What Color is My World?

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What Color is My World? Page 2

by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

  Ella and I exchanged looks, then followed him. We heard his rapid footsteps pattering down the stairs to the first floor. He moved fast for an older guy.

  When Ella and I reached the bottom of the stairs, Mr. Mital was waiting for us, still clutching the paper bag with our phones.

  “First things first,” he said. He carried the bag to the carpenter’s workbench, which was covered with tools. He set the bag down, picked up a hammer, and started slamming the hammer into the bag. Loud crunching could be heard with each strike.

  Ella started screaming, “Are you crazy? I had to babysit for a year to buy that!”

  She ran over and grabbed the bag, then opened it and stared. Then she reached in and pulled out a handful of bent nails, chunks of plaster, a couple broken mousetraps, and assorted other trash.

  “Where are our phones?” Ella demanded.

  “Safe,” said Mr. Mital.

  “How’d you do that?” I asked.

  “‘Why is a raven like a writing desk?’”

  Ella stared at Mr. Mital.

  “Check your pockets,” he said.

  Ella reached into her pocket and pulled out her cell phone. Intact. I reached into my jeans and found mine there, too.

  “H-how’d you do that?” Ella stammered.

  “You see what you want to see,” Mr. Mital said. “But the world is so much more.”

  “But that was some kind of voodoo magic or something,” Ella said.

  “Magic is just encouraging people to see things they haven’t imagined yet. That’s what inventors do. Isn’t television magic? Isn’t an airplane? How about turning mold into medicine?” He pointed at our cell phones. “When you look at those, what do you see?”

  Ella and I looked at our phones.

  “A phone,” Ella said flatly.

  “I see an African-American kid named James West who, at eight, was so curious about how things worked that he nearly electrocuted himself repairing a radio. He later invented the microphone that is inside your cell phone. I see another black inventor, Dr. Mark Dean, who took computers out of laboratories and into business offices and homes. Without him, you wouldn’t have a computer in your home — or in your phone. And I see Dr. Valerie Thomas, whose invention that creates 3-D images may be the future of television, video games, and medical diagnosis. That’s what I see.”

  Ella snorted.

  I took out my journal. “James West, Mark Dean, and Valerie Thomas.”

  Ella made another loud kissing-up sound, but I hardly heard her over the sound of my pencil scratching across the paper.


  * Dr. Dean is a vice president at IBM.

  * He developed the color graphics adapter (which gave color to PC displays).

  * He led the team that developed the world’s first gigahertz microprocessor.

  OK, I use a computer pretty much every day. But not like my brother, who uses it exclusively for schoolwork. (Which is what our parents told us is the only thing we could use it for.) I use it for school, too, but how else am I going to keep my Facebook profile up to date? And I sometimes get homework assignments and notes from my girlfriends. That should count, right? Whatever. The point is, until DR. MARK DEAN came along, computers were mostly giant boxes too big and clumsy to have in the average home or office. Then he and another scientist, Dennis Moeller, invented the Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) systems bus, which is the doohickey that allows you to connect external devices such as printers or keyboards. He made the computer practical for the rest of us. In fact, Dr. Dean holds three of the nine patents for the original IBM personal computer and holds more than forty patents in all.

  He kind of reminds me of my brother: when Dr. Dean was a kid in Jefferson City, Tennessee, he got straight As, too. Must have been weird, though, when his classmates kept asking him if he was really black because he was so smart. No one asks my brother that, so I guess we’ve made some progress. Of course, they do ask him if he’s from this planet because he’s such a dork, but that’s another story.


  * The first 3-D movie shown to paying customers was in 1915!

  * The audience wore red-and-green glasses that combined the two movie images, which had been shot 2½ inches apart.

  * Back in the 1950s, most of the 3-D movies were horror films, so they could show knives and stuff poking out at the audience.

  If there’s one thing I’ve learned from listening to Mr. Mital’s stories about all these amazing inventors, it’s that most of them had a really hard time being taken seriously as scientists just because they were black. Now, imagine how much harder it was if you were black and a woman. First, you’d have to overcome the whole race thing (“Blacks aren’t smart enough to compete with whites blah blah blah.”). Then you’d also have to put up with a whole bunch of crap about being a girl (“Girls just aren’t as smart as men yadda yadda yadda.”). That’s what makes DR. VALERIE L. THOMAS so cool. She worked her way up to associate chief of the Space Science Data Operations Office at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), retiring in 1995.

  In 1980, she received a patent for an “illusion transmitter,” which creates three-dimensional projections. Many believe this is the future of television and video games. Thanks to Dr. Thomas, one day geeks everywhere will be romping through their World of Warcraft realms as if their Orcs were right in front of them. For the rest of us, doctors are also using her invention to create 3-D images of the body to better diagnose patients.


  James Edward West was born in Farmville, Virginia, on February 10, 1931. Even as a young child, James loved to tinker. When he was eight years old, he tried to repair a broken radio. After “fixing” the radio, he stood on the brass footboard of his bed so he could plug the radio into the ceiling outlet. When he shoved the plug into the socket, 120 volts of electricity burst through his body. Luckily, his brother saw what was happening and shoved him to the floor, breaking the electrical current and saving James’s life. That experience inspired James to explore the science of electricity even more.

