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African-American Technological Contributions: Past, Present, and Future*
Thank you for the invitation to speak to you today.
It’s important to pause and reflect on how African Americans and our ancestors have helped to further scientific and technological progress—often overcoming great odds in the process. We need to give credit where credit is due. In the case of African-American scientists and engineers, there is plenty of credit to go around. Unfortunately, there are lingering falsehoods to overcome. To prepare for the future, you must understand the past.
Over the next half hour I intend to survey two million years worth of history, so I’ll have to talk fast.
In 1676, Sir Isaac Newton wrote that – quote – “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” His famous quote is taken as an acknowledgment that science is a cumulative, richly textured exercise. Newton’s giants—and our giants—certainly include our African forebears, who were the first to begin ascending the ladder of natural knowledge.
Past, of course, is prologue. It sets the stage for our current state of affairs. To understand our present—from the perspective of African-American scientists and engineers and, indeed, from the perspective our nation as whole—we must reckon with the trials and triumphs of black innovators since the days of slavery. This understanding, this appreciation of our hard-won progress, is necessary to chart our future in an ever-more diverse and increasingly competitive global science and technology community.
Our collective future, as U.S. citizens and as inhabitants of this finite planet, depends mightily on progress in science and technology. The stakes have never been higher. It is incumbent on our nation to leverage our diversity and to make African Americans (now 13 percent of the population), Hispanics (14 percent), Asians (5 percent), and members of other minority groups full partners in the quest for a better future.
Today, almost one in eight Americans is an immigrant. Nearly one-fifth of U.S. residents speak a language other than English at home. The number of foreign-born Americans—about 35 million and growing—now exceeds the entire population of Canada. By 2050, the Pew Research Center projects, almost 20 percent of Americans will be immigrants.
The Ashanti people of West Africa say, “There is nothing wrong with going back to fetch what one has forgotten.”
In the case of early Africa and its pioneering contributions to science and technology, there is plenty to go back to fetch, study, appreciate, and even marvel at. Unfortunately, much of that history prior to colonization and the dispersal of African peoples has been buried, obliterated, or appropriated by others.
But archeologists are helping to fill this vast void in human history. Just a few weeks ago, for example, a team reported evidence that pre-pharaoh Egyptians practiced agriculture more than 7,000 years ago—or as far back as 5200 B.C. The evidence of crop farming and domesticated cattle was uncovered at a site 50 miles southwest of Cairo. The settlement may have been occupied for at least 1,000 years.
Evidence of advanced methods of metal making suggest that African peoples may have been the first to enter the Iron Age. The first true steel was made in Africa.
Imhotep, the Father of Medicine, is reported to have treated tuberculosis, gallstones, appendicitis, gout, and arthritis. He also performed surgery and practiced some dentistry. Imhotep extracted medicine from plants. He also knew the position and function of the vital organs and the circulation of the blood system. He lived more than a millennium before Hippocrates (about 2980 B.C.). Sir William Osler, a British scientist and physician, described Imhotep as the first physician to “stand out clearly from the mists of antiquity.”
Here’s a link to modern American history. In the mid-1950s, African-American physicians began to galvanize and to organize against discrimination in American hospitals and health care. They held a series of national meetings, which they called Imhotep conferences. As the historian Ivan Van Sertima explained, the black physicians “correctly perceived the illogic of discrimination against physicians and patients because of their African origin when the Father of Medicine was of African origin.”
Africa has been home to many great civilizations. You may have seen the February (2008) issue of National Geographic magazine, which features a story on the black pharaohs from the Kingdom of Nubia. Nubia and its predecessor civilizations date back about 2,500 years. They were centered in what is present-day Sudan, along the Nile River. Today, Sudan can claim more pyramids than Egypt. These are the remnants of the ancient Nubians.
Around 770 B.C., when feuding warlords were tearing Egypt apart, Nubians marched in and established rule and restored order until about 650 B.C. The three so-called black pharaohs built many monuments. The Temple of the Egyptian sun god, Amun, in ancient Memphis features the remains of a 62-foot-tall column built in honor of the Nubian King Taharqa.
Timbuktu is equally legendary.
The name Timbuktu has taken on mythic meaning, suggesting a place that is very far away. The real Timbuktu lies in Mali, in West Africa. During medieval times, Timbuktu became a center for wealth, culture, art, and higher learning. Located where “the camel met the canoe” (at the point where the Niger River flows northward into the desert), Timbuktu has been a natural meeting point of African peoples and Arabs.
