To mark Black History Month Office of Communications (Ofcom) is looking at some of the Black pioneers who have helped to blaze a trail in some of the sectors that Ofcom looks after as a regulator.
Some of the technologies and platforms that come under our remit date back quite some time, and it’s clear to see the impact of Black contributors in even some of the earliest innovations, continuing through to technologies and content we enjoy today.
Innovations in communication
Marian Croak has been a leading figure in modern-day telecoms. She developed Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and is the current Vice President of Engineering at Google. Croak began her career in 1982 when she worked at AT&T Bell Laboratories. Some of her first positions involved work with voice and data communication, which contributed to the development of phone features such as text messaging and calling.
As far back as 1876, for example, African-American Lewis Latimer played a vital role in the invention of the telephone. He was employed by Alexander Graham Bell, who is credited with the invention, to draft the necessary drawings required to receive a patent for Bell’s telephone.
Moving to more recent telecoms innovations, Henry Sampson and Jesse E Russell both carried out important work in developing wireless technologies. Sampson patented the Gamma-Electric cell in the 1970s, which made it possible to wirelessly send and receive audio signals through radio waves, and without which we would not have the cellphone we know and love today. Meanwhile Russell has played a fundamental role in the invention of the modern cell phone, patenting dozens of innovations, including the base station technology that transmits radio wave signals to and from mobile devices.
And in the UK, John Blenkhorn was a pioneering Black engineer who made substantial contributions to telecoms. In the early 20th century he played a role in the development of long-distance telecommunication networks and was recognised for his expertise in underground cable technology. His work contributed to the expansion and improvement of the UK’s telecommunication infrastructure.
Although Mary Seacole is more commonly known for her nursing work during the Crimean War, she also had a connection to postal services. She ran a lodging house called the British Hotel in Crimea, which became a popular meeting place and postal centre for soldiers. Mary Seacole’s services included arranging mail deliveries and providing support to soldiers seeking communication with their families back home.
TV, radio and media
Evelyn Dove was the first Black singer to be heard on BBC radio, breaking down cultural barriers and opening doors for her successors in the entertainment industry. After graduating from the Royal Academy of Music, Dove focused on jazz and cabaret shows. After touring Europe, her fame reached new heights in 1939 when she began performing on BBC Radio – one show of hers became so popular it was turned into a TV programme.
Una Marson was the first Black woman to be employed by the BBC during World War II. Her literary, dramatic and polemical writing, alongside her anti-colonialist, anti-racist and feminist activism made her a significant international figure in 20th century history.
Barbara Blake Hannah was the first Black female reporter to appear on British TV, in 1968. Despite being sacked after complaints from viewers about a Black woman appearing on screen she continued her career as a journalist – leading the Press Gazette to create an award in her name in 2020 to recognise other Black, Asian and minority ethnic journalists.
Charlie Williams wasn’t only one of the first Black British footballers to break into the professional game after the Second World War, he later became one of Britain’s first well-known black stand-up comedians. In the 1970s he became the first Black British stand-up comic to experience mainstream success, especially on television where he enjoyed numerous appearances on Granada TV’s stand-up show The Comedians. He also enjoyed a six-month season at the London Palladium and his own Granada television show, It’s Charlie Williams.
Sir Lenny Henry has made an enormous impact on British entertainment and culture. After breaking into mainstream entertainment in the 1970s via the TV talent show New Faces, he has sustained a career in TV, film, radio, stage and literature, and uses his platform to advocate for diversity and representation in the entertainment industry and particularly in British television.
Moira Stuart became the first Black woman to be featured as a newsreader and presenter on British TV doing so for the first time in 1981. She presented every type of BBC news bulletin during her five-decade career in TV and radio.
In 1981 Jocelyn Barrow was appointed as the first female Black governor of the BBC. She had previously worked as a founding member of organisations including the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination and helped pave the way for the Rae Relations Act of 1965 and 1968, which made racial discrimination within public services illegal in Britain.
Trailblazer Jamal Edwards MBE founded SB.TV. The channel helped launch the popularity of grime music and nurtured British talent including Stormzy, Rita Ora and Bugzy Malone. His influence extends beyond music, as he dedicated to giving back to the community through is work around mental health and funding of youth centres.
Claudia Jones is a notable figure in media and communications history. She was a Trinidad-born journalist who founded Britain’s first major Black newspaper, The West Indian Gazette. Jones also organized the first Notting Hill Carnival, an event that celebrates Caribbean culture and unity and televised by the BBC.
Michaela Coel has taken the British television and film industry by storm. Her groundbreaking work, including the critically acclaimed BBC series ‘I May Destroy You’, set in London with a predominantly Black British cast, has earned her numerous awards and accolades.
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