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.
In 1951 at MIT, 18-year-old Joseph “Joe” Thompson was among the first operators of a new kind of machine: the Whirlwind computer. Started during WWII as an analog flight simulator for the Navy, Project Whirlwind benefited from an inspired form of mission creep. It grew into a pioneering, real-time, digital computer that established the model for generations of both military and business machines to come.
MIT recruited Thompson for college, and his job running and programming Whirlwind at night introduced him to computing and supported him as a college student.
Thompson was the first Black employee in Whirlwind’s early years. He was also one of the few Black employees at RAND corporation, where he helped program Whirlwind’s direct successor, the continent-spanning SAGE early warning system for nuclear attacks. SAGE helped pioneer computer networking, interactive computing, and large-scale software development.
Earning greater responsibility at RAND and other companies throughout his career, Thompson eventually retired as a branch head. Outside of work, he found time to mentor teens in troubled schools, encouraging them to continue their education.
Thompson took evening classes at MIT and then spent his nights running, coding, and troubleshooting the giant computer.
Learn more about the photo.
Occupying an area the size of a suburban house, Whirlwind’s 5,000 vacuum tubes and 3K of newly invented core memory let it drive cockpit mockups of every plane the Navy then possessed.
Learn more about Whirlwind in the collection.
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.
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.
A hippie riff on mainstream catalogs from Sears and others, Brand and Jennings’ Whole Earth Catalog offered entries on tools as well as a range of topics, from organic farming and solar power to desktop publishing, midwifery, and electronic synthesizers.
Check out the Catalog in the collection.
Jennings is in the middle row at left with braids at the Whole Earth Truck Store in Menlo Park, California. She later served as a founding director at the nearby People’s Computer Company, famed for its role in the evolution of personal computing.
Jennings served as treasurer for this small maker of accessory boards for personal computers. It was started by another friend from the Homebrew Computer Club, Bob Mullen.
Visit the collection to see the stock certificate.
Brand belatedly acknowledged Jennings as cofounder at the Catalog’s 50th anniversary in 2018.
Growing up in Piedras Negras, a Mexican border town, Hector Ruiz aspired to open an auto repair shop. But, when he was thirteen, American missionary Olive Givin suggested he instead attend high school on the US side of the border, and she offered to pay his first year’s tuition. Ruiz went on to become CEO of a top company in another country and sue the world’s biggest manufacturer of computer chips.
A brilliant student, Ruiz was ahead of his classmates in subjects like math and chemistry, which Mexican schools taught early, but he was behind in English. With mentoring from his teachers, however, he graduated as class valedictorian. That brought an automatic scholarship to the University of Texas at Austin, where Ruiz majored in electrical engineering and continued on to earn a doctorate at Rice.
Ruiz began his career in the semiconductor industry and discovered that he had a talent for solving tricky manufacturing problems and for management. He rose steadily through the ranks at Texas Instruments and Motorola and was then recruited to be the heir apparent to the CEO of ailing chipmaker AMD. He accepted the offer.
While AMD’s chips were often superior, the smaller company was being strangled by Intel’s monopolistic practices. When Ruiz became CEO, he sued Intel and won. He then spun off much of AMD’s manufacturing to a new foundry, in partnership with a Middle Eastern prince.
Why did AMD sue Intel? AMD’s next-generation Opteron chip was more advanced than Intel’s rival Itanium. But Intel used a mix of pressure and illegal tactics to discourage computer makers from adopting Opteron.
See the chip in the collection.
Photomasks are the semitransparent plates used to copy the pattern for each layer of a chip (integrated circuit) onto the wafer.
See it in the collection.
Ruiz is in the upper left. The band won a battle of the bands contest broadcast by radio station XEMJ in Ruiz’s hometown of Piedras Negras.
See more images in the collection.
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.
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.
In the image, the second generation Geometry Engine chip designed by Marc Hannah is shown in the center of a pin grid array (PGA) used to mount it to a circuit board. The gold-colored pins on the array plug into the board.
See some Geometry Engine scraps from a silicon wafer in the collection.
The first generation Geometry Engine chip had been laid out with Xerox PARC’s pioneering graphical software for designing large custom chips, ICARUS, by Douglas Fairbairn. Engineers could send a design over the ARPANET and get a prototype chip back by mail.
See the design drawing in the collection.
Silicon Graphics machines like this Professional IRIS got press for powering special effects in films like The Abyss and Jurassic Park, as well as countless computer games. But most customers used them for computer aided design (CAD) and scientific visualization.
Learn more about the IRIS.
