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Meet Valerie L. Thomas, the Black woman who revolutionized technology

Valerie L. Thomas, inventor of the illusion transmitter, changed the way we consume content. For Black History Month, REVOLT spoke to her about working at NASA during Jim Crow, her legacy, the ‘Hidden Figures’ movie and much more. Read here!

Valerie L. Thomas

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When Chance The Rapper tweeted about Valerie L. Thomas, the woman he claimed invented 3D TV and movies, many were stunned that they never heard of her. Though this claim isn’t quite accurate, what is true is that Thomas’ contributions to science were indeed revolutionary. She is credited with inventing the illusion transmitter, the first mechanism to create the appearance of a 3D image using concave mirrors and rays of light. She received a patent for this in 1980.

Thomas’s career began at NASA in 1964, when she was first hired as a mathematician/data analyst. After being looked out for by a woman in her branch and transferred away from her original supervisor, she began working on Quick Look Processors for the Orbiting Geophysical Observatory (OGO). And in 1970, she started working on “Landsat,” the first satellite to ever send images from space to be used by scientists to study the earth’s resources.

To this very day, Thomas is devoted to passing her knowledge and love of learning onto future generations. Here’s what she had to say about her life and legacy in her exclusive chat with REVOLT. Read below.

When did you discover that you had a knack for math and science?

I can’t describe when I discovered that I like science and math. However, my father was into photography. I was a curious child. During that time, photography was [produced] with chemicals. My father put a red light bulb in the kitchen, so the whole kitchen would be sort of dark but have a red tinge to it. Once he processed the film, got the negatives, we would go upstairs in the hallway, and he would put the negatives in his enlarger to make different size photographs. That was my first introduction to optics. My father was also into electronics, and I would watch that, too. Seeing the mechanical parts inside the TV, I wondered how the mechanical parts created the images on the TV screen.

And that sense of curiosity carried you all the way to Morgan State University where majored in physics, is that right?

Yes, I really wanted to learn about electronics but since that did not happen, I decided that with a physics major I could learn about “what makes things tick.” Throughout my K-12 school days, I did not study, but when I got my first C in junior high and cried all the way home from school, I decided to make a choice. I could continue not studying and take the grades I would get or I could start studying and ensure that I would continue to get all good grades. Did I want to study or did I want to develop my social side? My decision was to develop my social side. So, I understood within myself that once I made that decision, I could not complain if things did not go my way in terms of grades. I had to accept the consequences.

So, when I went to class, I focused on learning and understanding. I made sure that I was well rested, and sat up front so that I could see the board and the teacher could see me. If I didn’t understand, I raised my hand and asked questions. It worked. I took on that responsibility, and decided not to focus on grades but on learning. It took me successfully all the way through to college.

When I got to Morgan State, I found out on the first day in my physics class that I had to be able to handle Calculus in my second year. I did not know what Calculus was. So, I learned how to study and worked hard to catch up.

After graduating from Morgan State, how did you get a job at NASA?

When I was in my senior year of college, recruiters would come to the school and students would sign up to meet with recruiters. So, I signed up to meet with the recruiters, and most of the recruiters that I went to talk with were from private industry. Only one was from the government, and that was NASA. I would tell them that I was planning on going to graduate school, so none of the corporate recruiters called me back. By the time that NASA got back to me, I realized that I did not have money to go to graduate school and I needed to find a job. The NASA recruiter asked me when did I want to start work. And I told him, Monday after graduation. He said, “Don’t you want to take a vacation first?” I did not have money to take a vacation, so I said, “The second Monday after graduation.” That’s when I started.

What it was like being a Black woman working for NASA during the Jim Crow era?

It just so happened that where I was in the organization, much to my surprise, there were quite a few African Americans. When you hear about Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson, and you see things written up about them being human computers, you probably also see another name: Melba Roy. She worked in the organization that I worked in when I first got hired at NASA. She and a couple of others, including a woman who used to frequently check on me, were well respected in the organization. They were high level African American women in the organization. And I never asked, but my guess is that Melba probably was very instrumental in getting more African Americans in that organization. So, I was not in a typical situation in terms of not having many African Americans around. That was sort of unique.

When I first started, to me, it was like going from one college campus to another college campus. I was in a large office that included people who had been there for awhile, and recent graduates. One of the things I noticed was that the other students had an assignment to work on and I did not. But, it did not bother me because it was like I was in college. I just socialized by getting to know people and learning about my new environment. Now, there was a woman who used to check on me frequently. She would check to see how I was doing, and ask me if I had been given an assignment. When I said, “No,” she would say, “I’m going to talk to the person who was supposed to be my supervisor.” When she came back later and asked, “Did he come and talk to you, and give you an assignment?” I said, “No.” She would check with him again and then check with me. This went on for awhile.

He finally gave me a write up, and I guess he wanted me to write a program. I did not know what a program was. I had never seen a computer before except in science fiction movies. Not only that, but the operating system that the branch was using was something that was developed by the branch head. It was not a typical operating system; however, it was perfect for the kind of work that they did in the branch. I got instructions and commands for writing a program from the woman who was looking out for me, and I was able to write the program but could not make it work.

