Written by Kia Corthron, CNN
‘It took a village’ is a popular rhyme to describe the creation of one of the nation’s most recognized inventions.
When the Back to the Future DeLorean first hit the market in 1988, it was an invention that was (rightly) celebrated for bringing joy and justice to the lost generation of the post-WWII economy.
What was not so celebrated was the fact that the prototypical champion of innovation and nerdiness behind this one-of-a-kind vehicle wasn’t a dead-ringer for someone at an after-school jobs program, but rather J. Scott Wilson , the first African-American engineer to work on the project.
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Wilson’s career was spent in the area of electroplating, in which an ingredient is used to stick metal structures into place. Inventors generally use their work to create a new product, but Wilson’s basic scientific process was adapted to become the basis for the DeLorean, which was designed to accelerate down the road with great accuracy by placing a thin layer of gold on the engine block.
By the time the original DeLorean was eventually found by Michael J. Fox, it was already a significant technological success, and Wilson was quickly promoted to project manager for the assembly line in England. As a matter of fact, he was so integral to the car’s design and engineering that he not only enjoyed being on the famed Back to the Future set, but was an integral part of the design concept for the DeLorean ’85.
But while he was destined to be an integral part of the car’s creation, Wilson’s position as a shining example of the power of diversity in engineering was nullified by the car’s critical failure two years later in 1981 at the Newport News Aircraft Engineering Test Facility in Newport News, Virginia.
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The highlight of Back to the Future’s third installment is a scene where police take the famous car down to the police station in order to investigate what happened during the film’s climax. In order to complete the job, the detective figures he should test the car out as thoroughly as possible — finding a way to control its rapid acceleration and loss of speed. Unfortunately, the task proves to be more difficult than he imagined.
Instead of driving out of the station, the car remains stationary inside the police car, and begins to lose velocity at a high rate of speed. A scene played out on screen is something that has haunted fans of the film ever since, and it was these scenes of inattention that led to the demise of the DeLorean and what was otherwise a very promising automotive venture.
Wilson, however, had other plans. While many science fair students hid behind their desks with nowhere to go when they heard about the fictional automobile, Wilson was actually very creative, and figured out a way to send an electrical message to the crime lab that could be heard by the forensics department. He had such confidence in his abilities that, instead of taking cover, he actually strutted around the police station.
For his efforts, he was offered a position within the company — and rose quickly through the ranks. One of his first initiatives was the design of an airliner in a similar way to the DeLorean, but Wilson decided it would make more sense to pursue engineering work around propulsion — and so a heated competition ensued in which he designed a number of designs for the Wright brothers and NASA.
As Wilson was developing his skills in the 1970s, racial diversity was still a highly debated matter in academia, as young black scientists, like the number of black middle school students who graduated from college in any year was around one percent.
Now, blacks make up more than 22 percent of all college graduates. Among engineers, 26 percent are black. For a country that has a history of using technology as an extension of racist oppression, this progress has created a new world of opportunity for a new generation of innovators.
Luckily, Wilson continues to be recognized as one of those who has inspired that new generation. Last year, he was named an architect in the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Along with his wife, founding member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame Dr. Valentina Tejá-Perez, he shared with CNN a brief conversation about his role in the Back to the Future DeLorean and what the future holds for him.