Famous Black Engineers Throughout History

By: Kate Kershner  | 
Color guard of African-American engineers, Fort Belvoir, Virginia, 1943
Color guard of African-American engineers, Fort Belvoir, Virginia, 1943.
Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Walter Braithwaite, born in Jamaica, revolutionized engineering at Boeing by developing computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM) systems.
  • Howard P. Grant became the first Black graduate of the University of California Berkeley College of Engineering and the first Black engineer for the city and county of San Francisco, also founding the Northern California Council of Black Professional Engineers.
  • Ursula Burns started as an intern at Xerox and rose to CEO, becoming the first Black woman to lead a Fortune 500 company and transforming Xerox from a paper-copying machine company into a profitable business services provider.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology had its first African-American graduate, Robert R. Taylor, in 1892. It was only 25 years later, in 1917, that the university gave its first civil engineering diploma to an African-American. For quite a while throughout history, engineering was almost entirely the domain of white men.

Although Caucasian males still dominate the profession in the U.S. (only 5 percent of engineers are African-American, only 13.4 percent are women of any race, according to one 2011 report), it's important to recognize the significant legacies that Black men and women have created in the field [source: Koebler].


In this article, we'll head from the copy machines at work to the satellites in space and meet some African-Americans who aren't just pioneers for their race but are trailblazers in their profession.

10: Walter Braithwaite

Boeing's world headquarters in Chicago
Boeing's world headquarters in Chicago. Engineer Walt Braithwaite spent decades with the company.
© Joshua Lott/Reuters/Corbis

Let's start with one of the early pioneers of a small feat of engineering that's arguably the most important invention of the 20th century. You know it as CAD and we have Walt Braithwaite to thank for it.

Born in Jamaica, Braithwaite received a degree in engineering in 1966 and joined up with Boeing the same year. Just as commercial flying was taking off, Braithwaite began flying up the ladder, leading and developing some of the most important aircraft and systems [source: Large].


Braithwaite's team developed computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM) systems for Boeing, which led the way for airplanes and, eventually, many other products designed entirely through software. (Goodbye pen and paper drafting!) Braithwaite also became the highest-ranking Black executive at Boeing when he was named president of Boeing Africa in 2000. After 36 years with the aircraft titan, he retired in 2003.

9: Howard P. Grant

Berkeley campus' iconic Sather Gate in the late 20th century
A California guy through and through, Howard P. Grant was the first Black graduate of UC Berkeley's College of Engineering. Pictured here is the campus's iconic Sather Gate in the late 20th century.
© Mark E. Gibson/Corbis

If we're talking trailblazers, we should probably get our vernacular right: These engineers are more likely to carefully plan and execute a well-designed trail than to light a fire to make their way through. Howard Grant is a terrific example of an engineer who systematically built a stellar reputation through his groundbreaking career and myriad professional activities.

Born in 1925, Grant became the first Black graduate of the University of California Berkeley College of Engineering — and that was just his first first. He went on to become the first Black engineer for the city and county of San Francisco, where he addressed water engineering issues, and the first recorded Black member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (that's three "firsts" if you're counting). He was also the man behind the Northern California Council of Black Professional Engineers, an organization that helps introduce the engineering field to Black youth [source: UC Berkeley].


8: Ursula Burns

Ursula Burns
Ursula Burns, chairman and CEO of Xerox, smiles as she attends an interview at The Times Center in New York on April 13, 2013.
© Eduardo Munoz/Reuters/Corbis

You all know the story: Lowly intern at massively wealthy company moves up the ladder to become CEO of said company. Or perhaps you don't know the story because it never really happens, minus a few dream sequences in movies. But Ursula Burns did just that, and became the first African American CEO of a Fortune 500 company to boot.

Burns joined Xerox fresh out of Columbia University, where she received her master's degree in mechanical engineering. She soon was working closely with one of the division presidents and was given a title of president in 2007. In 2009, she was named CEO – nearly 30 years after the world's most successful summer internship [source: Iqbal]. Burns turned around a fading company mainly known for paper-copying machines into a profitable business services provider. She left Xerox in 2017 and currently serves on various boards.


