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Tech Trailblazers: Celebrating the Impact of Black Innovators
Briana Watson


nintendo, computer, keyboard, cassette tapes in pink and blue hues Image by Ghulam Qadir from Pixabay

June 19th, known colloquially as Juneteenth, is recognized in the United States as the day that marked the end of slavery in American history. On June 19th in 1865, the Emancipation Proclamation was fully enforced and the following year brought the earliest records of Juneteenth celebrations. At Total Phase, we are celebrating this profound holiday by shining the light on some of the most influential black innovators in American history. Read on to learn about the influences of tech trailblazers like Lonnie Johnson, Gladys West, and Jerry Lawson.

Jerry Lawson

Considered to be the ‘Father of the Video Game Cartridge’, Jerry Lawson is an important figure in American tech history. One of his most notable contributions was the development of the Fairchild Channel F console which featured the ability to use swappable game cartridges. Prior to this, games were built into a device’s hardware. Using removable ROM cartridges, Lawson was able to store game information in the cartridge’s software rather than directly on the console. Thanks to this innovation, users were able to curate their own collection of games and use them interchangeably without the risk of electric shock. Lawson also elevated the joystick by implementing an 8-way design and introducing the ‘pause’ button.

Marc Hannah

An electrical engineer from Chicago, Illinois, Marc Hannah made his way to California where he earned both a Master’s of Science and PhD from Stanford University, and later co-founded the company Silicon Graphic, Inc. alongside his classmates and electrical engineering professor, James Clark. Hannah’s work focused on developing 3-D chips to be used with various computer programs. His initial design set a precedent for processing graphics which eventually led to further development that brought creative imagery in movies and scientific visualizations using CGI technology. In the late 1980’s, Hannah’s team was tasked with creating the first 3D chip to be used inside a video game console, which ended up being the Nintendo 64, which is celebrated for popularizing 3D gaming. Today, his original design lives on in the development of the intricate, modern day 3D processors that reside in our computers, smart devices, and other video game consoles.

Marie Van Brittan Brown

In 1966, Marie Van Brittan Brown worked alongside her husband to address a problem caused by their opposing work schedules. With Brown being a nurse and her husband an electrician, this often left one of them home alone for long periods of time. As a young black woman living in a high traffic, high crime area, Brown often worried about her safety in these circumstances. To remedy this, the couple designed the very first home security system which worked by using a sliding camera connected to several TV monitors that pivoted between four peepholes around the residence. The addition of a microphone allowed Brown to communicate with visitors without having to put herself at risk. On August 1, 1966, the couple filed a patent for their design and listed Marie’s name first, giving her credit for the invention. This invention laid the groundwork for modern home security systems, combining features such as a camera, a monitor, and a two-way microphone, allowing for both surveillance and communication.

Lonnie Johnson

With more than 90 United States patents to his name, engineer Lonnie Johnson has firmly established his place in technological history. Johnson’s career began in the 1970’s when he started working as a research engineer for Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Later, he joined the U.S. Air Force where he headed the Space Nuclear Power Safety Section before eventually transitioning into a position with NASA working in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. During this time, he was responsible for projects in various areas that led to him creating several inventions. Although most of his patents are for unique devices that accomplish feats like converting solar energy for power plants, there’s one in particular that many people in America are familiar with. In 1982, Johnson created the first prototype of an electricity-free pump device that eventually became the famous Super-Soaker water gun.

Henry Sampson

It’s close to impossible to imagine the modern world without cell phones, and we have Henry T. Sampson’s contributions to thank for that. In 1972, alongside George H. Miley, he created the gamma-electric cell - which is a type of nuclear battery that converts radiation directly into electricity. This contribution helped pave the way for modern cellular communications. In addition to this, Sampson used his expertise to create several inventions that were patented to elevate and evolve solid rocket motors. He is also the first African-American to earn a PhD in nuclear engineering, a feat that he accomplished in 1967.

Jesse Russell

Following the advancements of Henry Sampson came Jesse Russell, an electrical engineer who was a pioneer in the world of wireless communications. Russell earned a Bachelor’s of Science in Electrical Engineering from Tennessee State University and a Masters of Electrical Engineering from Stanford University. After years of hard work, he was offered a position with AT&T Bell Laboratories where he continued to learn, grow, and invent. Over time, he worked on various projects and was granted over a hundred patents for inventions such as a base station for mobile radio telecommunications systems and a mobile data telephone. His work was influential in bringing us closer to the creation of the cell phone.

Gladys West

To navigate the modern world, most of us turn to the GPS systems that are preloaded into many of our devices including our cars, phones, and even our computers, but, where did this technology come from? The simple answer: Gladys West. A mathematician from Virginia, West worked hard throughout her early schooling to secure a full ride scholarship to Virginia State College where she majored in mathematics. After college, she worked as a computer programmer and had the opportunity to analyze satellite data from NASA’s Geodetic Earth Orbiting program. With her expertise in mathematics and the data that the program provided, West was able to create accurate models of Earth’s shape. Her contributions to this field were used later on as a pivotal component in the creation of the modern GPS system.

Roy Clay

Rounding out our list is the notable computer scientist and inventor, Roy Clay. Clay earned a scholarship to St. Louis University where he studied mathematics, and in 1951, became one of the first black students to graduate from the University with a Bachelor’s degree. After school, he continued his educational pursuits by teaching himself how to code, which eventually led to him securing a position as a programmer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. From here, Clay continued to refine his skills before receiving an opportunity to move out west and join the team at Hewlett-Packard. While at HP he led the Computer Science division and directed the team that developed the infamous HP 2116A, one of the company’s first mini-computers.


At Total Phase, we always strive to continue innovation in technology by providing the tools that engineers can use to streamline their projects and bring about a new era of technological creation. The spirit of these innovators is carried on in new creative thinkers through the years, continuing the work that each of these individuals - and many, many more - introduced to the world. This Juneteenth, we are proud to give well-earned recognition to these tech trailblazers and to encourage the next generation of black innovators all over the world.

Total Phase offers an extensive selection of tools that are essential to the work of embedded engineers, including host adapters and protocol analyzers that allow users to easily debug and test their I2C, SPI, USB, CAN, and eSPI systems. Protocol analyzers, like our line of USB  Beagle USB protocol analyzers and Beagle I2C/SPI Protocol Analyzer, give users the ability to monitor and capture USB and I2C/SPI data in real time, while other devices like our advanced Promira Serial Platform, Aardvark I2C/SPI Host Adapter, or Cheetah SPI Host Adapter, offers users the ability to program memory devices and emulate I2C or SPI master/slave devices in order to prototype and test these systems as a whole. We also offer our Komodo CAN Duo Interface that can perform both active CAN transmission as well as non-intrusive bus monitoring.

For more information on these tools and how they can be used to debug and develop own embedded applications, please email us at sales@totalphase.com