Black History Month; an opportunity to highlight the contributions of Black individuals and celebrate the possibilities and opportunities that lie ahead. At Engineers Without Borders UK, we are committed to learning and will continue to actively encourage diversity within the engineering community, raising the voices of those marginalised in the profession, all year round. As Professor Geoff Thompson MBE recently said: ‘[Black history] deserve[s] to be celebrated and recognised during this month. However, we must remain relevant throughout the year within educational attainment, employment, and entrepreneurship. There must now be a national coalition of solidarity.’
Here we reflect on the contributions of only a small selection of the countless individuals who have played a significant role in how our society looks today, as well as highlighting current work happening to embed diversity and achieve parity in the profession. Just as we are, we encourage you to read widely to learn more about the contributions of Black engineers, to gain a complete and full understanding of today’s engineering landscape.
In 1844, Elijah McCoy was born in Canada to parents George and Mildred Goins McCoy, who had escaped slavery. After showing a keen interest in engineering as a young boy, Elijah’s parents sent him to Scotland at 15 years old to complete an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering. McCoy returned to the USA but failed to find employment due to bigoted policies that prevented him from working in his field. As a result, McCoy worked as a fireman and oiler for the Michigan Central Railroad. After witnessing how trains were frequently stopping for oil, McCoy invented a lubricating cup that distributed oil evenly over the engine’s moving parts, streamlining the process. It is said that after many tried copying his invention and failing, the term the real McCoy was founded. McCoy went on to patent this design and a subsequent 56 more in the years that followed.
An image of Canadian-American inventor Elijah McCoy by Ypsilanti Historical Society. Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA
The inventor of the three-position traffic light, Garrett Morgan began his career as a sewing machine repairer, opening his own repair shop in 1907. After gaining great success, Morgan started a newspaper, the Cleveland Call (also known as Call & Post), an African-American weekly newspaper that was one of the most influential publications for Black national news during that period. Due to his great success Morgan could afford a motor car. Whilst in his car, Morgan noticed a high level of traffic collisions at his local interchange. At the time, traffic lights only signalled stop and go, and Morgan began to wonder if an intermediate option would provide drivers with more time to react, allowing the opportunity for cars to clear out of the intersection, resulting in less accidents. His inspiration prompted him to invent the three-position traffic signal, including the amber light, which went on to be used across the world, saving countless lives.
Founder of the first home security system, Marie Van Brittan Brown’s invention was similarly prompted out of a safety concern. Born 1922 in Queens, New York, Brown continued to live in the borough with her husband. Neither worked regular working hours, Brown was a nurse and her husband an electronics technician. As crime rates in the area increased, Brown saw a need to enhance their security. In 1966, Brown invented a closed circuit security system that monitored those who came to her door through a two way camera and a button that contacted the police automatically in an emergency. She went onto patent the technology in 1969, which has inspired the evolution of contemporary security systems.
After becoming motivated by a teacher who informed her that girl’s weren’t good at chemistry, Mae Jemison enrolled at Stanford university at just 16 years old, graduating with degrees in both chemical engineering and Afro-American studies. She later went on to earn her medical degree in 1981 and volunteered her skills around the world. But Jemison had a dream to be an astronaut, and after applying to NASA’s training programme she was picked to complete mission specialist training, becoming the first African-American woman to enter space in 1992.
“Never limit yourself because of others’ limited imagination; never limit others because of your own limited imagination.” – Mae Jemison
Dr. Mae Jemison, Principal for the 100 Year Starship Project and Former NASA Astronaut - Global Climate Action High-Level Event by UNclimatechange Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Software engineer by profession, Herman Chinery-Hesse founded one of the best known software houses in West Africa. Born in Ireland in 1963 to Ghanian parents, Chinery-Hesse was educated in Ghana as well as Texas, after which he then returned to the UK. He then decided to move to Ghana in 1990 to confirm his belief that Ghana was a country of opportunity. With no capital behind him, Chinary-Hesse relied on pure will and determination, writing programmes with a friend and selling them on. This proved effective, and the business grew over time. Today, his company SOFTtribe employs over 70 employees and a client base of over 250 organisations including Unilever and the Ford Foundation. Chinery-Hesse has won multiple awards including the Outstanding Ghanaian Professional, from the Ghanaian Professional Achievers Awards and named one of the 20 Notable Black Innovators in Technology.
Today, there are many Black engineers shaping the modern engineering landscape, working to ensure that engineering serves all people. Dr Nike Folayan MBE is one of them. Gaining her undergrad in electronic engineering and her PhD in antenna Design, Folayan has worked across numerous companies, as both an engineer and consultant. Alongside her myriad roles, Folayan was listed in Britain’s 100 most influential people of African and Caribbean heritage in 2012. Most notably, Folayan founded the Association for Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers (AFBE-UK) with her brother Ollie and remains a Chairperson today. She has recently been invited alongside 12 other industry leaders, to be part of the board for the Hamilton Commission; a research project that will work to identify the key barriers to recruitment and progression of Black people in UK motorsport, and provide actionable recommendations to overcome them.
Another individual to join the Hamilton Commission is Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE. Imafidon was a child prodigy gaining her A-level in computing at age 11, she then achieved her master’s degree in Mathematics and Computer Science from the University of Oxford at age 19. In 2013, Imafidon co-founded Stemmettes, an award-winning social initiative dedicated to inspiring and promoting the next generation of young women in the STEM sectors, which has since impacted over 45,000 young people.
Equally inspirational is Dr Sunday Popo-Ola a Research and Teaching Fellow at Imperial College London, working specifically across Concrete Structures, Steel Structures, Environmental and Systems and Mechanics. In 2007, as the Chair of Imperial As One, the advisory group for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) staff, Popo Ola founded the STEM workshop, Creative Futures. The workshop aims to inspire pupils to achieve their full potential and encourage them to consider higher education science, through interactive learning and inspirational guest speakers.
Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE at "Opportunities and Challenges: Navigating the new world of data" panel at Allen & Ovary in London by Doc Searls. Licensed under CC BY 2.0
“Black History Month to me, is less about looking at the past and more about seeing that trails have already been blazed and many paths are available so that they appreciate their potential for STEM in the future.” – Dr Sunday Popo-Ola
Diversity in experience, background and education is imperative to ensuring engineering serves all people. We are already seeing the impacts of racial bias in AI technology, which is being heavily relied on by emergency services and gendered bias in design, which could have equally fatal consequences. We have to act now, to inspire a generation of diverse engineers into the profession, and ensure that once in the profession, all feel welcome and can see pathways for development through schemes such as mentoring. Not only can this be carried out internally by utilising the myriad resources on offer to deepen our understanding of how to create a inclusive workplace, but this can be enhanced by working with organisations such as d_vers_ty who are curating environments for professionals within Engineering and Technology to thrive by being their authentic selves.
We have to start educating ourselves, challenge the status quo and have uncomfortable conversations, not just during October but every month, of every year, until we see real change.