Emeagwali, Philip 1954–

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Philip Emeagwali 1954–

Mathematician, engineer, computer scientist

Hated Computers

Set—and Broke—World Record


Philip Emeagwali (pronounced eh-may-ah-gwah-lee) conducts research on Internet and supercomputing technologies, targeting applications that benefit petroleum engineering, weather forecasting, and global warming. His knowledge of massively parallel programming (using thousands of processors) was mostly self-taught, and in 1989, he performed the world’s fastest computation of 3.1 billion calculations per second. Emeagwali used previously unaccepted technology that became the standard for supercomputers. Emeagwali also invented a method utilizing supercomputers that enabled oil companies to extract more petroleum from oil fields. The U.S. government had considered this problem among the twenty most difficult in the computing field.

Emeagwali was born August 23, 1954, to a 16 year-old-mother, Agatha Emeagwali, and 33-year-old father, James Emeagwali. The oldest of nine children, in a poor family, he was expected to do more than his share of housework and typically began his days at 4 a.m. When he was nine, Emeagwali s father cut back on his household chores so he have more time to do extra math work, including drills of solving 100 mathematics problems in his head every day. The daily drills transformed Emeagwali from an average student into a math whiz.

Emeagwali attended elementary and high school in Nigeria, West Africa, where his favorite subjects were mathematics and physics. During his pre-teens, Emeagwali was considered a human computing machine or calculating prodigy, according to Emeagwali.com. When he took a high school entrance exam at age 10, he got a perfect score on the math section. Officials accused him of fraud and disqualified him.

During his first year of high school, Emeagwali lived in an all-boys dorm of a British-run Catholic school. There, he studied English, French, Latin, literature, geography, arithmetic, geometry, algebra, and biology. His favorite subject was math—“Mathematics, mathematics, and mathematics,” he recalled on Emeagwali.com. Fifteen months into his high school education, 50,000 of the Igbo tribe were killed in ethnic conflicts and the Emeagwalis, like most Igbos, fled to eastern Nigeria, where they lived in refugee camps during the civil war. Emeagwali dropped out of school and did not return for three years. The family “almost died from hunger,” he said on Emeagwali.com. By the end of the war, he was a cook in the Biafran army, a job that, he claimed, “helped me survive the war.”

Hated Computers

When the war ended, Emeagwali enrolled at Christ the King College in Onitsha, renown for its academic challenge. There were no school buses, so he walked two hours to and from school each day. He studied hard—harder than his classmates, he believed—and excelled, sometimes sleeping only three hours each night.

In 1974 Emeagwali traveled to the United States on scholarship to pursue his advanced studies. Some of his

At a Glance…

Born Philip Chukwurah Emeagwali on August 23, 1954, in Akure, Nigeria to Agatha and James Emeagwali; U.S. citizen; married Dale Brown, August 15, 1981; children: Ijeoma, Nnarndi, Onyeamechi. Education: B.S., mathematics, Oregon State University 1977; M.S., civil engineeringGeorge Washington University, 1981; engineering degree, ocean, coastal, and marine, George Washington University, 1986; M.A., applied mathematics, University of Maryland, 1986; Ph.D., scientific computing, University of Michigan, 1993.

Career: Various engineering duties, Maryland State Highway Administration, 1977-78; researcher, George Washington University, 1979-82; researcher, National Weather Service, Univ. of Maryland, 1984-86; civil engineering and research mathematics duties, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, 1986-87; researcher, Univ. of Michigan, 1987-91; research fellow, Univ. of Minnesota, Army High Performance Computing Research Ctr., 1991-93; independent consultant, 1993-. Concurrent positions: science consultant, PBS Futures TV Service, Meteorological Episode; adv. bd. member, National Technical Association.

Awards: Gordon Bell Prize, Inst, of Electrical and Electronic Engineers’ Computer Society, 1989; Distinguished Scientist Award, National Soc. of Black Engineers, 1991; Computer Scientist of the Year, National Technical Assoc., 1993; International Man of the Year, Minority Technology Council of Mich., 1994; Certif. of Appreciation Award, Science Museum of Minn., 1994.

Member: Soc. for Industrial and Applied Mathematics; American Soc. of Civil Engineers; American Meteorological Soc.; National Technical Assoc., advisory bd.; American Physical Soc.; Natl. Soc. of Black Engineers; National Soc. of Professional Engineers; Soc. of Technical Communication; American Inst. of Aeronautics and Astronautics; National Aeronautic Assoc.; National Space Society.