According to the inhabitants of Timbuku, gold came from the south, salt from the north, and divine knowledge from Timbuktu.
Three universities in Timbuktu drew scholars from far away. Around the 12th century, it’s estimated that just one university had an enrollment of 25,000 students in a city with a population of about 100,000 people.
Books were not only written in Timbuktu, but they were also imported and copied there. There was an advanced local book copying industry in the city. The universities and private libraries contained unparalleled scholarly works.
Dating back to the ninth century, some 700,000 manuscripts have been discovered in and around Timbuktu. These manuscripts tell of battles, astronomy, the sciences, and the music of the time. If appropriate preservation steps are not taken, many of these delicate treasures will be lost.
As the Timbuktu Education Foundation put it, the discovery of so many scholarly manuscripts should put to rest the “songs and dance theory” of African people.
Among the impressive examples of early African technology is the Ishango bone. This 20,000-year-old artifact—only 10 centimeters long—was unearthed along the shores of Edward Lake in the Congo. It is now housed in a Belgian museum. The bone has three columns of numbers, adding up to 60, 48, and 60. Number theorists have suggested that this is early evidence of the human ability to multiply. Speculated uses include an early version of the abacus, or calculator. Another possibility is a lunar calendar or an early type of slide rule.
Then there’s Nabta Playa. Located in the north of present day Sudan, Nabta Playa is the oldest known archaeoastronomy site in the world. It’s older than Stonehenge by at least 1,000 years. Built by nomadic tribes, most of the stone structures and other artifacts originated between 7,000 and 6,500 years ago.
Building a megalith that accurately measures the movement of stars across seasons was truly a monumental task. Each megalith at Nabta Playa is about 2 meters wide by 3 meters high. There are six alignments extending across the sediments of the playa, containing a total of 24 megaliths. Like the spokes on a wheel, each alignment radiates outward from the complex structure.
Since I’m from NIST, I tend to be drawn to measurement technologies. In fact, the two artifacts that I just mentioned might be considered to be ancient predecessors of the NIST atomic clock. After all, both seemed to be used to mark, or measure, the passage of time.
The ancient Egyptians fully appreciated the importance of accurate measurement. The most famous example of this is the Egyptian cubit. The cubit traces back to about 3,000 B.C. and was used for some 3,000 years.
It was based on the length of the Pharaoh’s forearm and the width of his hand. The cubit made possible many of the magnificent Egyptian structures.
Very similar to the way we handle national standards today, there was a “royal cubit master” made of unvarying granite as well as less durable “working” or “transfer standard” cubits made of wood. At each full moon, the wood cubits would be checked or calibrated against the master cubit to ensure their accuracy.
These ancient people took their metrology very seriously. The penalty for failing to maintain the accuracy of the cubit was death! As a result, their measurement accuracy was impressive. Over a distance of 230 meters, measurements typically varied by only 0.05 percent.
Now let’s shift our attention to the Western Hemisphere, where the first slaves were brought about 500 years ago.
To state the painfully obvious, opportunities for innovation among African Americans were exceedingly rare. Most slaves lived in the South, where it was illegal to educate blacks. Slave owners believed that educated blacks were more likely to revolt.
Yet, even under these oppressive conditions, there is evidence of technology transfer facilitated by slaves from Africa. For example, slaves in South Carolina are credited with introducing rice farming methods pioneered in Africa. Dugout canoes that were used in the Chesapeake have been traced to the influences of slaves from West Africa. And in the Caribbean, slaves were prized for their metal-making skills.
Or consider the work of these four early African-American innovators.
This brings us to some interesting correspondence between these two men, which also occurred in 1791.
That year, the 60-year-old Banneker wrote a 12-page letter to Jefferson, the chief author of the Declaration of Independence.
He skillfully challenged Jefferson to live up to the principles stated in that document and likened slavery to living under the tyranny of the British crown, which stirred Jefferson to assert the “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal.” Banneker’s letter is truly a remarkable document, and he published it in one of his almanacs.
Banneker’s letter elicited a telling response from Jefferson, then secretary of state. Jefferson’s response has been euphemistically described as indicating his “ambivalence” on the subject of slavery.
I should note that, in 1998, Congress authorized a Banneker Memorial. Appropriately, it will stand on L'Enfant Plaza. Unfortunately, however, progress has been slow.
