Celebrating Black History in Telecoms

To mark Black History Month 2020, we’re celebrating the pioneering roles of several black inventors and engineers in the development of telecoms as we know it today.

From early breakthroughs that paved the way for the first telephone calls to technical advancements enabling the cloud delivery mechanisms that make modern global communications possible… The road to communication as we understand it is paved with contributions from the black community.

While representation remains an issue across technology in general and telecoms in particular – despite consensus that technology creation should reflect the makeup of society if it is to benefit us all – Black History Month gives us a chance to put a spotlight on and celebrate those whose contributions big and small have had a profound impact on our industry.

We’ve chosen to focus on the work of three key engineers, and there were plenty of inspirational contributions we haven’t covered here. Some notable mentions include:

  • Lewis Latimer, who helped create the patent for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone after inventing the carbon filament used in lightbulbs during his time working alongside Thomas Edison.
  • Dr. James E West, who co-invented the compact foil electret microphone that is used in most mobile devices today because it requires very little power to operate.


Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson

Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson

Born in 1946 in the US capital of Washington, DC, and the first black woman to ever earn a doctorate from MIT, Dr Shirley Ann Jackson’s experiments in nuclear and theoretical physics were groundbreaking for telecommunications in a number of tangible ways.

Her pioneering research contributed to the development of numerous telecommunications technologies such as touch-tone phones, portable fax, and the fiber-optic cables out of which modern networks such as the internet and our own global voice backbone are built.

Along with the others on this list, Dr. Jackson did much of her most important work as a scientist at what was then known as the Bell Telephone Laboratories.

Today it is owned by Nokia and operated under the moniker Nokia Bell Labs, but it has a rich history dating all the way back to its progenitor, Dr. Alexander Graham Bell and his company American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T), which held the first US patent for a telephone and a near monopoly over North American telecoms for the best part of a century until its breakup in the 1980s.

Dr. Jackson is also credited with developing technologies that helped advance innovative telephony features such as caller ID and call waiting. Caller ID, also known as Calling Line Identification (CLI), is the service by which a caller’s telephone number is transmitted and displayed to the called party.

Today, the capability to make domestic calls that are routed within a particular country and present with a correct and valid local CLI is one of the biggest draws for businesses of national outbound calling capabilities and PSTN replacement.

In 2014, Dr. Jackson was appointed by then president Barack Obama as a chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board.

Marian Croak

Marian Croak

Another woman who has made a monumental contribution to the advancement of modern communications is Marian Croak, a vice president of engineering at Google and former senior vice president of research and development at AT&T Bell Labs.

She joined that company in 1982 and was crucial in driving its transformation from predominantly developing wired telephony technologies for the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) to IP-based services.

Croak predicted early on that the IP-based networks would revolutionize voice communication and she helped convince AT&T to merge its networking and voice engineering teams.

Heading up more than 2,000 engineers, Croak was able to steer the course of telecoms history by leading the development of much of the technology underpinning the voice-over-internet protocol (VoIP) on which modern voice services are built.

During her time at AT&T, she was credited with hundreds of patents concerning VoIP and some dealing with Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) specifically.

SIP is by far the most widely used signaling protocol for VoIP services. Like the vast majority of cloud communications providers, we use SIP to transit real-time voice traffic across wide area networks around the globe.

With myriad awards to her name, Croak was inducted into the Women in Technology Hall of Fame in 2013 and today leads Google’s development of innovative communications technologies for emerging markets.

These include the deployment of WiFi to India’s railways and Loon, which aims to provide better internet coverage across remote rural areas through the use of high-altitude balloons to create wireless networks 25km above ground.

Jesse Eugene Russell

Jesse Eugene Russell

Another alum of AT&T-Bell Laboratories, Jesse Eugene Russell was an engineer at the hallowed institute in the late 1980s when he developed the concept of a wireless digital phone.

Raised in Tennessee and the first black graduate to be hired by AT&T straight from a historically black university, Russell led the team that first combined digital signal processing with cellular radio technology in 1988.

Years earlier, the first analog mobile calls had already been made. But those of you old enough to remember analog mobile phones will know just how vital their breakthrough was to the advancement of mobile technology.

Among Russell’s many patents were a base station for wireless communications and a mobile data telephone. The work of Russell and his team came to be called 2G as it served as a digital basis for the second generation of mobile phone systems.

Today, as 5G services continue to roll out around the world, the impact of Russell is still being felt.

His team’s breakthroughs directly contributed to the development and proliferation of modern mobile smartphones that have completely transformed how we live our lives today.