Not Just in February
Barrett S. Caldwell
Professor, Industrial Engineering and Aeronautics & Astronautics
The wet and stormy weather here in West Lafayette, Indiana this week reminds me of risk: alerts on my cell phone indicate warnings of strong winds this afternoon. The streets are wet and slick as I check both ways when driving through the intersection, even when the light is green. Walking to my car in the rain last night after a basketball game, I managed to soak my clothes and have a box of popcorn collapse in my hands, leading to popcorn spilling all over my kitchen floor. The construction workers outside are busy welding metal and cutting concrete, with noise that serves to distract. And in all of that, I am trying to sit in front of the computer monitors on a gray day to write an inspirational message… and not just for the shortest month of the year.
Earlier this week, I managed to take in a recently released movie where the major inventors at the center of the plot were visionary, transformative, passionate… and Black. (Yeah, that movie.) Last Fall, on a long plane trip, I watched an ensemble movie of immortal characters interacting over long arcs of human history, with the major inventive genius being hopeful, romantic, conflicted… and Black. (You probably know the one.). I’m not sure if this is a critique of the rate at which I follow new movies, or the genre I tend to prefer (I’m referencing science fiction movies focusing on adaptations of comic book heroes). But I do wonder what it means that primary role models for kids wanting to pursue a career of helping humanity through innovative creation and transformative inventions are characters found primarily in science fiction. If you’re Black, the number of characters whom you might see as representative role models diminishes greatly. And if your interest is human factors for health and safety and productivity… what then?
In fact, there’s plenty of inspiration in my description of the past few days and my experiences. The three-way (green/amber/red) traffic light and protocols? Garrett Morgan invented those, along with gas masks and protective gear for first responders. The welders’ goggles (and the eclipse glasses I’m ordering for the 2023 and 2024 solar eclipses) derive from an invention from Powell Johnson; if the movie were in 3-D, I’d have Kenneth Dunkley to appreciate for the glasses. The microphones in my cell phone picking up my voice and those of family and friends were co-invented by James West while he was at Bell Labs. My article, written on a gigahertz-class PC and viewed on color monitors, are thanks in part to Mark Dean from his work at IBM. Major advances to bringing light into the home and office on these gray days? The long-lasting carbon filament was invented by Lewis Latimer, whom Thomas Edison “poached” to work at Edison’s lighting company. People arming their home security systems to report in case of damage due to the winds and storms (or other intrusions) are using the descendants of a system invented by Marie Van Brittan Brown and her husband. A long handled dustpan to pick up the spilled popcorn in the movie theater or the basketball arena? Lloyd Ray gave us that, in a design that hasn’t changed since the 19th Century.
What I find best and most important of all: no science fiction here, just every day life. Tools and technologies for improving people’s health, safety, and productivity (sounds like human factors to me). All inventors improving our lives, all Black. And every one of these creative contributions is used every day… not just in February.
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