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There’s more than one story told about the struggle of Philip Emeagwali, a Nigerian Computer Scientist who has lived in the United States for so many years. The engineer, mathematician and geologist, one story says, just like other African children of his childhood days, may have dropped out of school at the age of 14 because his father could not afford his school fees. Another story says that he had to suspend his schooling when he was 13 to serve in the Biafran army. Whatever the case, one thing is for sure; at some point during his teen, his education was suspended. But in spite of all history has to say and all history has said, today Emeagwali is known as the ‘father of modern day internet’ and the ‘Bill Gates of Africa.’
Emeagwali was born into a modest family in Akure, Ondo State, on August 23, 1954. As an indigene of Anambra State, he was raised in Onitsha as the oldest of nine children and was considered a child prodigy because he was an excellent math student. He was so good at math that by the time he got to secondary school, he was performing so well he could even out-calculate his instructors and his classmates nicknamed him ‘calculus.’ After the suspension of his schooling when he was a teenager, his father took it upon himself to teach him. The civil war did not deter Emeagwali. On his part, he continued to study at the local public library after the war ended.
There, in the library, he taught himself advanced math, physics and chemistry. He studied so hard that at the age of 17, he completed his secondary school equivalency test and eventually won a scholarship to Oregon State University where he obtained a BS in mathematics. He also obtained three other degrees; a Ph.D. in Scientific Computing from the University of Michigan and two masters degrees from George Washington University.
He studied the nature of bees and after seeing the inherent efficiency in the way they worked with honeycomb, Emeagwali was determined to emulate this process in working on the world’s most efficient and powerful computer, the Connection Machine. This was achieved in 1989.
The Connection Machine utilises 65,000 computers linked in parallel to form the world’s fastest computer, which performs computations at 3.1 billion calculations per second and is faster than the theoretical top speed of the Cray Supercomputer.
The beauty of this discovery is that, it is programmed such that each of the microprocessors communicate with six other neighboring microprocessors at the same time. As a result of the success of his record-breaking experiment, there is now a practical, inexpensive machine to communicate with each other the world over. This network of interconnected computers communicating with each other all over the world is what is known as the World Wide Web or the internet. Even if this was in place before his award-winning discovery, Emeagwali had helped to reinvent it and given it an elevated status, thus becoming in the process, the father of modern day internet.
As one of the most famous African-American inventors of the 20th century, in 1989, Emeagwali won the Gordon Bell Prize- the Nobel Prize for computation but after such great accomplishment, he did not just seat back and relax, feeling satisfied that he had achieved it all. At the Army High Performance Computing Research Centre, at the University of Minnesota, he conducts research on next generation supercomputers that will enable scientists and engineers to solve important problems in diverse fields such as meteorology, energy, the environment, health etc. And his computers are currently used to forecast the weather and to predict the likelihood and effects of future global warming.
To him, supercomputing is a fascinating, challenging and critical technology that can be used to solve many important societal problems such as predicting the spread of AIDS and many other computational grand challenges. These are scientific problems whose accurate solution requires that a quadrillion or more arithmetical calculations be performed. Such problems are impossible to solve on traditional computers but massively parallel supercomputers will make it possible.
In a survey carried out by the New African Magazine, Emeagwali was voted the 35th-greatest African (and greatest African scientist) of all time. When listing the top 10 fathers of the computer, Emeagwali ranked number one in computer wizardry and ranked first by Google for contributing to the development of the computer. According to TIME magazine, Emeagwali is the ‘unsung hero’ behind the internet and the web owes much of its existence to him. And for former U.S. president, Bill Clinton, Emeagwali is one of the great minds of the Information Age.