Black History Month: Celebrating African American Telephony Inventors and Innovators: Dr. Shirley Jackson

Feb 28, 2023, 19:13 PM by Carolyn Pilgrom

Alvaria and our global employees are proud to celebrate Black History Month and the African American contributors to the field of telephony.   

In our final spotlight, we are ending our Black History Month series and turning our focus to Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day. To stress the importance of both of these celebrations, we have found someone that embodies the best of both worlds. She was the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. from MIT, and the first woman and first African American to be the President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and only the second woman to ever get a Ph.D. in Physics in the United States. These are just some of one incredible woman’s accomplishments, in a life that continues to impress.  

Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson is an American physicist and a renowned pioneer in the field of telecommunications. Born in Washington, D.C., in 1946, Dr. Jackson was interested in science and mathematics from an early age. She went on to earn a bachelor's degree in physics from MIT in 1968, followed by a Ph.D. in Physics in 1973. Not only was she the first African American Woman to receive a Ph.D. from MIT, but she did it at a time when women were often employed as domestic servants, clerks, typists, and secretaries, if they had a career at all. Education for women was often not encouraged beyond a place to find a husband. After completing her doctoral studies, Dr. Jackson joined the faculty of Rutgers University, where she taught and conducted research for over two decades. 

One of Dr. Jackson's most significant contributions to the field of telecommunications is her work on developing the theory behind fiber optic cables. In the 1970s, Dr. Jackson worked at Bell Laboratories, where she conducted research on the properties of materials that could be used to transmit light over long distances. She developed a theoretical model for the absorption of light in materials, which helped to advance the development of fiber optic cables. These cables, made of glass or plastic fibers, are now widely used for high-speed data transmission in telecommunications networks. 

Another invention that Dr. Jackson played a crucial role in developing is the technology that made touch tone dialing possible, as well as caller ID and call waiting. As she continued her work at Bell Laboratories, she was part of a team that developed a way to transmit digital signals over telephone lines. This breakthrough led to the development of caller ID and call waiting, which revolutionized the way people communicate over the phone. Caller ID allows a person to see who is calling before answering the phone, while call waiting notifies the user of another incoming call while they are already on the line. 

In addition to her work in telecommunications, Dr. Jackson has made significant contributions to the field of physics. Her research has focused on a variety of areas, including semiconductor theory, quantum mechanics, and condensed matter physics. She has also served as the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute since 1999, where she has worked to promote diversity and innovation in education and science. Dr. Jackson's contributions to physics and education have also been significant, making her an important role model for young women aspiring to be scientists and engineers. 

Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson receiving the National Medal of    Science in 2014 from President Barack Obama

Dr. Jackson's many endeavors have earned her numerous awards and honors throughout her career. She has received the National Medal of Science, the highest scientific honor in the United States, and has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. She has also served on numerous scientific and government committees, including the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson is such an impressive figure, she makes the perfect end to our series. Thank you for reading and hopefully taking inspiration from these five incredible people. We hope this serves as a reminder that innovation and inspiration can come from anywhere, and often it is those behind the scenes that make our modern life possible.  

Want to learn more about women leaders? Join us on International Women’s Day, March 8th at 11:00 AM EST / 8:00 AM for the webinar Alvaria Women in Leadership. This event, sponsored by the Alvaria DEI Committee, showcases women leaders who have been there, done that and shine in their leadership roles. Save your seat and register now!