February 8, 2019
The National Society of Black Physicists honors Valerie Thomas. Ms. Thomas is a scientist and inventor that invented the illusion transmitter, a device that NASA continues to use today.
Valerie L. Thomas (born February 1943) is an African-American scientist and inventor. She invented the Illusion Transmitter, for which she received a patent in 1980.
At the all-girls school she attended, she was not encouraged to pursue science and math courses, though she did manage to take a physics course. Thomas would go on to attend Morgan State University, where she was one of two women majoring in physics. Thomas excelled in her math and science courses at Morgan State University and went on to work for NASA after graduation.
In 1964, Thomas began working for NASA as a data analyst. She developed real-time computer data systems to support satellite operations control centers (1964–1970) and oversaw the creation of the Landsat program (1970–1981), becoming an international expert in Landsat data products. In 1974 Thomas headed a team of approximately 50 people for the Large Area Crop Inventory Experiment (LACIE), a joint effort with NASA's Johnson Space Center, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. LACIE demonstrated the feasibility of using space technology to automate the process of predicting wheat yield on a worldwide basis. In 1976, she attended an exhibition that included an illusion of a light bulb that was lit, even though it had been removed from its socket. The illusion, which involved another light bulb and concave mirrors, inspired Thomas. Curious about how light and concave mirrors could be used in her work at NASA, she began her research in 1977. This involved creating an experiment in which she observed how the position of a concave mirror would affect the real object that it reflected. Using this technology, she would invent the illusion transmitter. On October 21, 1980, she obtained the patent for the illusion transmitter, a device that NASA continues to use today.