  Learning was not easy for James because he suffered from dyslexia, a learning disability that makes reading difficult. James memorized his textbooks in order to hide his problem from his teachers and friends. His dyslexia didn’t prevent him from earning top grades and being accepted by one of the best schools in the country, Temple University, in 1953.

  When he told his parents he was going to major in physics, they tried to talk him out of it. The only professional jobs open to a black man in the South then were teacher, preacher, doctor, or lawyer. Recalled James, “My father introduced me to three black men who had earned doctorates in chemistry and physics. The best jobs they could find were at the post office. My father said I was taking the long road toward working at the post office.”


  While attending Temple University, West worked as a summer intern at Bell Laboratories, a major telephone company. When he graduated from Temple in 1957, Bell hired him on full-time as an acoustical scientist. At that time, the microphones that were used in telephones were expensive and required a large battery. So Bell assigned West and German-born physicist Gerhard M. Sessler to team up and create a compact microphone that was highly sensitive yet relatively inexpensive. In 1964, their collaboration resulted in patent number 3,118,022 for an electroacoustic transducer, also called a foil-electret microphone, which revolutionized the microphone and communication industries. The technology was even used on racetracks, where West’s advances allowed drivers to communicate despite a lot of background noise.

  West remained working at Bell Labs for forty years, amassing two hundred patents. In 2001, he accepted a position as research professor at Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.


  James West has a wife and daughter, but his family is much bigger than that. At Bell Labs, West was a founding member of t
he Association of Black Laboratories Employees (ABLE), which encouraged management to fund programs that helped more than five hundred non-white students earn degrees in science, engineering, and mathematics.

  The world has responded to West’s dedication by honoring him many times over. Among his achievements, in 1995, New Jersey declared him Inventor of the Year; in 1999, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame; and in 2006, President George W. Bush awarded him the National Medal of Technology.

  As for what the future holds for Dr. James West, his mind is too active to slow down. “My hobby is my work,” he says. “I have the best of both worlds because I love what I do. Do I ever get tired of it? Not so far.”

  What do microphones have to do with being a successful racecar driver? During a Formula One race, a car can reach speeds of 225 miles per hour. Because the speed is so dangerous, the driver must stay in continuous contact with his or her pit crews and team managers to know when to come in for maintenance and what to be aware of on the track ahead. The problem is that the noise level inside the car is extremely loud. “The noise inside the race car is about the same as a 747 jet if you’re 300 feet away,” explained Dr. James E. West. “That lies just under the threshold of pain.” Drivers would have to wait to talk until they were forced to slow down for difficult corners. Because driving through those corners takes so much concentration, it wasn’t the best time to try to hold a serious conversation. But Dr. West and his team were able to cut the background noise in half by using several microphones, microprocessors to track sound, and software that filters background sounds. Now drivers can focus on pushing their cars to even greater speeds, without sacrificing their own safety.

  “You don’t think that was weird?” Ella said as she dragged her soapy sponge across the window.


  She stared at me as if I had just tried to put my pants on over my head. “Are you kidding me, Dorkenstein? The whole reappearing cell phone thing he just did. That’s a big ten on the weirdo-meter!”

  “It’s just a trick. Big deal.”

  “If you think that’s no big deal, you’re a big ten on the weirdo-meter, too.” She wrung her sponge, and brown water dripped into the bucket. “Yuck!”

  I had already washed my set of windows and was now polishing out the streaks with newspaper, just how Dad had taught us at our old house. As I polished, I looked out onto the quiet neighborhood that would soon be ours. Across the street, an Asian kid about my age was walking a small dog that sniffed everything they passed. The boy was singing along with some song on his iPod. They passed an elderly black couple returning from the grocery store, each carrying one bag. The woman stopped to pet the dog and said something, and the boy and man both laughed.

  “I’m starving,” Ella complained. “This has to be cruel and unusual punishment.”

  “Listening to you whine all day is cruel and usual punishment.”

  “Hungry?” a voice boomed from the doorway. Ella and I both jumped.

  Ella leaned toward me and whispered, “We need to put a bell around his neck. How’d he get to be so sneaky?”

  “I prefer to think of it as moving through the world humbly,” Mr. Mital said. “Only calling attention to yourself when you have something to contribute.”

  Ella quickly recovered her poise and threw her dirty sponge into the bucket. “You asked us if we’re hungry, and we could use some food.”

  Mr. Mital smiled. “I do get distracted sometimes. Let’s take a look at what we’ve got.”

  The kitchen looked like someone had driven a truck through it, then backed up to hit anything they’d missed the first time. The paint on the cabinets was chipped and peeling off. The stove had been pulled away from the wall, and all the tubes and wires and stuff at the back had been pulled off. There was one rickety chair, and it was piled with tools.

