Inventor of the Week Archive
for a different Invention or Inventor
Thomas was fascinated with technology as a very young child.
At age eight her curiosity about how things worked inspired
her to borrow a book called "The Boy's First Book On
Electronics," which she took home hoping her father would
help her take on some of the projects in it. After all, he
liked to tinker with radios and television sets. But he did
not help her.
Thomas attended an all-girls high school that did not help
her, either. At the time, scientific subjects were not considered
important or suitable for women. So, no one encouraged Thomas
to take the advanced math classes that were offered at her
school, and she continued to look up her technological aptitude
as more of a curiosity than anything else.
This changed in college, when Thomas enrolled at Morgan
State University as one of only two women in her class to
major in physics. She was an excellent student, and soon she
had acquired the knowledge of mathematics that lead her to
a position as a mathematician/data analyst for NASA.
Eventually Thomas moved up within NASA and served in a position of managing the development of NASA's image-processing systems for "Landsat," the first satellite to send
images from outer space. In 1976, she saw something at a scientific
exhibit that would lead her down a path of invention. She
saw an illusion of a glowing light bulb that had been unscrewed
and removed from its socket. It had been created using a second
bulb pointing downward in a socket beneath the top socket,
employing a concave mirror to produce the illusion of the
lit bulb. Unlike flat mirrors, which produce images that appear
to be inside, or behind the mirror, concave mirrors create
images that appear to be real, or in front of the mirror itself.
Thomas was intrigued, and wondered how such an image could
be transmitted like other images were at the time. She began
experimenting in 1977, setting up equipment to observe the
relationship between an object and its real image relative
to the positions of concave mirrors. She thought that if it
were possible to present and transmit these types of realistic,
three-dimensional images, great improvements could be made
in video, and even television, in the future.
In 1980, she received a patent for her illusion transmitter,
which uses a concave mirror on the transmitting end as well
as on the receiving end to produce optical illusion images.
NASA uses the technology today, and scientists are currently
working on ways to incorporate it into tools for surgeons
to look inside the human body, and possibly for television
sets and video screens one day.
Thomas continued to work for NASA until her retirement in
1995, serving in such positions as Space Physics Analysis
Network (SPAN) project manager and most recently associate
chief of the Space Science Data Operations Office.
Over the course of her career Thomas contributed to computer
program designs for research related to Halley's comet, ozone
hole studies, and voyager satellite development. She has received
a number of NASA awards including the GSFC (Goddard Space
Flight Center) Award of Merit, and the NASA Equal Opportunity
Medal. She continues to mentor young students through the
National Technical Association (NTA) and Science Mathematics Aerospace Research and Technology (S.M.A.R.T.), Inc..