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Do you ever stop and wonder who are the inventors behind the things you interact with during your everyday life? Everything you touch began life as an idea but you likely don’t give much thought to the people and, more importantly, stories behind those ideas. For season six of Red Hat’s award-winning podcast, Command Line Heroes, we set out to shine a light on some of the lesser-known inventors who have helped shape our world.

As we approach Black History Month, we invite you to explore the latest season. Each episode highlights a Black inventor who has created technology that has become commonplace in our lives but their name may not be well known. From the PC monitor and the text-to-donate function to cartridge-based video games and GPS, these inventors faced unfair hiring practices, unequal education opportunities, and more to bring their ideas to life and pave the way for future technological advances. 

By speaking to the inventors themselves, their friends and families, as well as industry experts to weigh in on the importance of their contributions, this season of Command Line Heroes goes deeper into the epic stories of these modern-day superheroes, without which our lives wouldn’t be the same.

The Inventors

Kids today have never lived in a world without video games and they definitely don’t remember a time when video game consoles only played one game each, like Pong. As we head out of the holiday season when kids (and adults) hoped to unwrap the latest console, we thought it only fitting to begin the season with Jerry Lawson

Lawson helped invent cartridge-based games and his work set the standard within the industry and paved the way for Atari, Nintendo and SEGA. In 2019, the console gaming industry’s revenue totaled just under $50 billion globally and even though most consoles no longer use cartridges, a lot of that is in some small way thanks to Lawson.

"In 200 feet, turn left." This type of message has become commonplace in our lives thanks to the efforts of Dr. Gladys West. She was a pioneer in the field of geodesy, the science of accurately measuring and understanding Earth's geometric shape, orientation in space and gravitational field. West’s work not only helped us understand the exact size of the Earth, it helped us find our way. Literally! Her work laid the foundation for GPS systems that we use daily. 

It’s a safe bet that you use a personal computer almost every day. Our world is made possible by the advent of PC’s and while there are many people who contributed to the creation, one person made the difference - Dr. Marc Dean

He was on the team at IBM that was working to move away from the behemoth mainframe computers the company was known for and move toward PCs, ultimately developing the IBM 5150. In addition to co-creating an industry-standard architecture for PCs at the time - the ISA bus - Dean is also responsible for developing the first one-gigahertz processor chip.

During 2020 you might have watched more movies and TV shows than you have in the past. Well, if those have computer-generated special effects in them, you owe Dr. Marc Hannah a thank you. Unlike some of our other inventors, he didn’t set out to create the technology that enabled dinosaurs to roam the Earth, robots to turn into metal or a singing princess to fall in love with a beast. Hannah is the co-founder of Silicon Graphics Inc (SGI), the high-performance hardware and software company that revolutionized computer-generated graphics and changed the worlds we’re able to create on the silver screen. 

When Dr. Clarence Ellis began working at the age of 15 it was on the graveyard shift to provide security, but he was instructed to not touch the company’s new computer. He took the opportunity to read the manuals and become a self-taught computer expert, which sparked a passion for more education. Flash forward a decade, armed with a Ph.D., he started working for Xerox PARC where he invented OfficeTalk, the first collaborative document editing platform, paving the way for Google Docs and other collaborative software that is commonplace in our world.

To fully understand Roy Clay’s story, you need to go beyond his career and success as an inventor. You must also explore the impact he had on diversity and inclusion through his civic leadership. After being arrested as a teenager for simply being on the wrong side of town in Ferguson, Mo., Clay went on to remake one of the world's most powerful tech companies and change Silicon Valley forever. 

He built HP’s computer division and created the HP 2116A - the second commercial 16-bit computer that catapulted the industry forward with its capabilities. Moving on from HP, he worked for a venture capital firm and made contributions that led to investment in Intel, Compaq, and other Silicon Valley mainstays. 

Before Gladys Perkins the United States' space program had a lot of misses. In fact, the US was once behind the USSR in the space race. When Perkins graduated from historically Black college, She graduated from LeMoyne-Owen College in 1943 she went to work at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which would later be rolled into NASA. Eventually, Perkins joined Hughes Aircraft in 1957 where she worked on the Surveyor program. Her work building a simulator for the Surveyor program helped NASA hit the lunar bullseye—and cleared the way for the Apollo astronauts.

All season long, we profiled inventors who haven’t been given their due. Arlan Hamilton is helping reverse that trend by changing the venture capital game. Hamilton is the founder and managing partner of Backstage Capital, a venture capital firm that invests in startups led by underrepresented founders. After hitting her own setbacks, she didn’t give up. She only became more focused on fixing the funding gap and working to increase the number of venture capital deals going to women, People of Color, and LGBTQ founders.

Season six of Command Line Heroes is one of our favorites. It has the same goal as previous seasons—to tell captivating stories about developers, programmers, engineers and hackers transforming the tech landscape—but it adds to that an inquiry into the nature of history itself. These are stories from our shared history that often get forgotten, stories about black men and women whose innovations and inventions came about despite the challenges they faced like unfair hiring practices and unequal education opportunities. These are stories of perseverance and determination that we are humbled to be able to share.

Don’t miss an episode! Subscribe to Command Line Heroes wherever you get your podcasts and sign up for the newsletter, where you’ll get notifications when there’s a new episode, show transcripts and bonus materials. And join the conversation on social media with the hashtag #CommandLinePod.


About the author

Red Hat is the world’s leading provider of enterprise open source software solutions, using a community-powered approach to deliver reliable and high-performing Linux, hybrid cloud, container, and Kubernetes technologies.