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Trailblazers and Change Agents

Diverse People Make Computing History

Not all who push for change join a protest march. Instead, some people serve as role models or educate the next generation. Others may build content for their communities, start new programs, or shatter glass ceilings.

While recent decades have seen an influx of East and South Asian professionals into computing, the field has one of the lowest rates of employment for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous peoples. This is especially true of technical specialties like engineering and programming. There is also an unfortunate hierarchy within the field. For every well-paid job at a tech company there may be half a dozen supporting roles for highly specialized contractors and vendors. This “shadow ecosystem” is less white, more female, older, and lower paid.

Meet nine talented individuals who led the way for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) contributions in computing and explore related materials from the CHM collection.



From the Collection

Lois Jennings Britton

Behind the Hippie Hackers

In 1968, Lois Jennings cofounded the iconic Whole Earth Catalog: Access to Tools with her then-husband, counterculture legend Stewart Brand. It was a loose collection of ideas and practical techniques that inspired a generation of hippies and computing pioneers. 

Jennings’ first job after college was as a “hidden figure” doing calculations for the Navy, both manually and with computers.

I went to an interview at a school district nearby where it came out that I was Native-American—American Indian at the time—and the assistant superintendent of that particular district got up, walked across the room, closed the door, came back, sat down, and asked me if my birth certificate said I was Black or White. I thought, nope, not going to do that. So, my first job after the early brush with teaching, I became a mathematical aide is what the job title was. The position was held by mostly women, and what we were were computers.

— Lois Jennings

Jennings met Brand while he was attending the National Congress of American Indians, exploring his interest in Native culture. Their tumultuous marriage lasted through the peak of the Catalog years.

The Catalog’s guiding principle was “coevolution,” the idea that human culture evolves in step with its tools. Jennings and Brand had been exposed to Douglas Engelbart’s futuristic computing lab, and they believed that computers might become the most flexible tools of all.

Jennings was a founding director and treasurer of the People’s Computer Company, an offshoot of the Catalog community that helped inspire personal computing. She later married Keith Britton, and they were both involved in the Homebrew Computer Club, a group of hippie hackers and small computer enthusiasts whose members included the future founders of Apple.

From the Collection

In Her Own Words


Watch Lois Jennings Britton’s full oral history video or read the transcript.

From the Collection

Marc Hannah

Silicon Revolutionary

When Stanford PhD student Marc Hannah met his doctoral advisor, Jim Clark, he never dreamed he would help design a chip that would revolutionize computing. Their Geometry Engine made possible the astonishingly realistic imagery in the popular movies Jurassic Park and Terminator 2 and launched the wildly successful Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI). The chip’s offshoots are essential to modern AI and “big data.”

Hannah grew up near Chicago and was recruited to the Illinois Institute of Technology through a Bell Labs scholarship program for talented minority students. He went on to Stanford, where he became interested in graphics and was introduced to Jim Clark. Clark recruited Hannah and several other students to cofound Silicon Graphics with him.

We were all academics basically . . . Jim was a big motivating factor . . . [with] his Geometry Engine architecture. He was the one who said, ‘Let’s go off and do a company around this stuff,’ and, you know, we were students and some staff, but I don’t think any of us had any experience before that of dealing with startups or even thinking about going off to do that kind of thing.

— Marc Hannah

Hannah had helped Clark with the first Geometry Engine at Stanford, and at Silicon Graphics he took over the design of the second generation of the chip, the core technology of the company’s graphics terminals and workstations. He eventually became a vice president and chief scientist.

The Geometry Engine established the niche for graphics coprocessors, specialized chips that run alongside CPUs to handle the heavy math needed to manipulate images. Descendants are today found in nearly every smartphone and computer, where they speed up repetitive calculations from graphics to deep learning.

After leaving SGI, Hannah worked for or started several technology ventures, including NVidia. He is a partner in the Strategic Urban Development Alliance (SUDA), a real estate company that seeks to make a positive difference in low-income areas.

From the Collection

In His Own Words



Watch Marc Hannah’s full oral history video or read the transcript.

P.S. CHM owes a special debt to Clark, Hannah, and their cofounders. The Museum’s main building was part of the original SGI campus!

From the Collection

Kamal Al Mansour

Launching Blackware

In the late 1980s, lawyer and artist Kamal Al Mansour set out to bring pan-African culture to the digital realm. He started with CPTime Clip Art, the first major disk of Afrocentric imagery for personal computers. The title wryly reclaimed the expression “Colored people’s time,” a stereotype that Black people are always running late. For Al Mansour it became a personal call to action: “It’s our time, it’s time for people of color to be online, to be digital.” He also started a dial-up service for research and messaging called CPTime On-Line.

Growing up in Los Angeles, Al Mansour had little interest in computing. He majored in political science at UCLA and then went on to UC Hastings law school Law in San Francisco. His first job was at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory handling contracts and intellectual property related to NASA’s rockets. That sparked an interest in technology, where he discovered how little room there was in the field for Blacks or their culture.

“. . . on PBS [I] saw a Princeton professor sharing a software program called Culture, and… you’re calling it Culture, but you’re showing Michelangelo. You’re showing Da Vinci . . . You’re showing Greece, and the Greeks, and the Colosseum, but I’m not seeing pyramids. I’m not seeing the Sphinx. I’m not seeing anything else in the world that was the precursor to what you have in your software program, which was the root, for me, of culture. So it was that night that I said, I’ve got to do something.”

— Kamal Al Mansour

After his television epiphany, Al Mansour made it his mission to change things with CPTime Clip Art. His follow-up program, Who We Are, included hundreds of questions and answers about Black civilizations. He soon had a catalog of titles addressing a variety of topics, including diseases affecting people of African descent and a program that sought to raise the self-esteem of Black youth. His materials were being bought by school districts and universities and were covered in major print and TV media.

As bigger organizations like NetNoir began to provide Afrocentric content for the exploding online world, Al Mansour chose not to follow. He instead became a full-time artist, working with both Afrocentric and universal themes.

From the Collection

In His Own Words



Watch Kamal Al Mansour’s full oral history video or read the transcript.

From the Collection

This story was supported by a generous grant from the Kapor Center, along with five related events and a series of ten oral histories with BIPOC computing pioneers. Please suggest candidates for future oral histories!

Main Image: Portion of the Who We Are disk home screen, 102803448.


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