Addresses: Office— 3713 Sylvan Dr., Baltimore, MD 21207-6364. World Wide Web http://www.emeagwali.com.

family members objected to the move, feeling he was too young to live on his own in a strange country. At age 19, he didn’t even know how to dial a telephone. He studied mathematics, physics, and astronomy at Oregon State University; civil engineering at Howard University; civil, environmental, ocean, coastal, and marine engineering at George Washington University; applied mathematics at the University of Maryland; and scientific computing at the University of Michigan. In all, he earned five degrees. In 1981, Emeagwali married scientist and cancer researcher, Dale Brown.

When he first started working with computers in 1974, he claimed online at Emeagwali.com, “I hated them more than anybody in the world and knew I will never become a computer scientist.” Because of the math drills his father made him do, Emeagwali was comfortable doing even complicated calculations in his head. Computers frustrated him, and he felt he did not need them. He resolved to become a mathematician, physicist, or astronomer—anything to avoid using computers. As his studies became more advanced and he was required to solve millions, billions, and trillions of calculations, he realized the benefit of computers and developed an interest in them, particularly in supercomputers.

Emeagwali claimed that racism inspired him to pursue supercomputer programming. He was granted access to a supercomputer owned by the U.S. Government. His access was revoked when the manager discovered he was black; the manager felt that Emeagwali would find programming a supercomputer too difficult. So Emeagwali tracked down a faster but little-used supercomputer, called the Connection Machine, which sat idle because no one had figured out how to program it. The lab chief was happy to find someone who was willing to try. In the seventies and eighties, few understood the science of programming supercomputers, so it was virtually impossible to get an education on the subject, according to Emeagwali on Emeagwali.com. He was essentially self-taught on computers.

In the 1980s Emeagwali arranged for 21 of his relatives to study and live in the United States. His eight siblings—who were eating one meal a day in Nigeria—all received college educations and went on to get good jobs. “It is important that we do not forget where we came from,” he said on Emeagwali.com. “Success is not how much money you made for yourself. It is how many people you helped to become successful. Those of us who are on top [have] the responsibility to help those at the bottom because someday we might find ourselves at the bottom.”

Set—and Broke—World Record

Emeagwali actually set the world’s fastest computational record on the Connection Machine a year before it was published. Before announcing his results, he broke his own record several times. “Each time I broke my record,” he recalled online at Emeagwali.com, “I would start screaming like a madman and people will run to my computer laboratory and inquire what went wrong.” He used 65,000 separate computer processors to perform 3.1 billion calculations per second, setting the record in 1989. His accomplishment gave way to other scientists’ understanding the full capabilities of supercomputers and the benefit and practical use of linking several computers to communicate. For this, he is known as “[a] father of the Internet,” according to CNNfyi.com. While on tour in Nigeria, President Bill Clinton praised Emeagwali as one of the great minds of the Information Age, according to White House transcripts, reiterating Emeagwali’s nickname as the Bill Gates of Africa.

For his record, Emeagwali earned the 1989 Gordon Bell Prize, considered the Nobel Prize of computing. Because of his engineering background, he was able to apply his technology to the petroleum industry. Massively parallel supercomputing enabled petroleum engineers to figure out how to recover more petroleum from oil fields. The problem was previously considered by the U.S. government to be one of the 20 most difficult problems in the computing field. According to Emeagwali, the process can save $400 million per oil field, which ultimately reduces the price of gas.

By 2001 Emeagwali turned his research to the structure of a global superbrain or “World Wide Brain” (WWB) he hoped would one day replace the World Wide Web (WWW). On Emeagwali.com, Emeagwali described the WWB as a digital superbrain that is [a] uniformly and intelligently connected international network of powerful computers that can take the Internet to the next level. “He speculated about its use in personal computers and in building even more powerful supercomputers to more accurately forecast global weather or for nuclear arms simulations. He suggested that future generations might be able to scan their brains onto the WWB to “attain digital immortality.” He considered the WWW to be the “larval stage” of the WWB and looked forward to its development into an “intelligent superorganism or ‘brain of brains.’”

In addition to his major professional accomplishments, Emeagwali values the paths he has forged for minorities in technology. “In society,” he said in an interview found online at Emeagwali.com, “my greatest accomplishment is that I have helped to destroy the stereotype that only whites are making contributions to cutting-edge science and technology.” He is pleased when he hears he inspired other minorities to study computer science.



American Men and Women of Science, R.R. Bowker, 1998.

Who’s Who Among African Americans, 13th Edition, Gale Group, 2000.


CNNfyi.com, http://www.fyi.cnn.com (July 12, 2001).

Philip Emeagwali Homepage, http://www.emeagwali.com (July 12, 2001).

Remarks by the president in address to joint assembly, Clinton Presidential Material Project Website, http://clinton6.nara.gov (July 18, 2001).

—Brenna Sanchez