7: George Biddle Kelley

2 workers in the immigrant sleeping quarters of the New York State Barge Canal construction project
Two workers relax in the immigrant sleeping quarters of the New York State Barge Canal construction project in 1909. Kelley applied his engineering mind to the project, too.
Lewis W. Hine/George Eastman House/Getty Images

In 1908, George Biddle Kelley graduated from Cornell University's College of Civil Engineering. He became the first African-American engineer registered in the state of New York. Among other endeavors, he was employed by the New York Engineering Department, where he worked on the Barge Canal, a collection of state waterways, during the 1920s. His legacy remains through the George Biddle Kelley scholarship, which aims to mentor and provide educational funds for socioeconomically disadvantaged males in upstate New York [source: George Biddle Kelley Foundation].

The accomplished engineer dedicated to furthering education in young people has another important credit to his name: He was a founding member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, the oldest Black Greek fraternal organization. According to the organization, he was also instrumental in creating the "handshake and ritual" that identifies fraternity brothers [source: Alpha Phi Alpha].


6: Elijah McCoy

actor Andrew Moodie
OK, technically he's not the real McCoy, but actor Andrew Moodie did his best to bring the underappreciated inventor to life in a Canadian production about Elijah McCoy that Moodie wrote and directed himself.
Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images

If you're looking for an engineer that really impresses you — or depresses you, if you're comparing your accomplishments to his — look no further than Elijah McCoy, who received his first patent in 1872.

It's not just that he held 57 patents, or that he traveled to Scotland at the age of 15 for an apprenticeship and came back with a mechanical engineering degree. It's not even that he did all this as the son of runaway slaves. Or invented a lubrication device that allowed machines in motion to remain oiled. It's that the lubrication device became so important to the machinery industry that, as lore has it, inspectors would ask those running the equipment if they were using "the real McCoy." Yup, Elijah McCoy's engineering is so famous that his name is synonymous with the genuine article. Quite ironically, however, there are several "real McCoy" origin stories, so don't be too quick to label this story — it must be said — the real McCoy.


5: William Hunter Dammond

Drawings from Dammond's safety system for operating railroads.
Drawings from Dammond's safety system for operating railroads. Dammond filed the patent on Feb. 17, 1905, and it was granted on June 19, 1906.
Image courtesy U.S. Patent Office

Ready to meet another patent holder and pioneer? William Hunter Dammond was the first African American graduate of the Western University of Pennsylvania (which later became the University of Pittsburgh). Dammond graduated with honors from the university in 1893, with a degree in civil engineering [source: Barksdale-Hall].

After assorted professional adventures, Dammond moved to Michigan to work as a bridge engineer. Once there, he hit his stride, inventing an electrical signaling system for railway engineers to recognize the approach of another train and receiving a patent for it [source: U.S. Patent 747,949]. In 1906, he was issued another patent for a "safety system" for railway operation [source: U.S. Patent 823,513].


4: Aprille Ericsson

Aprille Ericsson
Dr. Aprille Ericsson has had a long and successful career at NASA. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Wikimedia/CC-By-2.0

Aerospace engineer Dr. Aprille Ericsson has held numerous positions during her near-30-year career with NASA. For more than 10 years she was a senior deputy instrument manager for NASA's Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite program, where she worked on mapping instruments for future lunar explorations. In other words, Ericsson had one of the coolest jobs in the universe. Currently, she is the new business lead for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Instrument Systems and Technology Division, where she fosters government, academic and industry partnerships.

Like any good overachiever, Ericsson's accomplishments started way before her work with NASA. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical/Astronautical Engineering from MIT. She was the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Howard University and the first American to receive her Ph.D. with an aerospace option in the program. She was also the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center [source: Ericsson].


3: Alaska Highway Veterans

 Alaska Highway
It's all blue skies in this sign from the Alaska Highway, but the making of it was backbreaking labor, and more than two dozen men died.
© Patrick Bennett/CORBIS

In February 1942, everything was in place for the construction of the Alaska Highway to begin. There was just one little problem. Nearly all of the Army Corps of Engineers were firmly entrenched in the South Pacific, serving in World War II.

