Philip Emeagwali – The Bill Gates of Africa

Philip Emeagwali is perhaps one of the most interesting computer scientists out there, the main reason being, he hated computers for most of his early to mid-life.

Born on 23 August 1954 to Agatha and James Emeagwali, Philip was the oldest of 9 siblings. Philip’s early life was anything but ideal – poverty drove him to contribute to the household from a young age, with his days beginning as early as 4 a.m. His father, however, stressed the value of education and allowed his son to cut back from chores in favor of mathematics – this included doing over 100 mathematics problems in his head every day. Naturally with preparation like that, Philip Emeagwali was no ordinary student; he was a mathematics prodigy.

Phillip’s early education, namely elementary and high school, was in Nigeria. His love and passion for mathematics was evident in school and he was considered a human computer thanks to his ability to solve complex mathematics problems in his head. He took the high school entrance exam at the mere age of 10, scoring a perfect score in mathematics. Unfortunately, he was accused of fraud and eventually disqualified.

A few years into his high school education, over fifty thousand Igbo tribe members were killed during ethnic conflicts and Philip and his family had to flea to Eastern Nigeria. The next few years of Phillip’s life would be spent in refugee camps where him and his family had to face countless perils – almost dying from hunger along the way.

After the end of the war, Philip Emeagwali went to study at Christ the King College in Onitsha. His dedication was so strong that despite there being no school buses, he would labor 2 hours to and from school every day and study harder than anyone – only sleeping a few hours every night. In 1974, Philip Emeagwali traveled to the United States on scholarship for higher learning. He attended Oregon State University, Howard University, George Washington University and University of Michigan, earning a culminative 5 degrees.

Emeagwali first started working on computers in the United States but “hated them more than anybody in the world and knew I will never become a computer scientist.”. Always known as a human computer, Emeagwali was perfectly comfortable solving complex problems in his head and felt like computers were a waste on him. However, as his studies got more advanced and the calculations became impossible to solve in the head, the allure of the computer became apparent. This would prompt Emeagwali to take develop an interest in computers (especially super computers)
Racism played an integral part in Emeagwali becoming the renowned scientist he is today. After being granted access to super computers, his access was revoked by the manager (who only acted after finding out Emeagwali was black – his excuse being, Emeagwali wasn’t smart enough to understand super computers). Emeagwali would then get his hands on a dusty old supercomputer (called the Connection Machine) which no one knew how to program. This computer would be the ultimate learning tool for Phillip, who despite hating computers, made sure he learnt everything possible about them.

Emeagwali became so proficient on the Connection Machine that he went on to set the world record for fastest computation. The record was performing 3.1 billion calculations per second. This accomplishment would pave the way for other scientists to truly grasp the capability and power of the supercomputer. His achievement has earned him the nickname Bill Gates of Africa and Father of the Internet.

In the 80s, Philip made arrangements for approximately 21 of his relatives to come to the United States in order to pursue higher education – some of his siblings were eating only 1 meal per day in Nigeria. All of them went on to receive college education.

Emeagwali would go on to receive the Gordon Bell Prize in 1989 – this award is considered the Nobel Prize of computing. Philip Emeagwali would also apply his technology on the petroleum industry, enabling petroleum engineers to recover more petrol from oil fields with the help of massively parallel supercomputing. This problem was thought to be 20 of the most difficult in computing field by the U.S. government.

Philip Emeagwali overcame war and racism to profoundly impact the world of computing. He is one of the finest examples of determination overcoming persecution.