Black History Month, Week 1: Valerie Thomas

February 11, 2022 / Mb Staffing

Valerie Thomas is an American scientist, mathematician, physicist, and inventor who was the first African American women that patented the illusion transmitter in 1980.

The famous inventor was born on February 1, 1943, in Baltimore, Maryland. Thomas’ interest in math and science grew at a young age, where she would soon surpass the accolades of her role models that were pioneering in the field that she desires. Her values of education were deep-rooted by her parents, that instilled the importance of “an inquiry-based hands-on learning environment, in the home and community,” as told by

Dr. Thomas excelled academically in an all-girls public Western High School in Baltimore, Maryland at Howard, and Centre streets. Thomas was fascinated by technology, and her high school teachers encouraged her explore science by enhancing her abilities with extra projects. She graduated from high school in about 1961, where her school and neighborhood were beginning to be racially integrated. She developed an interest to pursue a degree in physics before graduating from the magnet school.

Thomas went to college in her hometown at Morgan State University to continue her studies in physics. Dr. Henry Taylor, a well-known physics professor with notoriety at Morgan, was impressed by his student’s knowledge in trigonometry, which took him about 20-minutes to teach her. She graduated with a degree in physics with highest honors during the mid-1960’s.

Dr. Thomas decided to join NASA as a data analyst/mathematician in 1965. In her 30-year tenure with NASA, she developed computer data systems for the Orbiting Geophysical Observatory (1964-1970); became a data format expert for an international Landsat image processing system, the first satellite to capture images from outer space (1970-1981); and spearheaded as a GSFC team leader for the Large Area Crop Inventory Experiment.

She served as the computer facility manager for the Space Science Data Center, and the Space Physics Analysis Network project manager for nearly 10 years before developing the first Illusion Transmitter.

In 1980, Dr. Thomas hallmarked the Illusion Transmitter, “that provides what is referred to as a holographic image, visible without needing special glasses.” This invention was revolutionary and was the earliest sign of 3D technology.

Her invention was conceived from early experimentations with concave mirrors. She was inspired after visiting museums with illusions that involved concave mirrors and light bulbs. Her discovery led her to a scientific purpose; she developed optical illusions of a 3D image between concave mirrors that mimics physical objects. Her technology continues to lead NASA towards scientific discovery to this day.

Dr. Thomas enrolled back to school and received her master’s and Doctoral degrees before retiring from NASA in 1995. Her first role models were her parents, that prioritized the importance of education to her at a young age. Years later, she describes herself as a “lifelong learner,” and uses her discovery as a tool for teaching children as a substitute teacher at Baltimore schools. Her students often search her up and learn the many contributions for NASA that has yet to be unsurpassed.