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Born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1934, Henry Thomas Sampson, Jr. was a prolific inventor and pioneer in the field of nuclear engineering.
Sampson once clarified about his contribution to the cell phone, “Contrary to what you read on the Internet, I did not invent the cell phone,” but was a pioneer in its modern technology.
Cellular telephony has spawned a multi-billion dollar industry and has freed tens of millions of people, both at home and at work, to communicate anywhere, any time.
When people had a problem taking gamma energy and turning it into usable power, Dr. Sampson invented the gamma-electric cell which converted gamma rays into electricity.
Most would have thought that he would be on the Times and Forbes magazines next to Bill Gate and Steve Jobs for discovering one of the greatest creations of our time, why he isn’t as well-known remains a mystery much easier to solve than rocket science, which Sampson was also instrumental in developing.
Where it all began
After graduating from Lanier High School in Jackson, Mississippi in 1951, Sampson later attended Morehouse College before transferring to Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana and earned a B.S. degree in chemical engineering in 1956.
While a Purdue student, Sampson was also instrumental in establishing the Omega Psi Phi fraternity chapter at the university while earning his Bachelor’s Degree.
Sampson’s journey from Jackson to West Lafayette occurred thanks to the intervention of an unknown Purdue graduate. “I was attending Morehouse in Atlanta. I went to senior Career Day even though I was a sophomore. I spoke to a Pfizer rep, a Purdue grad who bragged about Purdue. I worked in Chicago that summer and took a bus to West Lafayette to check out Purdue. It was love at first sight,” recalled Sampson.
From 1956-61, Sampson worked as a Research Chemical Engineer at the US Naval Weapons Center in China Lake, CA, in high-energy solid propellants and case-bonding materials for solid-rocket motors. “The US Naval Ordinance Test Station was a godsend. When I graduated from Purdue, I found many companies would not hire an African-American engineer,” stated Sampson.
Sampson persevered through the systemic racism and continued his studies, earning an M.S. degree in chemical engineering in 1961 from the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1967, he continued his graduate studies in successful pursuit of a doctoral degree in nuclear engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
In 1967, Henry Sampson was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering in the United States.
By July 6th 1971, Henry T Sampson invented the “gamma-electric cell,” which pertains to nuclear reactor use. The gamma-electric cell produces high-voltage output and current to detect radiation in the ground, it also provides a long-lasting power source for satellites and long-range space exploration missions.
Following his graduate studies, Sampson joined the Aerospace Corp. in El Segundo as a Project Engineer from 1967-81, then became the Director of Planning and Operations and Directorate of Space Test Program from 1981-87.
He led Senior Engineer Staff in every phase from planning to launching and space operation of several satellites. Sampson was a vanguard engineer examining how to power satellites.
Sampson is also a frequently cited authority on the contributions of African-Americans in cinema and performing arts in the U.S. His seven books include a two-volume set, “Blacks in Black Face: A Source Book on Early Black Musical Shows” (released in June of 2014), and several reference books examining the frequently overlooked contributions of African-Americans in American stage and cinema from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the radio and TV age.
Henry T. Sampson died in Stockton, California, on June 4, 2015.
Information in this article was obtained via Purdue and Blackpast.
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