Philip Emeagwali’s family of nine struggled to make ends meet and had to drop out of school. However, his resilience and desire to see a turn around in his life drove him to his world acclaimed success.
Emeagwali was born and raised in Akure in 1954. At age 10 he could solve 100 math problems extempore in an hour. This was a routine with his father, earning him the nickname ‘Calculus’ among his peers.
Some months after Emeagwali’s high school education began, a civil war broke in Nigeria and his family had to flee their home in search of safety.
At the time, 12-year-old Emeagwali and his family took refuge underneath ceilings that crumbled from rocket shells. They later lived in a refugee camp until the war ended in 1970.
As the first of nine siblings, he had to drop out of school at age 14 due to the predicament caused by the civil war. A determined Emeagwali continued studying with his father’s assistance and sat a high school equivalent exam administered by the University of London in 1973.
The then 17-year-old Philip earned a full scholarship to further his studies at Oregon state University in the U.S in 1974 due to his academic prowess, a move which gave his family the opportunity to travel with him.
In Oregon State University he earned a BS in mathematics and later went on to earn other degrees, a Ph.D. in Scientific computing from the University of Michigan and a Masters degree from George Washington University in Ocean and Marine Engineering, another Masters degree in Applied mathematics from the University of Maryland.
As a doctoral fellow for the University of Michigan in the 1980s, Dr. Emeagwali started a project aimed at using computerised system to find untapped underground oil reservoirs. His country of origin Nigeria is an oil rich country and he had foreknowledge on how oil was drilled. This intrigued him enough for him to pursue the problem as his doctoral thesis.
Emeagwali’s invention streak began with him using a supercomputer to try solving his oil discovery problem, but using supercomputers was an expensive solution. To reduce expenses of having to use eight supercomputers to perform the task, he rather used thousands of microprocessors.
The young genius discovered ‘the Connection Machine’ originally meant to simulate nuclear explosions unused at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Emeagwali used the machine originally meant to run 65,536 interconnected microprocessors to run 60,000 microprocessors programmed remotely from his apartment after he had permission to use the ‘Connection Machine’ in 1987.
His programming ran over 3.1 billion calculations per second and could accurately determine the amount of oil in a simulated reservoir. The computing speed was faster than that achieved by a Cray supercomputer at the time.
A feat he credits to his love for nature, particularly understudying bees at work. He studied efficiency with which bees constructed their honeycombs and the way they work with their honeycomb. Striking a chord of curiosity, he simulated the bee’s techniques and efficiency to invent the world’s fastest computer.
He used the bee’s skills as a patent to create and programme each of the microprocessors to talk to six neighboring microprocessors at the same time which to date was a breakthrough discovery in computer engineering.
This is, however, said to be the cheapest and most practical way that allows computers around the world to communicate and collaborate with each other, an immense contribution to the development of the internet as we know it, he is hailed as one of the fathers of the internet.
Dr. Emeagwali is also said to be one of the most famous African American inventors of the 20th century. His achievements and contributions are no mean feat, they include ways of making oil fields more productive – a discovery that reportedly saves the United States hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
In 1989 Emeagwali won the Gordon Bell Prize, the Nobel Prize for computation. His computers are currently being used to forecast the weather and to predict the likelihood and effects of future global warming.
He has won more than 100 prizes for his invention and software giants like Apple have used his microprocessor technology in their Power Mac G4 model.