Tech History

Celebrating Black History Month

February marks the beginning of Black History Month when African-Americans celebrate the historic achievements of black innovators. Seems a little odd that the shortest month of the year was chosen, especially considering the vast amount of achievements to acknowledge and praise, but there’s a logical reason.

Two very important birthdays occur in February – that of Abraham Lincoln, the author of the Emancipation Proclamation, and that of Frederick Douglass, an early African-American abolitionist. However, outside of these two key individuals, this article looks at three others whose contributions to the communications industry has left an indelible mark on American history.

The first known call made from a cellular phone occurred over 43 years ago on April 3rd, 1973. Back then Motorola engineer Marty Cooper called Joel Engel from a Motorola DynaTAC 8000x handheld portable cell phone. The phone weighed a whopping 2.5 pounds, a far cry from today’s lightweight cell devices.

Since that call, cell phone technology has evolved dramatically and the changes are occurring at such a rapid clip that many are still trying to catch up. Today the cell phone industry has evolved into a multi-billion dollar business and has permitted tens of millions of people to communicate with each other anywhere, anytime. But, when and from what did this technology evolve?

Henry T. Sampson

On July 6th, 1971, Henry T. Sampson, along with George H. Miley, invented the “gamma-electric cell.” Most cell phone users probably have never heard this term, but it’s basically a direct-conversion energy device that converts the energy generated from the radiation of high-energy gamma rays into electricity. The gamma-electric cell made it possible to wirelessly send and receive audio signals through radio waves.

Cooper, a pioneer and visionary in the wireless communications industry, used this technology to invent the first handheld cellular mobile phone from which he made the call to Engel. Sampson, a brilliant and accomplished nuclear physicist, is a native of Jackson, Mississippi, and is also the first African American student to earn a Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering in the United States, from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 1967.

Granville T. Woods

Granville T. Woods, aka the “Black Edison,” was an African-American inventor who made key contributions to the development of the telephone. A self-taught inventor, Woods managed to combine the telephone and telegraph to form the “Telegraphony” – a system used to send voice and telegraph messages over a single wire. This transmitter was so successful that he later sold it to the American Bell Telephone Company for a large sum of money.

Woods then concentrated on other inventions and over the course of his lifetime obtained more than 50 patents for inventions, including an automatic brake and an egg incubator, and for improvements to other inventions such as safety circuits, telegraph, telephone, and phonograph. At the time of his death on January 30, 1910, he had already sold a number of his devices to such giants as Westinghouse, General Electric and American Engineering.

Benjamin Hooks

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the federal agency responsible for implementing and enforcing America’s communications law and regulations, has many established programs including the Lifeline program. The FCC is directed by five commissioners, all appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the United States Senate for five-year terms, except when filling an unexpired term.

In 1972, President Richard Nixon named Benjamin Hooks, a lawyer, Baptist minister, and civil-rights activist from Memphis, the first African-American FCC commissioner. Hooks addressed the lack of minority ownership of television and radio stations, the lack of minority employment in the broadcasting industry, and the image of African-Americans in the mass media. During his five year tenure, minority employment in broadcasting rose from three to fifteen percent nationally.

Cell phones have become amazingly advanced in a short period of time, and the possibilities for the future seems limitless. So this Black History Month, let’s remember some of those who made this all possible.