President Roosevelt decided to post several regiments of African-American engineers to the job. This was unusual for a tired reason and a novel one. On the first front, there was still a prejudice that Black workers weren't as qualified for the job. Another just as inaccurate (and odd) reason? Military rules stated that African Americans only be sent to warm climates.


Regardless, three Black regiments were sent along with four groups of white troops. But the regiments were still segregated by race and further distanced by unequal treatment. White regiments with less machinery experience were given equipment, while Black regiments were left to do work by hand. However, the highway was completed in October 1942 — complete with a photo-op of one of the Black soldiers shaking the hand of his white counterpart at the final link [source: American Experience].

2: Hugh G. Robinson

The Bronze Star
The Bronze Star — just one of many honors that Hugh G. Robinson would earn during his lifetime.
RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Another military man, Hugh G. Robinson, became a high-ranking general as an engineer in the Army. He graduated in 1954 from West Point and went on to receive his master's degree in civil engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In Vietnam, he commanded a combat engineering battalion and was the executive officer of an Engineer Group.

After his Vietnam tour, Robinson headed for the Pentagon as deputy chief of staff, becoming the first Black soldier to serve as a military aide to a president, under Lyndon Johnson in 1965. In 1978, he was promoted to brigadier general — the first African American to serve as a general officer in the Corps of Engineers. As if his accomplishments as an engineer weren't enough, he also received an Air Medal, a Bronze Star, the Legion of Merit and an Army Commendation Medal for his service in Vietnam [source: ASCE]. He died in 2010.


1: Wanda M. Austin

Wanda Austin
Wanda Austin (second from left) takes a break from what must be a packed schedule to enjoy an art exhibit with Wade Austin on Jan. 25, 2013.
Stefanie Keenan/WireImage

In the spirit of fostering a future of pioneers, let's end with a modern — but no less trailblazing — engineer. Dr. Wanda Austin, armed with a doctorate in systems engineering from the University of Southern California, has been instrumental not only in shaping the U.S. aerospace industry, but also in ensuring national security within the space community. Even President Obama thought she was important enough to put her on a board to review and plan future space missions.

Austin became a senior vice president of the Aerospace Corporation, an independent research and development center serving national space programs, in 2001. She eventually led a group responsible for supporting the intelligence and security community in space systems and ground stations [source: NASA]. In 2008, Austin vaulted from VP to president and CEO of the corporation. In 2009, she landed her gig on President Obama's Review of Human Spaceflight Plans Committee — no doubt a pretty cool group of people, who have come together to advise the government on the future of space missions [source: NASA].

Currently, she is a co-founder of MakingSpace, Inc, a systems engineering and leadership development consultant, and a motivational speaker. She also served as interim president of the University of Southern California during 2018-2019 and was commended for steering the university through a tumultuous period.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: Famous Black Engineers Throughout History

Let's just reiterate: Only 5 percent of the engineers in the United States are Black, whereas Black people make up about 12 percent of the total population. Yes, there have been some amazing accomplishments from Black men and women in the field. But that doesn't mean there's not quite a bit of room to keep engineering change.

Related Articles

  • Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. "George Biddle Kelley." Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. (June 13, 2013) http://www.odlchapter.com/wordpress/?page_id=349
  • American Experience. "Building the Alaska Highway." PBS. (June 13, 2013) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/biography/alaska-men/
  • American Society of Civil Engineering. "Profiles: Engineers of the Past." 2013. (June 13, 2013) http://www.asce.org/People-and-Projects/People/Black-History/Profiles--Engineers-of-the-Past/
  • American Society of Civil Engineers. "Alaska Highway Veterans." 2013. (June 13, 2013) http://www.asce.org/People-and-Projects/People/Bios/Alaska-Highway-Veterans/
  • Barksdale-Hall, Roland. "The Testimony of William Hunter Dammond." Journal of Pan African Studies, vol. 1 no. 8. June 2007. (June 13, 2013) http://www.jpanafrican.com/docs/vol1no8/TestimonyofWilliamHunterDammond_JPASvol1no8.pdf
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