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Excerpt from this interview was published in Portuguese language in the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo (www.estadao.com.br, September 11, 2001). The interview was conducted by email with Joa Magalhaes.


Estado: When and where did you become a refugee?

Emeagwali: I lived in refugee camps during the 1967-70 civil war between the nations of Nigeria and Biafra. The civil war was provoked by an ethnic uprising in which 50,000 Igbo-speaking Nigerians were killed in retaliation for their role in a 1966 military coup. The massacre of 50,000 people forced one million Igbos, including my family, to flee to their homeland.

As the war progressed, five million Igbo refugees fled the advancing Nigerian army. We fled for the fifth time when the Nigerian army captured Onitsha on March 20, 1968. The reason we fled was that the Nigerian army did not keep prisoners. In my hometown of Onitsha, 2000 men who did not flee were killed by the Nigerian army. In one widely reported case, three hundred worshippers were dragged out from an Onitsha Church and were executed before a firing squad. The women were forced to become comfort women for the soldiers.

As war refugees, we lived in palm-frond shelters and abandoned school buildings. We were rocked by Soviet made combat planes that were piloted by Egyptians and East Germans. We spent long hours hunkering inside bomb shelters.


Estado: You are famous and the whole world refers to you as the Bill Gates of Africa. Do you agree with it?

Emeagwali: Africans were offended when President Bill Clinton described me as the “Bill Gates of Africa.” They argued “Bill Gates is the Philip Emeagwali of America.”

Bill Gates and I are information technologists. Bill Gates is an entrepreneur. I am a computer scientist. I am an explorer of knowledge and ideas. I create the knowledge that makes it possible to have computers and the Internet. Bill Gates commercializes and profits from the ideas of people like me.


Estado: In few words, what do you attribute your success to?

Emeagwali: I work very hard and believe in the saying “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” I always tell myself that if at first I don't succeed that I should try again.


Estado: About your famous computer, how did you think of it?

Emeagwali: The first computer was invented 2,000 years ago in China. It is called an "abacus." In fact, the word "computer" was coined 600 years ago. Therefore, our modern computer is the product of a succession of inventions.

Each generation reinvents the computer and I am one of the people that reinvented computing for our generation. I was the first computer scientist to demonstrate that a computer with several brains is faster than one with only one brain.

If two heads are better than one then 65,000 heads will be 65,000 times better, I argued. Because a problem is made smaller when it is shared I programmed my computer to use thousands of brains, instead of one.

In 1988, I used 65,000 processors to perform the world's fastest computation of 3.1 billion calculations per second. My breakthrough was recognized and rewarded with the 1989 Gordon Bell Prize, considered the Nobel Prize of the computing field. Later, President Bill Clinton expressed his admiration for my breakthrough in a televised speech.

My 65000-processor breakthrough inspired the reinvention of the computer and is now incorporated in designing both personal computers and supercomputers. The most powerful personal computers manufactured by Apple Computers now use multiple processors to achieve 3.1 billion calculations per second. The fastest supercomputer manufactured by IBM now use thousands of processors.


Estado: What are your favorite websites?

Emeagwali: I love to read foreign newspapers. It makes me feel like I visited a country. The problem is that I can only read two languages and this makes it difficult for me to read Web pages written in Portuguese, French and Spanish. I visited www.estadao.com.br but could not understand what is published there.


Estado: How do you use the Internet? How long have you been online?

Emeagwali: I have been online for 27 years. I am a computational scientist and the Internet was created to enable researchers in my field to access remote supercomputers.

From 1974 to 1989, I used the Internet to access remote computers and supercomputers. I used it to figure out how to discover and recover petroleum from oil fields.

Presently, I like to use the Internet to talk directly to people in other countries. Now that many Brazilians have access to the Internet, I receive email from Brazil and look forward to visiting your beautiful country.


Estado: How would you evaluate the current state of computer technology as it relates to African-American culture. Are we embracing the technology or hiding from it?

Emeagwali: (Unanswered)


Estado: Many computer scientist are called “Father of the Internet.” Are you one of them? What do you think about this matter?

Emeagwali: The reason the media calls me “A Father of the Internet” is that I made my contributions over the past 27 years. For example, the book HISTORY OF THE INTERNET credited me as the first person to fully harness the power of the Internet when I used it to access 65,000 processors and perform the world’s fastest computation. The authors also praised me for inventing the first INTernational NETwork.

It is important that we remember that the Internet is the product of a succession of inventions. Therefore, the Internet has many fathers, mothers, uncles and aunts.

The difference between I and the other “Fathers of the Internet” is that they are white Americans and I am a black African. The United States government spent billions of dollars to purchase computer and Internet research equipments. Due to employment discrimination, only white scientists could work at government funded research projects. As a result, the other “Fathers of the Internet” were paid a good salary for their contributions.

Employment discrimination meant that I was forced to work alone and even fund my own research. I worked without pay while white scientists were paid six-figure salaries and some of them eventually became dot com millionaires. Employers who were impressed with my qualifications and wanted to hire me always changed their minds when they saw at the interview and were surprised that I am black. The struggle was harder for me because I was an African working in America. My path was strewn with thorns while theirs was strewn with roses. I began my journey from an African civil war refugee camp and Bill Gates began his from the home of his affluent family. The destination may be the same but I walked the farthest and climbed the highest mountains.

Their work was driven by their paycheck and mine was driven by a sense of higher purpose. I was responding to an inner voice that reminds me that my life is God's gift to me and that my invention is my gift to God.


Estado: What have you discovered to be the biggest benefits that the Internet brought to human being?

Emeagwali: Thirty years ago, the only purpose and benefit of the Internet was it allowed scientists to access supercomputers.

Today, the biggest benefit of the Internet is to send e-mail. However, it is widely used for socializing: chatting, instant messaging. Students prefer Internet, over books, as an information source for their homework assignments. Many use the Internet to play and download games and music. Others love to surf for fun.


Estado: In the future, what will be the biggest benefits that the Internet will bring to humanity?

Emeagwali: In the future, the Internet will be obsolete. It will be replaced with what I call a SuperBrain, an electronic super-being that will grant some of us eternal life.


Estado: What negative event changed your life in a positive way?

Emeagwali: After mailing out 1,000 resumes and several unsuccessful job interviews, I learned one important lesson that they don't teach a black student in school: a white employers will always hired a lesser qualified white applicant and rationalize to themselves that the black applicant is not qualified.

By the mid-1980s, I had an impressive resume that included three graduate degrees and some working experience. However, several employers who practically offered jobs by telephone changed their minds after the interview. What I found most discouraging was those employers offered the same jobs that I was denied to a white male fresh out of their undergraduate schools.

Also in 1986, I had three graduate degrees and was employed as a civil engineer by the United States Bureau of Reclamation in Wyoming and paid $23,000 a year. A white engineer with similar qualifications will have been paid three times what I was earning. (In other words, I was paying an "invincible black tax" of $46,000 on a $69,000 job.) My supervisor, a white male, had only a high school education and I had to train him on how to use computers to make engineering calculations. Discouraged, I resigned after I completed my mandatory one-year service.

I also became disenchanted about civil engineering and engineers and decide to become a computer scientist that solves difficult mathematical problems within the field of engineering. In this instance, a negative event forced me to change careers, make a lemonade out of lemons and, subsequently, become "a famous computer scientist" instead of a civil engineer that operates dams and hydroelectric powerplants in Wyoming.

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