To be sure, conditions were better for freemen, but the window of opportunity was very narrow. And among those who did achieve success, history has had a way of obscuring their accomplishments.
In a metaphorical sense—and for a little comic relief—permit me to illustrate how the popular media also can confuse the matter.
Some of you may be old enough to recall the 1960s TV series The Real McCoys.
Far more interesting is the life Elijah McCoy, inventor of a popular type of oil-dripping cup. This invention made it possible to automate lubrication of train locomotives, ship engines, and other types of heavy machinery.
Born to fugitive slaves who had escaped to Canada, Elijah demonstrated his inventive and mechanical skills while growing up on a farm in Ontario. At age 16, he went to Scotland where he served an apprenticeship and then became certified as a master mechanic and engineer.
After the end of the Civil War, McCoy rejoined his family and moved to a town outside of Detroit. There, he immediately discovered that he was overqualified for the jobs that were open to him. In 1870, he settled for a job on the Michigan Central Railroad as a fireman and oiler. In addition to shoveling about two tons of coal every hour, he jumped out at every stop and, with oilcan in hand, lubricated all moving parts. At his home machine shop, this underutilized master mechanic and engineer devised the prototype of his first lubricating cup. He received a patent on his invention in 1872, and shortly thereafter his employer put it to the test. The result: Locomotives lasted longer and required less maintenance.
McCoy went on to develop a series of lubricating devices with new capabilities or for new applications. Lacking the money needed to invest in full-scale production of his devices, McCoy sold the patent rights, reportedly making millions for others while providing just enough money to sustain his inventive ways. In all, he patented more than 70 inventions. Though often imitated, his lubricators proved superior, convincing purchasing agents to insist on the “real McCoy.” While this popular phrase also may have stemmed from a couple of different origins, McCoy’s combination of inventive genius and determination is worthy of distinction.
Henry E. Baker, an African American from Mississippi, was an assistant patent examiner at the U.S. Patent Office. Dedicated to bringing recognition to black inventors, Baker conducted a survey in the early 1900s to learn about their creative activities over the half century since the Emancipation Proclamation. He sent letters to patent attorneys, newspapers, company presidents, and leaders of the African American community. Like any good researcher, he lists the constraints and limitations of his methods and the resulting data, but his findings tell a fascinating story.
Though only part of the story, these 800 patents, in the words of the author, “tell a wonderful story of the progress of the race in the mastery of the science of mechanics. They cover inventions of more or less importance in all the branches of mechanics, in chemical compounds, in surgical instruments, in electrical utilities, and in the fine arts as well.”
Here’s a sampling of early innovations credited to African Americans up until about 1920. I’ll elaborate on a few.
In 1893 at a Chicago Hospital, Daniel Hale Williams, a black physician performed the first open heart surgery. His patient was James Cornish, a young man who had been stabbed in the chest. Cornish’s wound had been treated, but he was bleeding internally and would have soon died if not for Williams’ decision to perform surgery.
In so doing, Dr. Williams pioneered the use of antiseptic techniques. The patient made a full recovery and, reportedly, lived a long life.
Granville Woods is credited with developing the concept of the third rail. The additional rail allows a train to receive more electricity while reducing friction. This concept is still used on subway train platforms in major cities in the United States. Woods was called the “Black Edison.” He patented more than 50 inventions including an automatic brake and improvements to other inventions, such as safety circuits, telegraphs, telephones, and phonographs.
Born in Dutch Guiana, Jan Matzeliger developed and perfected the technology that made shoes affordable for the common person. His shoe lasting machine automated the process of sewing the tops of shoes to the soles, and is credited with making shoes affordable for the average American.
Garrett Morgan came up with two inventions: the gas mask and the traffic signal that featured automated STOP and GO signs. Morgan’s gas mask was used to protect soldiers from chlorine fumes during World War I.
Now, let’s advance the calendar a few decades. These are local heroes, pioneers with ties to our area. Obviously, there are many other examples of African Americans who excelled in the face of adversity or whose accomplishments were overlooked or even suppressed. All have a story worth being told.
All of these individuals came from homes that placed a premium on learning. They had parents who encouraged them to rise above the obstacles of discrimination and to succeed.
For most of the 20th century, African-American scientists and mathematicians were the rarest of anomalies. The vast majority of African Americans were the products of separate and unequal schools. There, they attained the rough equivalent of about a sixth grade education. And when they were done with their schooling, they could only aspire to certain fields. Most were relegated to a certain category of service industry jobs.
