP offload technology, which allows network processing tasks to be handled by a dedicated processor rather than the computer’s CPU. This innovation led to faster and more efficient networking, making it possible for people all over the world to connect and share information at lightning speed.


5. Dr. James E. West (b. 1931)

Dr. James E. West is best known for his co-invention of the electret microphone, which is widely used in many communication devices today. The electret microphone is a small device that converts sound waves into electrical signals, allowing us to communicate with others over distances.

Dr. West and his colleague Gerhard M. Sessler developed the electret microphone in the 1960s while working at Bell Laboratories. They created a new type of material called an electret, which is a type of plastic that can hold a permanent electric charge. They used this material to create a tiny electrically charged membrane that vibrates in response to sound waves, generating an electric signal that can be amplified and transmitted through communication systems.

The electret microphone has many advantages over traditional microphones, including higher sensitivity, improved noise reduction, and lower power consumption. It is used in a wide range of applications, from telephones and surveillance systems to hearing aids and musical instruments. The electret microphone has also enabled the development of new technologies such as voice-controlled assistants and hands-free communication devices like Alexa and Siri.

In addition to his work on the electret microphone, Dr. West has made other important contributions to communications technology. He has over 250 patents to his name and has worked on projects related to sound recording, ultrasound imaging, and acoustic sensors. He has received numerous awards and honors for his contributions to science and technology, including the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.


6. Dr. Marian Croak (b. 1955)

Dr. Marian Croak is a renowned American engineer best known for her role in the development of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). Dr. Croak developed a system for compressing digital voice data. This system, known as adaptive multi-rate (AMR) technology, allows voice data to be transmitted over the Internet. It achieves this by analyzing the characteristics of the voice signal and adjusting the compression rate in real time to optimize the balance between quality and file size. This means that even on slower Internet connections, users can still enjoy high-quality voice communication without experiencing any noticeable delays or distortion.

Dr. Croak’s work on VoIP also developed a system for routing voice traffic over the Internet. This system, known as session initiation protocol (SIP), is a protocol for establishing, modifying, and terminating multimedia sessions such as voice and video calls over IP networks. It enables users to make and receive calls using their existing phone numbers, regardless of where they are in the world. This has made it possible for individuals and businesses to communicate more effectively and affordably without having to rely on expensive traditional phone systems.

Another important contribution that Dr. Croak made to communications technology was her work on text-to-speech (TTS) technology. TTS technology allows computers to convert written text into spoken words. For people who are visually impaired or have difficulty reading, these advancements were life-changing. Today, TTS technology is used in a wide range of applications, from voice assistants like Siri and Alexa to automated customer service systems.


7. Dr. Clarence “Skip” Ellis (1943 – 2014)

Dr. Clarence “Skip” Ellis was among the first African Americans to earn a Ph.D. in computer science. One of Dr. Ellis’ most significant contributions was the development of time-sharing systems, which allowed multiple users to access a single computer simultaneously. With time-sharing systems, many people could use a single computer, making computing more accessible and affordable. This was a major breakthrough in the early days of computing, when computers were expensive and only a few people had access to them.

Another important contribution that Dr. Ellis made to communications technology was the development of interactive graphics systems. These systems allowed users to interact with computer-generated images in real-time, opening up new possibilities for computer-based communication. He believed that computers should be more accessible to ordinary people, and worked tirelessly to make this possible. He developed a user-friendly programming language known as “INTERLISP,” which enabled non-experts to interact with computers in a more natural way.

Ellis also made enormous strides in the field of artificial intelligence (AI). He was one of the first researchers to recognize the potential of AI in solving complex problems, and his work on natural language processing helped to lay the foundation for modern-day chatbots and virtual assistants.


8. Dr. Mae Jemison (b. 1956)

Dr. Mae Jemison is a pioneering astronaut, physician, and engineer who has dedicated her life to advancing technology and promoting science education.

One of Dr. Jemison’s most significant contributions to communications technology was her work on the development of satellite-based telecommunications systems. Jemison developed a satellite-based telecommunications system called the “Skyfemme” that aimed to improve communication in rural areas. This system used satellite technology to provide wireless access to underserved communities, allowing people to communicate with each other and access essential services like healthcare and education. Dr. Jemison’s work in this area has had a significant impact on improving communication infrastructure in remote areas of the world.


Moving towards a more equitable future

The contributions of Black inventors and innovators in communications technology have been immense, and their legacies continue to shape the field today. As we celebrate Juneteenth, it’s important to recognize these unsung heroes.

By celebrating the contributions of Black people in communications technology, we can work towards a more equitable future where everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.

Below you will find a list of resources specifically geared towards supporting Black people in the fields of communications and information technology:

Black Girls Code
Blacks in Technology
The Hidden Genius Project
Black Data Processing Associates (BDPA)
Black Women in Technology (BWT)

Optus is dedicated to creating a diverse and equitable work community. Learn more about working at Optus.

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