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In honour of Black History Month here in the UK, I wanted to highlight one of the top pioneers in the development of the internet, Dr Philip Emeagwali: the program designer of the world’s fastest computer.
Early Life Dr Philip Emeagwali, named the ‘Bill Gates of Africa’, was born in 1954 in Nigeria. In high school, he was nicknamed ‘calculus’ by his classmates as he had mastered the subject and could even out-calculate his teachers. Soon after his high school education began, the Nigerian Civil War arose and his family fled to the east of the country. As a result, he was drafted into the army as a cook. He and his family lived in a refugee camp until the war ended in 1970. After this, he was able to reenlist at high school, albeit for a short time. Unfortunately, a year later he had to drop out as his parents couldn’t afford to send all 8 children to school. However, this didn’t stop him as he continued to study at home with the help of his father. He gained the high school equivalent general certificate of education from the University of London.
At 17, Emeagwali’s hard work paid off as he achieved a scholarship to study at Oregon State University in the US. In his first week in the US he used a telephone, visited a library and saw a computer for the first time! He achieved a BS in Mathematics here and a total of four more degrees in different universities! These were; a Masters degree in Environmental Engineering from Howard University, a Masters degree in Ocean, Coastal and Marine Engineering from George Washington University, a Masters degree in Mathematics from the University of Maryland and a PhD in Scientific Computing from the University of Michigan. It was whilst working on his PhD in Michigan that he started work on the ‘Connection Machine’. The ‘Connection Machine’ Emeagwali has stated that his inspiration for the world’s fastest computer, named the ‘Connection Machine’ came from bees. He watched them work together in nature and built a computer system that emulates the bees’ honeycomb construction and internal communication. For this, he earned the 1989 Gordon Bell Prize (the Nobel Prize for computation) from the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers. This was a computing breakthrough that helped lead the development of the internet. All search engines today use the system of computers that have the technology that Emeagwali designed. This super fast computer used 65,000 processors and performed 3.1 billion calculations per second. Present Day Today, Emeagwali is conducting research on next-generation supercomputers that will allow scientists and engineers to solve problems in meteorology, energy, health and the environment. As such, his computers are currently being used to forecast the weather and predict the future effects of global warming. He has achieved over 100 honours for his breakthrough achievements and is one of the most prominent inventors of our time.