During that time, writing programs was different. You would write a program using IBM punched cards, take your card deck to another building, submit it, an computer operator would run it, and then you would go back later after it had been run to get it. If it did not work properly, you would get a stack of paper printed out (called a data dump). My program always came back with a stack of paper printed out. The person who was supposed to be my supervisor and I would go through it, I would make changes, it was resubmitted, but the results were always the same. I was accumulating a lot of paper.

One day I looked up and three people (my supervisor, his boss, and the branch head) came to see me. The branch head asked me about my program. After telling him about my program, he asked, “Why are you doing it like that?” And the person who was supposed to be my supervisor also said, “Yes, why are you doing it like that?” He had been going through the program with me every day before it was resubmitted to be run and I asked why he waited until then to ask that question. At that point, I could see that something was not right and, obviously, the branch head noticed that, too.

After that session, I got switched to work with somebody else and my star just took off like a rocket. I could see how a Black woman coming in during that time might become intimidated or scared and probably end up being let go for not being able to be productive. I was just given another person in the branch to work with and, because of that action, my career just took off.

Your story makes the movie Hidden Figures come to mind, which depicts the lives of Black NASA mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughn. Were you acquainted with these women during your time at NASA?

Yes, I was acquainted with Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson. I did not know [Dorothy]. I did not work with them. Things were different for African Americans in the STEM fields. It was not called STEM at the time, but in those fields. There probably would not have been a lot of African Americans working together in a company or agency.

However, I also found that even traveling to conferences was a challenge for an African American woman. I remember being at an IBM conference with a huge audience and probably a handful of African Americans. It was like being invisible.

I decided not to go to any more conferences like that. When I was introduced to the National Technical Association (NTA), a STEM organization founded by African Americans in 1926, its conferences were more welcoming for African Americans and many of us met as a result of joining NTA. That is how I met Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson.

How accurate would you say the movie was in terms of depicting what it was like to work there and work on these really groundbreaking projects?

I would say it was extremely accurate. I was just surprised that they did not have bathrooms that they could go to in the building that Katherine Johnson was working in. I did not know that they were going through that at the time. [In my branch, when I first started] we had several high level African American women. So, that made a difference for me. But, in terms of other kinds of things, such as promotions and types of job assignments, there were concerns. I was aware of people in other organizations where there may have been only one or two African Americans. The situation has improved over time.

You are responsible for the invention of the illusion transmitter, which is widely considered to be the basis for 3D technology. And when a lot of people cite your accomplishments, they claim that you invented 3D movies and TV. Can you clarify this for us?

I was at an event where there were informal STEM type activities. I was some distance away, but something caught my eye. I had seen two people at a table with a lamp sitting on the table. It was just a pole lamp, a light bulb was screwed into the top of the lamp, and the lamp was turned on. The bulb was unscrewed and taken out of the lamp; however, it looked like the bulb was still in the lamp and still turned on. That caught my attention. I went up close to touch the light bulb. When I tried to touch it, my finger went right through what appeared to be a bulb.

That caused my mind to wonder, what is going on? How did that happen? I decided to go to the library to look for a book to explain that phenomenon. I started in the section with physics books, then the section with optics books, and finally found two books that confirmed what my optics professor discussed in class and I could not visualize. It was a real image that is formed in front of a concave mirror. We are used to seeing virtual images, in which it looks like we are in the mirror. So, with my Landsat image processing expertise and my understanding about real images, I came up with the idea for the illusion transmitter. I envisioned a TV that, instead of having the imagery displayed on the screen, would have the imagery displayed in the air and would be visible without needing special glasses. I think that from that perspective, people think of 3D TVs because that’s their concept of being able to see something like that. But, mine was that you do not need special glasses to see the imagery and it is in the air.

Now that you’ve had such an amazing career, and you’ve left behind such an impressive legacy in the world of electronics, math, science; how do you tap into that world after you’ve retired and settled into your new life?

When I was working at NASA, I was very active in educational outreach. First of all, I was the President of the D.C. chapter of the National Technical Association (NTA) in 1974 and then became the first female National President of NTA in 1985.

And after I finished my term as NTA National President...somehow, I got pulled off in another direction to work with an organization, which became known as Science, Mathematics, Aerospace, Research, and Technology (S.M.A.R.T.), Inc. in 1986. People from NTA and other people were attracted to work with me on this project. S.M.A.R.T. worked with other organizations that had similar goals of preparing our young people for future careers in science and technology for the 21st century, and S.M.A.R.T. did a lot of education outreach activities. We worked close together. We called it science and technology then, but now it’s called STEM. I spent about 35 years working with S.M.A.R.T. And then, I got introduced to another organization, SHADES OF BLUE. It is an aviation oriented STEM organization. Now I am President of the SHADES OF BLUE DMV (DC, Maryland, and Virginia) Chapter. We are focusing on preparing young people for future careers in aviation.

Oh, then plus, I am a substitute high school teacher at a school with an aerospace program. My students Google me.

When you look back on your amazing life, and your contributions to technology, what would you want your legacy to be?

I want [people] to think back on me, first of all, as a lifetime learner. I want [young people] to not run away from challenges. I like to share knowledge with young people. And I would like to see them take the knowledge to the next level.

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