Mitch Kapor hoped to create a new, progressive kind of company at the heart of the computer industry. In 1982, that wasn’t Silicon Valley but greater Boston. Kapor and cofounder Jonathan Sachs developed Lotus 1-2-3, an improved version of the pioneering spreadsheet software VisiCalc. Riding the explosive growth of the new personal computer industry, the company was an instant powerhouse, with $53 million in sales its first year.
Since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a few American companies had begun efforts to become more diverse. Among tech firms, Boston minicomputer pioneer Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) was a leader, with its company-wide Valuing Differences training seminars and hiring practices.
But Kapor wanted to go farther at Lotus and create “. . . a 1980s company with 1960s values.” He hired Freada Klein as director of employee relations, organizational development, and management training. She had previously cofounded the first group to address sexual harassment in the US. With Kapor’s backing as CEO, Klein helped shape a set of policies that established accountability, including diversity.
This sort of tie to compensation remains rare today. Klein also helped create an ombuds function and a diversity council, and she made Lotus the first tech firm to sponsor an AIDS walk when the disease was highly stigmatized.
Klein went on to consult on diversity to a wide range of corporate clients as well as on the Civil Rights Act of 1991. She and Kapor married long after they had left Lotus, and their venture firm and foundation support a variety of diversity, inclusion, and education efforts, including the new oral histories featured in this story. Klein emphasizes the importance of laying the groundwork for diversity and inclusion early in a company’s development. She says, “If you’ve already built a company that isn’t diverse and now, how do you retrofit it? How do you turn the Titanic around?”
This 1985 brochure describes the Affirmative Action Advisory Committee (AAAC) at Lotus Development Corporation. Efforts included recruitment, scholarships, training, using minority vendors, and more.
See pages 46–52 in the document.
The Lotus Corporate Philanthropy program funded projects to combat the social injustices of racism. See pages 28–32 in the document.
Lotus’s spreadsheet improved on a “killer app” for the personal computer, the VisiCalc spreadsheet. The Lotus version was more powerful and optimized for the new IBM PC. It came with a database and graphing, hence the full product name: Lotus 1-2-3.
See more Lotus publicity photos.
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.
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.
Product cover Who We Are, a disk by Al Mansour’s AfroLink Software covered Afrocentric history.
Learn more about the software.
Al Mansour’s AfroLink Software published half a dozen titles by 1993, either clip art or interactive media created with Apple’s HyperCard program. As was typical of digital content at the time, prices ranged from $35 to $70 per disk.
See it in the collection.
When he was hired by Lettie McGuire, Sean O’Connor knew it was more than a job. Together, the two of them created a major portion of the Afrocentric net and helped to bring many others online as pioneering web designers.
McGuire had just been made Art Director and programmer of NetNoir, billed as “the soul of cyberspace.” The cofounders, David Ellington and Malcolm CasSelle, handled the business end and left much of the content to McGuire and O’Connor. They decided which celebrities to interview, what features to add, and were responsible for coding the site itself. At its height, NetNoir was the most vibrant Afrocentric community online, with Motown Records and Vibe magazine contributing to the music section, Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis writing on sports, and a range of interactive forums with celebrities. McGuire and O’Connor wrote spotlights like “Technology Month” and “Black History Month.”
NetNoir started on AOL, which gave it social features that were not common on the web for another decade. McGuire and O’Connor had to become experts in AOL’s own page design language, RainMan. But NetNoir’s web presence was also growing under McGuire’s direction, and there was plenty of opportunity to break new ground in web design.
By the late 1990s, NetNoir, GoAfro on CompuServe, and other dedicated Afrocentric sites were fading, along with the first wave of online communities overall. The communal roles of the pioneering Afrocentric sites would be inherited by content creators within mass social media, and even later by Black Twitter. McGuire and O’Connor continued their careers as top web designers and went on to launch some of the first technology centers for BIPOC youth—O’Connor in Jamaica and McGuire in San Francisco and Harlem.
NetNoir was the first “infopreneur” funded by AOL’s Greenhouse Program, created to foster unique content on what was then the nation’s largest online service. AOL included social features like profiles and chat rooms that wouldn’t become common on the web until the 2000s.
See it in the collection.
The web version of NetNoir, launched less than a year after the AOL version. NetNoir’s editorial policy was inclusive—cofounder Malcom CasSelle told the LA Times, “This is by Black people, but it’s for everyone.”
Learn more about NetNoir in the collection.
NetNoir webpages celebrating Black History Month included topics like the Harlem Renaissance, the African Slave Trade, African American Folklore, and Frederick Douglass.
See the collection for additional webpages and more information.
A virtual gallery showcasing Lettie McGuire’s watercolors appeared in the web’s first version of the metaverse, VRML (Virtual Reality Markup Language). The gallery was at the 1996 SIGGRAPH graphics conference.
Visit the collection to see more of McGuire’s digital art.