Dr. Mark E. Dean: The face in the computer
If there is one device that defines human civilization today, it’s the personal computer. No one can dispute how much the personal computer has revolutionized our lives, from increasing our productivity to spreading education to enhancing entertainment. We are riding the personal computer into the future on the backs of our iPods and iPhones and GPS devices with the childlike glee of knowing anything is possible. Well, that renewed optimism in the future—and the conveniences we enjoy today—all comes to us courtesy of African-American inventor Dr. Mark E. Dean.
Born in 1957 in Tennessee, Dean showed an interest in mechanics at an early age. While still a boy, he and his father built an entire tractor from scratch. But it wasn’t easy being a bright black kid on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement. When he was in sixth grade, a classmate impressed with Dean's knowledge asked if was really black. After all, how could be both smart and black? Dean admits that he faced the same prejudice even when he went to work for IBM in 1980. However, despite that, he quickly became one of IBM’s most valued employees. In 1995, he was named an IBM fellow, one of only 50 (out of 310,000 employees) and the first African-American to receive this honor.
So, what did Dean do exactly to become this exalted? He holds three of the nine patents on the computer that all personal computers are based on. Along with Dennis Moeller, Dean created the ISA systems bus that allows external devices like modems and printers to be connected to your PC. Then, in 1999, he led the IBM team that built a gigahertz (1,000 mhz) chip capable of doing a billion calculations per second. Among his numerous awards is his induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
“A lot of kids growing up today aren't told that you can be whatever you want to be," Dean once said. "There may be obstacles, but there are no limits.” The proof of what he says is right in front of you on the screen you’re using to read this.
photo of the original IBM 5150 PC (circa 1981) by Los Angeles Times