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Author Myrlie Evers-Williams is a trailblazer as an activist for civil rights

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Innovators who break barriers

African-American feats in science, technology
are helping to revolutionize everyday lives

Philip Emeagwali, a computer scientist and civil engineer, is one of the fathers of the Internet and a trailblazer in petroleum extraction  

February 9, 2001
Web posted at: 3:43 PM EST (2043 GMT)

In this story:

A father of the Internet

Satellites and robotics

Super Soaker story


Student News Archive

Contributions of African-Americans reach beyond sports, entertainment and the arts -- the fields most often cited in discussions of African-American achievements. But scientific innovations and inventions -- ranging from a safe way to store and transfuse blood to modern uses of electricity -- developed by African-Americans have saved and changed lives. Current projects could yield increases in oil field projections and make flying safer. Recognition of accomplishments by African-American scientists provide role models for young people and refute claims of the intellectual inferiority of the race.

(CNNfyi) -- Imagine it. At 34,000 feet above the Earth, a pilot announces to passengers that debris has damaged the plane's wing. Calmly, she informs them that the wing has begun repairing itself, and the flight will continue uninterrupted.

With the morphing technology developing under the leadership of Anna McGowan at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia, self-repairing airplane wings and space shuttle skin are closer to reality.

graphic On the cutting edge: Use our profile gallery to meet some of the African-American innovators who have changed society

McGowan's projects, like those of other African-Americans now and earlier, stand to revolutionize technology that affects people's everyday lives. It furthers a legacy that includes the work of Charles Drew, who made blood banks possible; Elbert Robinson, who invented the electric trolley; and Lewis Latimer, the inventor of the electric lamp.

Anna McGowan, a scientist at NASA, leads a research group that is developing material to allow airplane wings to repair themselves  

Previous and current achievements of African-Americans include using voltage to change a satellite's position; creating the Super Soaker, the popular, power-packing water gun; and helping develop the Internet. Yet often credit for those contributions is absent or misdirected.

"The people who teach our kids have never been properly educated about the contributions of African-Americans," said Charles E. Jones, chairman of the department of African-American studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia, and students do not learn about the accomplishments of African-American inventors.

But proper credit for inventions and discoveries is important, Jones said.

"In our society, we are often taught, or it's instilled by popular culture or the news media, that African-Americans are inferior to the larger population," Jones said. "It's important to counter 'The Bell Curve' and the long history of white supremacy. We talk about black inventors to say that (inferiority) is not the case. We have made contributions in a host of fields of medicine and technology that have advanced mankind."

A father of the Internet

Philip Emeagwali, a computer scientist, is but one example. He uses his mathematical and computer expertise to develop methods for extracting more petroleum from oil fields.

It was his formula that used 65,000 separate computer processors to perform 3.1 billion calculations per second in 1989. That feat led to computer scientists comprehending the capabilities of supercomputers and the practical applications of creating a system that allowed multiple computers to communicate. He is recognized as one of the fathers of the Internet.

Supercomputers range in price from $30 million to $100 million, and computer companies had reservations about building them for fear few agencies would make such pricey purchases.

"At that time, the argument was, 'We shouldn't build computers that way because who can program them?' " said Emeagwali, who is also a civil engineer. "I answered that question by successfully programming them."

Future applications for Emeagwali's breakthroughs with the use of data generated by massively parallel computers include weather forecasting and the study of global warming.

Satellites and robotics

Joycelyn S. Harrison, a NASA chemical engineer, is pioneering technology for satellites and robotics  

Joycelyn S. Harrison, a chemical engineer at NASA's Langley Research Center, is helping to develop new uses for electro-active polymers. The polymers move or change shape when exposed to voltage.

"We're working on shaping reflectors, solar sails and satellites," Harrison said. "Sometimes you need to be able to change a satellite's position or get a wrinkle off of its surface to produce a better image."

Satellites with the polymers on their surface could be repaired remotely, Harrison said. The technology also has potential uses as synthetic muscles in robotics, she said.

Super Soaker story

Lonnie Johnson, a nuclear and mechanical engineer, spent years at NASA, too. While there, he helped develop thermodynamic and control systems for space projects, including those for the Galileo Jupiter probe and the Mars Observer project.

Johnson, who now operates his own research and development company, also invented the Super Soaker. He said he got the idea for the popular water toy while experimenting with a new heat pump for refrigerators that would use water and eliminate the need for Freon.

Lonnie Johnson, a nuclear and mechanical engineer, invented toys such as the Super Soaker to generate capital to develop more complex devices  

So what moved him from engineering to toy making? Johnson said it was difficult to get financial support to develop more serious inventions. The sale of his popular toys such as the Super Soaker and the Nerf Wildfire dart gun have financed his other experiments. "Most of the new Nerf guns are our inventions," Johnson said.

Johnson said he finds personal satisfaction in knowing he can make his ideas reality, but he also wants young people to know about what inventions he created.

"In a sense, it's my responsibility that they know (an African-American is responsible for the creation)," Johnson said. "If there are kids who need strong role models and who need confidence and to be able to believe in themselves, then I want to be able to do that."

Reclaiming their roots
September 13, 2000
African-American WWII vets receive overdue honors
July 23, 1998
Space odysseys
June 5, 2000

NASA Langley Research Center
Philip Emeagwali
Johnson Research & Development

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