Choices among the professions were extremely limited as well. When your own Jim West received his National Medal of Technology in 2006 he summed up the job situation for blacks up until the 1950s and 1960s. He said: “There were four accepted professions at that time for black people: Lawyer, Preacher, Teacher, Doctor, but practically nothing else. Any interest outside of these traditional jobs was actively discouraged. My father introduced me to a number of blacks with Ph.D.s in science who worked in the U.S. Post Office and in the railroad Pullman services. . .”
I can relate to this statement. My own father, the smartest man I knew, never got a job better than one at the post office. Denying educational opportunities and careers choices to segments of our society—to any American, for that matter—translates into lost opportunities for all of America.
That is the key take-home message that I want to convey to you and that we should convey to others. America denies itself when it denies African Americans or any other minority group or individual. And in this most competitive world, to deny opportunity is to ensure failure.
Malcolm X reportedly asked this rhetorical question not long after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. He asked, “Why don’t members of the media ask blacks about what they think about the problem of world health or the space race to land a man on the moon?” I think we all know what he was driving at. Discrimination denied African Americans of opportunities. Conversely, adversity deprived the Nation of many more technological contributions and new seeds of knowledge that surely would have sprouted in a free and open society.
Yet, despite this adversity, there is much to celebrate. There have been many, many scientific and technological contributions born from the genius and wrought from the hard work of past and current generations of African Americans.
Today, a question like the one posed by Malcolm X would draw a quizzical stare. Blacks have traveled into space and some have even died there, as have other minorities and women as well. Blacks have led teams that built advanced instruments that peer into the heavens. They are developing new vaccines, working to develop clean sources of energy, building the next generations of information technology, and much, much more.
By comparison with the past, we are fortunate to have many more top-caliber African-American scientists and engineers whose achievements we can all celebrate. Choices and opportunities have grown.
I don’t know what kind of poem a modern day Langston Hughes might write. But the accomplishments and pursuits of today’s Africa-American researchers and technologists certainly must qualify as inspiration for new poetry.
Now, there is a risk in listing a few examples from an expanding list of good candidates. I made a subjective choice and picked three—all of whom have a family or professional link to our area. And, all three, I should add, are movers and shakers. They are committed to science, to their nation, and to motivating more African Americans to join, as Walter Massey put it, the “uncompromising pursuit of truth . . . the highest achievement of human intelligence.”
Like I said, this is a very small sampling. Ben Carson, the John Hopkins neurosurgeon, and Freeman Hrabowski, the gifted and energetic leader of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, are two of several obvious omissions from our local scientific community.
But the experiences and ascents of Shirley Ann Jackson, Walter Massey, and Willie May illustrate an extremely important point: the critical importance of family, mentors, and supportive institutional environments.
“Without mentors,” Walter Massey once wrote, “I would not have been a scientist.”
Since the 1960s, the number of African Americans in the pipeline has increased from, shall we say, “trace levels” to a small but steady flow. Today, high-achieving African-American and other minority students who earn science and engineering degrees can, in some respects, write their own ticket when it comes to advanced academic pursuits and placement within industry—and government.
That’s one solid indicator of how times have changed. Solid progress has been made. But by several measures, the progress has been uneven and the pace has been too slow—and not just for African Americans. This slide is a “good news, bad news” appraisal.
The graphs serve merely as visual evidence of positive trends. The top one shows trends in shares of science and engineering (S&E) bachelor’s degrees for all groups. And shares have been increasing for all minorities. The bottom graph shows that among underrepresented minorities (which does not include Asians and Pacific Islanders), African Americans and Hispanics have more than doubled the number of S&E doctorates awarded annually since 1985.
Today, African Americans make up only 5.1 percent of the nation’s science and engineering workforce. That’s up from 2.6 percent in 1980. Over the same time span, women have increased their share of S&E jobs to almost 26 percent—or more than double their share in 1980.
The optimist might say that when it comes to attracting minorities and women to careers in science and engineering the proverbial glass is half full.
But our job, as a nation, is to fill the glass. And, at the rate we’re going, it’s going to take a really, really long time.
Consider this factoid from the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education: Blacks hold 5.2 percent of full-time faculty positions in higher education. That’s an increase of one percentage point since 1980. The journal calculates that, at this rate, it will take nearly two centuries (192 years) for the black faculty share to reach parity with the black percentage of the U.S. population.
