Dr. Henry Thomas Sampson Jr. is the first Black person to earn a Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering. Though Dr. Thomas has been incorrectly named as the inventor of the modern cell phone, one of his inventions did go on to inspire technology that powers the devices.
Sampson was born in Jackson, Miss. in 1934. Graduating high school in 1951, Sampson briefly attended Morehouse College before transferring to Purdue University. Sampson graduated from Purdue in 1956 with a bachelor’s in chemical engineering. He obtained his master’s from UCLA in chemical engineering in 1961. Sampson attended the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and earned his nuclear engineering Ph.D. in 1967.
Between 1962 and 1964, Sampson was a fellow for the Navy ahead of his twenty-year career with the Aerospace Corp. which began in 1967. In that time, Sampson created or co-created several inventions that still have practical uses today.
In 1971, alongside Dr. George Miley, Sampson helped created the “gamma-electric cell,” an energy conversion device that turned powerful gamma rays into electricity. Somehow, Sampson’s invention was confused for being connected with the modern cell phone but he himself shot down the erroneous distinction. Sampson and Wiley’s invention did inspire the creation of technology used in cell phones and other devices for created power. Among Sampson’s inventions, which are mostly related to solid-fuel rockets, the gamma-electric cell is the best known.
Sampson is also a noted Black film historian and cinema buff. He is the author of seven books on the subject including, Blacks in Black Face: A Source Book on Early Black Musical Shows released in 2013.
Sampson has also gifted Jackson State University with a large portion of his collection of film memorabilia, which is housed in the H.T. Sampson Library at the school. The library is named for Sampson’s father, who was once the executive dean of Jackson State.