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February 23, 2022

Black History Month: Engineering Influencers and Their Impact

Throughout history, there have been influential Black engineers, scientists, computer programmers, and more who have made significant contributions to the field of engineering, breaking down barriers of injustice and underrepresentation along the way. Despite such obstacles, these influencers have paved pathways to success across the engineering industry. From mechanics and electronics to aerospace and computer science, each advancement has moved engineering disciplines forward and continues to do so today.

We’ve collected just a handful to highlight here, in no particular order, to help celebrate Black History Month.

Rob Wilson, Senior Manager IT, Ansys

Rob Wilson, Senior Manager IT, Ansys

Living Engineering Legends

If you’re familiar with Ansys’ simulation solutions, you know that computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) are critical to our computer-aided engineering (CAE) simulation technology. Therefore, we would be remiss if we didn’t applaud engineer Walt W. Braithwaite for his influence in bringing CAD/CAM into the aerospace industry.

As a senior engineer at Boeing in the mid-1970s, Braithwaite introduced CAD/CAM to his team, integrating computer technology with networked design and manufacturing systems to monumentally shift commercial airplane design and production. After nearly 40 years at Boeing with various titles, including vice president of all information systems activities for the Boeing Commercial Airplane Group and president of Boeing Africa, Braithwaite retired from Boeing as its highest-ranking Black executive.

Plane cockpit

Walt W. Braithwaite pioneered digital design in the aerospace industry, making way for greater technological innovation.

From moving people through the air to moving data wirelessly, let’s look at another popular area of engineering: mobile communications. None of today’s mobile advances or next-generation connectivity, including fifth-generation/sixth-generation (5G/6G) systems, would be possible without second-generation (2G) technology and the pioneering telecommunication efforts of Jesse Russell.

An electrical engineer, Russell and his team enabled 2G digital services for cellular mobile users in the late 1980s and early 1990s by inventing the digital cellular base station, fiber optic microcell technology using high power linear amplifier technology, and digital modulation techniques. Prior to these advances, cellular calls were made over analog signals.

Russell held many executive posts throughout his decades-long career at AT&T, including director of the AT&T Cellular Telecommunication Laboratory. During this period, AT&T’s Bell Labs Group was credited with the invention of cellular radio technology and received the 1994 United States’ National Medal of Technology and Innovation, formerly the National Medal of Technology.

It’s likely our next featured engineer’s contributions have landed in your home at one point or another. Lanny Smoot, an electrical engineer and Disney Imagineer, has more than 100 patents to his credit, including co-inventing the driving system for Star Wars’ BB-8, which mobilized the fan-favorite character that debuted in 2015.

Similarly, Smoot started in cellular and fiber optic technology at Bell Labs like Russell but shifted his focus to develop virtual reality and interactive visual and robotic systems for Disney, where he has remained for the past 20 years. Collectively, he has spent more than 40 years across the engineering and technology fields as an electrical engineer, inventor, and theatrical technology creator.

Child playing with VR

Electrical Engineer Lanny Smoot has more than 100 patents to his credit. He now develops virtual reality and interactive visual and robotic systems.

The Late and Still Great: Engineering Influencers

Our next engineer has remained relevant for more than half a century. An aerospace engineer and mathematician, Mary Jackson became the first black female engineer at NASA in 1958 and was featured in the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures.” To qualify for the position at NASA, Jackson needed to take graduate-level courses, but the local night program was offered at an all-white local high school. Jackson succeeded in petitioning the city of Hampton, Virginia, to enroll and ultimately got the job.

Once at NASA, she spent much of her time analyzing data from wind tunnel and aircraft flight experiments to understand thrust and drag to improve U.S. airplanes.

Cave of the winds

Mary Jackson, the first black female engineer at NASA, devoted time to analyzing wind tunnel data to improve aircraft aerodynamics.

Even in the early computing labs of the 1950s, the relationship and interconnection between computer science and engineering was apparent.

The contributions of Clarence “Skip” Ellis, noted as the first African American to earn a doctorate in computer science, highlights this well. With undergraduate degrees in mathematics and physics, Ellis merged his interests, experience, and education to help shape some of the most fundamental concepts and components that impact the computer engineering and multiphysics simulation solutions we see today.

While working at Xerox, Ellis and his team developed object-oriented programming (OOP), the graphical user interface (GUI), model-view-controller software architecture, and more. Ellis also held roles at other well-known companies, such as IBM and Bell Labs.

Another area we see engineering and simulation maintaining traction is within the environmental space as companies strive to monitor natural resources, develop new ways to create more eco-friendly products, and reduce carbon footprints. However, early seeds of today’s engineering sustainability efforts were being planted more than 50 years ago.

Hattie Scott Peterson was the first female engineer to join the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1954. But even prior to that, Peterson worked as a survey and cartographic engineer for the U.S. Geological Survey. Focused on geology as it pertained to the sustainability of our natural resources, Peterson and her peers applied engineering to understand, map, and analyze natural resources and hazards.

Woman sitting at her computer

The Ansys Black Employee Network employee resource group (ERG) helps foster community and improve business and performance outcomes.

Inspiring the Non-Engineer, Too

The effects of these contributions reach beyond engineering labs.

“I feel that it’s extremely important that people are aware of the contributions that African Americans have made to this country,” says Melanesia Lewis, a diversity equity and inclusion specialist at Ansys and member of Ansys’ Black Employee Network employee resource group (ERG). “It speaks volumes about our relevance and hopefully encourages those coming up to keep striving for more.”

The ERG’s purpose is to create a community for employees, bring visibility to unconscious racial bias, help Ansys recruit underrepresented individuals, and foster a pipeline of talent of Black candidates within the organization. Further, the ERG maintains working relationships with schools and skills training programs to provide a line of communication and cultivate support for future candidates.

With six core focus areas, the ERG is built around the following pillars:

  1. Community building
  2. Business and performance outcomes
  3. Mentoring and learning
  4. Recruitment and onboarding
  5. Community impact
  6. Expanding professional networks

“The Black Employee Network is a community of individuals that can come together in a safe space and share similar experiences, whether in life or work,” says Lewis. “It serves as a place of support, learning, and strength. It’s also a place where our allies can come and help foster change inside and outside of Ansys.”

To learn more about our employee resource groups, visit the Ansys Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion page. For more information about opportunities at Ansys, visit the Ansys Careers page.

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