We need to do better. So much better. I believe we need to work harder and faster. The stakes for the United States, for all of us, are huge.
We are at a crossroads. We have to move aggressively to attract people to science. There have been numerous blue-ribbon-panel studies documenting the need to build and strengthen the Nation’s science and engineering workforce.
The consequences of not meeting this need are captured in this statement from the influential National Academy of Sciences Report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future:
This report, which captured the attention of the White House and Congress, made four recommendations. Two of the four focus directly on people:
It is clear that the United States must increase its supply of homegrown science and engineering talent. Other nations certainly are.
Consider, for example, that in the U.S. 15 percent of undergraduates receive their degrees in a natural science or engineering discipline. That’s fewer than one in seven.
In South Korea, the corresponding proportion is better than one in three. In China and France, it’s half of all degrees. In Singapore, it’s two-thirds.
So, where does the United States get the future scientists and engineers it will need to remain a leader in innovation and to grow its economy or—in other words—to remain globally competitive?
Increasingly, they will have to come from the ranks of minorities. By 2050, minorities will make up 52 percent of the college-age population (18-24), as compared with 34 percent at the turn of this new century.
Some people might suggest that the U.S. can draw the needed science and engineering talent from abroad.
Regardless of your views on visas and immigration issues, this option may wither away. More and more foreign scientists and engineers are choosing to pursue careers in their home nations or in other countries besides the U.S. A recent article by a pair of researchers who have spent the last five years examining these trends concludes that—quote—“Clearly the U.S. is no longer the universally preferred home for the global technology elite.”1
Let’s return to the topic that brought us here today, the technological contributions of African Americans—past, present, future. In the United States, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have been strong positive forces.
In the minds of many, the example that stands out is Tuskegee and the leadership of George Washington Carver, an innovator with few equals. But there are many shining examples among the 117 HBCUs in the United States.
In the science and engineering disciplines, these institutions play an especially critical and nationally valuable role. A few statistics provide the evidence for this claim.
Slightly more than 20 percent of African-American undergraduates earned their bachelor’s at an HBCU in 2004. That translates into a big number—more than 26,000. However, the role of HBCUs is even more pronounced in several science fields. For example, 35 percent of blacks earning a bachelor’s in chemistry did so at an HBCU, 35% in the biological sciences, 37 percent in math, and a remarkable 61 percent in physics.
My friends at the American Institute of Physics tell me that the role of HBCUs in physics has been at this high level for quite some time. There are 36 physics degree-granting departments in HBCUs and five of them offer Ph.D.s. Conversely, very few African Americans (about 60-70 per year) earn a bachelor’s at the 730 physics degree-granting departments in majority schools.
And according to an NSF report, black students completing their undergraduate education at HBCUs are more likely than those from other schools to attend graduate school and to complete doctoral degrees in science and engineering.
So, it’s clear that historically black colleges and universities are essential to efforts to build the Nation’s scientific and technical workforce.
It’s equally clear that predominantly white institutions also are basic to the solution. After all, they award nearly 80 percent of bachelor’s degrees earned by blacks. And to find a model to follow, all we have to do is look north of here, to the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC). Under the leadership of Freeman Hrabowski, according to an editorial in the New York Times, UMBC “is rocking the house when it comes to the increasingly critical mission of turning American college students into scientists.”
It has devised a “university as mentor” approach to attracting and preparing women and minorities to science and engineering. UMBC has become a national model for diversity, and it has the numbers to show that the model works. For example, the university ranks first in the total number of undergraduate biochemistry degrees awarded to African Americans. In overall production of biochemistry degrees, UMBC ranks seventh nationally.
In this new century, difficult problems and tantalizing opportunities abound. Members of the science and engineering community fully recognize the challenging nature of the times ahead. We have a responsibility to serve as role models and to light sparks of curiosity in the minds of American youths. We have a duty, I believe, to become active participants in the recruitment of the next generation of innovators.
We must conduct our own star search, recognizing that creativity shines in many different wavelengths, or colors.
Let’s not debate whether our nation’s innovation glass is half empty or half full. Let’s endeavor to fill it up with new ideas and new knowledge that pour in from every corner of society.
I believe that our nation’s diversity is its greatest asset. We need to leverage this asset in the interest of all.
1Leonard Lynn and Howard Salzman, “The Real Global Technology Challenge.” Change, July/August 2007
* As prepared for delivery but modified to accommodate for the omission of slides used