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Philip Emeagwali

Philip Emeagwali
August 23, 1954 –
Nationality: Nigerian
Notable: Computer Scientist

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Show Notes

Philip Emeagwali was born in Akure, Nigeria the first of his parents, Agatha and James Emeagwali, nine children. He showed an aptitude for math from a young age which was encouraged by his father who fervently supported his education. Each day James would spend time teaching Emeagwali math which included having him complete 100 problem math drills in his head. By high school, he had surpassed the abilities of his father and many of his teachers which led to him being referred to by the nickname “Calculus.”

For high school, Emeagwali was enrolled at a British-run Catholic school where he studied a variety of subjects but math remained his favorite. Unfortunately, after Emeagwali had been attending high school for about 1 1/2 years a civil war began in Nigeria. Members of the Igbo ethnic group of which the Emeagwalis were members, fled to Nigeria’s eastern territory.

Now living with his family in a refugee camp, Emeagwali’s father struggled to send all of the children to school. Emeagwali was forced to drop out of school but spent the next three years self-educating himself by spending his time at the public library. When the war ended, Emeagwali spent a year studying at Christ the King College, a high school in Onitsha, Nigeria.

Once again, after only a year of studying in high school, Emeagwali was forced to drop out for financial reasons. He continued to study independently and eventually registered for and passed the requirements to obtain a general education certificate from the University of London. This marked the end of his high school education and created an opportunity for Emeagwali to apply to colleges.

His dedication and academic success earned him a full scholarship to attend Oregon State University. Emeagwali’s family was apprehensive about him moving to America on his own at such a young age but they allowed him to take advantage of the opportunity. Arriving in America in 1974 was quite the experience from a social standpoint but also concerning technology as it marked his first contact with a telephone and computer. The experiences would be life-changing.

After completing his math degree in 1977, Emeagwali continued his education with post-grad studies. He completed various engineering and math master’s degrees from Howard University, George Washington University, and the University of Maryland. The focus of his fifth and final degree was a scientific computing doctorate from the University of Michigan but his thesis was rejected and the doctorate was not awarded.

Initially, Emeagwali had no interest in computers and had explored other areas of the sciences and engineering to avoid having to work with them. But he came to appreciate their usefulness in the course of his work which required the completion of countless calculations. While Emeagwali was studying at Michigan there was an ongoing debate about how supercomputers could be used to detect and measure oil reserves. Nigeria is an oil-rich country and oil played a role in its civil war. The combination of these factors motivated Emeagwali to focus his doctoral dissertation on this question.

Emeagwali’s research relied on using supercomputers to work on calculations. At the time, they were large, expensive devices. While he was an undergrad, Emeagwali had read an old science fiction article where 64,000 mathematicians were used to forecast the weather around the world. This inspired an idea which he called the HyperBall international network of computers where 64,000 supercomputers deployed across the world could theoretically be used to forecast the world’s weather.

Access to supercomputers was limited as they were very expensive. And there were few resources available for learning the required programming to make them function. Emeagwali located and procured access to an unused supercomputer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico called the Connection Machine. He remotely accessed the computer from Michigan and spent several years teaching himself how to use the supercomputer to create a program for his oil calculations.

Using a network of 65,000 microprocessors rather than supercomputers, Emeagwali was able to more efficiently harness their computing power to run his oil calculation program. Achieving a then record-breaking 1.3 billion calculations per second, the program accurately estimated oil measurements. The application of Emeagwali’s program would make mining for oil more efficient, the cost benefits of which would reduce the price of gas.

To be clear, Emeagwali did not invent the Connection Machine or the internet. Instead his theory and its real-world application provided an example of what linking computers and allowing them to communicate could make possible. This international network of microprocessors was part of the blueprint for the internet and inspired the application of network theory in other areas. His work was awarded the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers’ 1989 Gordon Bell Prize, an award that is akin to the “Nobel Prize” in the computing world.

Since his discovery in the 1980s, Emeagwali has continued to work on a variety of computing theories. The oil program was adopted by members of the oil industry. And some aspects of his honeycomb microprocessor system were adopted by Apple for the Power Mac G4. On a personal note, Emeagwali married microbiologist Dale Emeagwali in 1981 and the couple had one child.

Sources

  1. Braimah, Ayodale. 2017. “Philip Emeagwali (1954- ).” Blackpast.org. December 31, 2017.https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/emeagwali-philip-1954/.
  2. “Dr. Phillip Emeagwali, Computer Scientist Born.” 2021. African American Registry. November 4, 2021.https://aaregistry.org/story/dr-phillip-emeagwali-born/.
  3. “Emeagwali, Philip 1954–.” 2022. Encyclopedia.com. Elite CafeMedia. April 30, 2022.https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/emeagwali-philip-1954.
  4. Gray, Madison. 2007. “Philip Emeagwali, A Calculating Move.” Time. Time Inc. January 12, 2007.http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1963424_1963480_1963457,00.html .
  5. Lamb, Bill. 2021. “Philip Emeagwali, Nigerian American Computer Pioneer.” ThoughtCo. Dotdash Meredith. February 7, 2021.https://www.thoughtco.com/philip-emeagwali-4689182.
  6. Lane, Derrick. 2020. “Philip Emeagwali: Father of the Internet – Blackdoctor.org – Where Wellness & Culture Connect.” BlackDoctor.org. February 1, 2020.https://blackdoctor.org/philip-emeagwali-father-of-the-internet/.
  7. “Philip Emeagwali: African American Inventor.” n.d. Black History in America. Accessed April 30, 2022.https://blackdoctor.org/philip-emeagwali-father-of-the-internet/.

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