  “There’s no refrigerator,” Ella said, her voice a little desperate. If she went too long between meals, things could get ugly. “Did you order pizza or Chinese or something?”

  Mr. Mital opened the kitchen door, which led to a back porch. He bent over and dragged a large ice chest into the kitchen. “Got everything we need right here.” He flipped open the lid of the ice chest and started tossing food backward over his shoulder without looking. Ella and I leaped up and began snatching things out of the air. Slices of bread, small bags of potato chips, individually wrapped slices of bologna, peaches, tiny packets of salt and pepper.

  At first, for Ella and me to be hopping around the kitchen grabbing food out of the air was one more strange thing in a series of strange things that had happened since we met Mr. Mital. But then suddenly it was kind of fun, too. Ella was laughing and pirouetting like a ballet dancer as she caught a flying piece of bread. I pretended to be a pro baseball player, snagging a peach like a pop fly. I waved it around and made crowd-cheering noises.

  Then Mr. Mital closed the lid, sat on it, and bit into a peach. He smiled at Ella. “You think my sleight of hand with the cell phones was weird, but there’s a black man named Fred Jones who pulled off a magic trick that’s even weirder. He made supermarkets appear when there hadn’t been any. Forever changed the way America eats.”

  Mr. Mital pointed at my sandwich. “A black man named Joseph Lee affected how bread is made. Another black man named Lloyd Hall made sure that the bologna you’re eating is safe. And a black man named George Crum invented potato chips.” He gestured around the room. “This whole room is filled with a kind of magic that changed the world.”

  “Black magic,” Ella said.


  Frederick McKinley Jones was born in Covington, Kentucky, on May 17, 1893, and his African-American mother died when he was a toddler. Concerned that his son would not receive a proper education, his Irish-American father left eight-year-old Fred at Saint Mary’s Catholic church in Cincinnati, Ohio. A year later, Fred’s father died, leaving Fred an orphan.

  The education that his father had hoped for ended at sixth grade, because at the age of twelve, Fred ran away from the church and took a job as a clean-up boy at the R.C. Crothers Garage. Here he became fascinated with learning how to design, build, and fix race cars.

  At nineteen, Fred’s restless nature and passion to learn took him on an adventure. He hopped a train to the South, but was discouraged by the racism and lack of employment he encountered there.


  In 1912, twenty-year-old Jones took a job at an enormous farm in Hallock, Minnesota, where he was put in charge of maintaining all the mechanical and electrical equipment. In 1918, Jones enlisted to fight in World War I. He was assigned to an all-black unit and was shipped to France. With a crew of German prisoners, Jones was in charge of rewiring the electricity in several camps and keeping the telephone and telegraph systems working. He was an exceptional soldier, though he hated the idea of a segregated army.

  When he was discharged in 1919, he returned to Hallock and made a living fixing anything mechanical and electrical for the townspeople.

  One of Jones’s jobs was to drive the local doctors around the countryside as they made house calls. When Jones saw how difficult it was for the doctors to get to their patients through the heavy snow of Minnesota’s winters, he built a snowmobile out of an old airplane body and used the propeller to power it through the snow. Although Jones did not invent the snowmobile, he innovated and improved it over the next few years.

  A few years later, in 1923, Jones again came to the doctors’ rescue. Jones had been hired to install an X-ray machine in the Hallock hospital. However, it was harmful to keep moving patients from their beds to the X-ray room, so Jones invented a portable X-ray machine, which also took better X-rays than the other machine. As usual, Jones’s reward was in solving the puzzle, not in turning a profit, so he never sought a patent.

  Jones’s big breakthrough came in 1927, when he was asked to help out the owners of a Hallock movie theater. Movies had just started to incorporat
e sound, with the dialogue and music recorded on phonograph records that had to be played while the film flashed on the screen. The equipment was expensive, and the owners of the theater thought maybe Jones could rig something cheaper. Using round blades from a plow, he again created a machine that was cheaper and better than the expensive factory equipment.

  Soon word of mouth about the clever local inventor reached the ear of Joseph Numero, the owner of Ultraphone Sound Systems in Minneapolis, who offered Jones a job. Although it was difficult for Jones to leave Hallock and all his friends, he knew that he would never have an opportunity like this again.

  The collaboration between Fred Jones and Joseph Numero continued for thirty years. Numero furnished Jones with an apartment above the shop, paid all his bills, and gave him a modest salary in exchange for owning the rights to whatever Jones developed. They shook hands, which was the only contract they ever had.

  During those years together, Jones innovated all kinds of things, but it was his work on the first reliable refrigerated truck that transformed his life. It was so effective that Numero got out of the movie equipment business to focus on building more refrigerated trucks. These trucks were able to carry foods for thousands of miles without spoiling. Americans could therefore get more fresh foods at a cheaper price.

  Numero’s company, Thermo King, became number one in refrigerated trucks. Jones then invented the “Atmosphere Control” boxcar, a refrigerated railroad car. He tested it himself by riding over 250,000 miles in trains between 1948 and 1950. When his perfectionist side was finally satisfied, his invention was marketed, and again the world was about to change.


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