Valerie Thomas Nasa Genius

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.

Thomas was was interested in science as a child, after observing her father tinkering with the television and seeing the mechanical parts inside the TV. She looked forward to learning at the age of 8 about electronics if she could build projects in The Boys First Book on Electronics. She hoped that her father would help her work on projects involving electronics, but he did not. She attended an all-girls high school where she did not learn about electronics as she expected even though she took a class in physics. She did not take the higher level math courses at her high school as electives, even though she was good in math, because she was with girls who did not like math (when she was selecting her electives) and did not want to select math classes as an electives.


Influenced by her friends’ decision, she did not select higher level math courses as electives either. No one had told her how important it was to take as much math as she could while in high school. Thomas would go on to attend Morgan State University, where she was one of two women majoring in physics.  She had to catch up on those higher level math subjects as a physics major in college, in order to be able to handle calculus in her 2nd year.


In 1964,  Thomas began working for NASA as a data analyst and eventually oversaw the creation of the Landsat program. 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. While at NASA, she worked as project manager for the Space Physics Analysis Network and was associate chief for NASA’s Space Science Data Operations Office. She also participated in projects related to Halley’s Comet, ozone research, and the Voyager spacecraft. She retired in August 1995 as Space Science Data Operations Officer, serving as manager of the NASA Automated Systems Incident Response Capability and as chair of the SSDOO Education Committee.

She is currently an associate at the UMBC Center for Multicore Hybrid Productivity Research. She also serves as a mentor for youth through the Science Mathematics Aerospace Research and Technology and National Technical Association.

  1. “Illusion Transmitter”. Inventor of the Week. MIT. 2003. Retrieved 13 November 2011.
  2.  James L. Green (1995). “Valerie L. Thomas Retires”. NSSDC News. Retrieved 27 February 2012.
  3. “Valerie Thomas”. Inventors. The Black Inventor On-Line Museum. 2011. Retrieved 13 November 2011.

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