Tuesday, July 12, 2016

"Just a Thought" Column continues in La Prensa of SA, 7-10

Just a Thought: U.S. Hispanic Inventors
By Steve Walker
In my public school days as a History teacher, I covered a number of inventors in the Civics class as part of the curriculum that highlighted those who contributed to the betterment of society.

Even as a student growing up, I recall we were exposed to numerous famous inventors and not so famous inventors who made a significant difference in our lives.

When we recall those giants of the past, we normally think of Thomas Edison and the light bulb, John Naismith the inventor of the game of Basketball, Samuel Morse who invented the Morse code, or the Wright Brothers who are credited with the invention of the first airplane and Eli Whitney who invented the Cotton Gin.

But did we ever learn about Hispanic Americans who invented something to make our life easier? I don’t recall any mentions of Hispanics who invented anything.

The first time I discovered Dr. Ellen Ochoa (1958-) Mexican-American, who invented Optical Lenses for Space was on Google. I was shocked to learn she became the first Hispanic female astronaut in space. As a veteran of three space flights, logging over 719 hours in space, she was also an electrical engineer with patents on high-tech optical recognition systems. I don’t ever remember hearing about her exploits before googling her.

Then there was Luis Alvarez who in 1949 received a patent for a radio distance and direction indicator, essentially radar systems used during World War II to locate and land aircraft.  Never heard of him either.

His contribution resulted in a major rethinking of nuclear theories. Alvarez was born in San Francisco and was living in Santa Fe when he received his patent. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1968, and in 1978 was inducted into the National Inventor's Hall of Fame.

Then there is Albert Vinicio Baez (1912-2007) Mexican-American who invented the 1st X-Ray Microscope. Ever hear of him in History class? Turns out that Baez was a prominent Mexican American physicist and the father of sixties Folk Singer Joan Baez. I grew up with the protest songs of Joan Baez but never heard of her father. Baez grew up in Brooklyn and considered becoming a minister before turning to mathematics and physics before contributing to the early development of those X-Ray Microscopes.

Severo Ochoa, was born in Spain but migrated to the US in 1942 when he was appointed Research Associate in Medicine at the New York University School of Medicine. During his tenure he subsequently became Assistant Professor of Biochemistry (1945), Professor of Pharmacology (1946), Professor of Biochemistry (1954), and Chairman of the Department of Biochemistry.

In 1956, he became an American citizen and in 1959, Ochoa was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his work on the synthesis of RNA which is closely related to one’s DNA. Surprise to me.

Sadly as one who never read about these Hispanic American inventors until officially googling the term “Hispanic Inventors,” I have to assume very few La Prensa readers ever heard of them either. I realize that they were forgotten, ignored and systematically excluded in the History books pertaining to their major contributions. 

This is an educational travesty. Hopefully the new generation of Hispanic inventors will be acknowledged and lauded for their discoveries and contributions. We can only hope with more exposure that it will be better in the future for the young Hispanic American who steps up to make our world a better place.

As Always, I write “Just a Thought.”

Steve Walker is a Vietnam Veteran, former Journalist and Justice of the Peace. 

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