Overcoming great trials and immense obstacles in American history, many black inventors have contributed greatly to American culture and technology. From the first open heart surgery to telescopes used by NASA, their great contribution to American innovation is immeasurable. Using their influence for good, many also created organizations to continue to make America a better place. But who were these great inventors? Here are 25 ingenious black inventors you need to know.
Sarah E. Goode
Sarah was an entrepreneur and inventor who was also the first African-American woman to receive a Unites States patent. Sarah invented a folding cabinet bed which helped people who lived in tight spaces by hiding their beds into a device that looked like a desk. Her invention was the precursor to the Murphy bed which was patented in 1900.
Benjamin Banneker was born in Maryland in 1731 and was a free black man who owned a farm near Baltimore. Entirely self-educated in astronomy and mathematics, he was later called upon to help survey land to help build the nation’s capital. His inventions and scientific information are all found in his almanacs where he details information on tides, bees, and the cycle of the 17-year locust.
Born in 1838, Andre Reboucas grew up in Brazil and went to school in Europe to become an engineer. Returning to Brazil, he joined the military and developed for the Navy. He invented the first torpedo for their ships.
As World War II raged on, the demand for plasma and blood transfusions spiked. They needed a better way to store the plasma. So, African-American surgeon Charles Drew got to work and is responsible for coming up with ways to store blood plasma and putting together the first large-scale blood bank in the United States. Later, he became a professor at Howard University, chief surgeon of Freedman’s Hospital, and was the first African American examiner for the American Board of Surgery.
Daniel Hale Williams
Originally a shoemaker’s apprentice, Daniel Hale Williams thankfully decided to pursue an education. In 1883, Williams graduated with an M.D. degree from Chicago Medical College. Becoming the first surgeon to perform open-heart surgery on a human, Williams essentially invented the practice. He did it without x-rays, antibiotics, or surgical prep work and his patient survived the procedure. He founded the first interracial hospital, created two hospital-based training programs, and co-founded the National Medical Association.
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Born in Canada in 1844, Elijah McCoy took on an engineering apprenticeship at age fifteen and became a certified engineer. While working for the Michigan Central Railroad, he discovered their axels were highly inefficient and created the first patent to help lubricate the axles efficiently, resulting in much less maintenance. He created over 60 patents in his lifetime, including ironing board and lawn sprinkler.
George Washington Carver
Though born into slavery in Missouri in 1864, George Washington Carver became a prominent scientist and inventor of his time. Ingeniously enough, Carver developed 100 products, including dyes, plastics, and gasoline, from the peanut.
Born in Ohio in 1893, Fredrick Jones taught himself mechanical and electrical engineering. He went on to invent many devices related to refrigeration, sound and automobiles. The portable refrigerators Jones invented were widely used by the United States during World War II to carry food and blood.
Building his first telescope at age 10, George Carruthers was destined for science. He later earned his Ph.D. in aeronautical and astronautical engineering at the University of Illinois. Afterward, he worked at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and invented telescopes and ultraviolet camera’s helping NASA in their Apollo 16 flight to the moon. His ultraviolet camera enabled them to see images of pollutants in the Earth’s atmosphere as well as UV images of 550 stars, nebulae, and galaxies.
Becoming an apprentice to a shoemaker, Jan Matzeliger soon learned the process of “lasting,” where shoemakers made molds of customers feet. He developed the first “lasting machine” and filed a patent for it which automated the process. It became a huge success and created the ability to produce 700 pairs of shoes a day, more than 10 times the daily amount.
After fleeing slavery and being defended by Fredrick Douglass, Lewis Latimer was able to purchase his freedom and settled down in Massachusetts. After the Civil War, he took a job at Crosby and Gould Law Office and taught himself mechanical drawing and drafting. He was promoted and helped assist people in drafting their own patents. He worked with popular inventors of the time, including Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison. By doing so, he was instrumental in designing and inventing the telephone and the light bulb. He also created his own inventions like a better train bathroom and early air conditioning units.
An excellent student, George Alcorn graduated with honors with a degree in physics in 1962. He became a pioneer in semiconductor devices and a top inventor in the field of aerospace. Many of his work involved the Titan and Saturn rockets.
Madam C.J. Walker
Born Sarah Breedlove, Madam C.J. Walker went on to develop and invent hair products for African Americans. She promoted her products by giving lectures across the country. With her natural talents as a saleswoman she was able to become one of the first self-made African woman millionaires.
While there’s no one person who invented the internet, Philip Emeagwali certainly helped push the technology forward. In order to assist him in his dissertation, he was able to successfully discover that 6 microprocessors could successfully talk to each other, making 3.1 billion calculations a second. The discovery earned him the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers’ Gordon Bell Prize in 1989.
Considered one of the earliest chemical engineers, Norbert Rillieux changed sugar processing forever with his multiple effect evaporator under vacuum invention. It’s widely recognized as the best method of lowering the temperature of evaporation which helps to save lots of fuel.
In 1932, Richard Spikes developed a patent for automatic gearshifts in cars which were widely accepted in the automobile industries. He also developed directional signals in cars and a beer keg tap. In 1962, he was developing the automobile safety brake but was losing his vision. So, before he completed it, he invented the drafting machine for blind inventors.
Starting out as a sewing machine mechanic, Garrett Morgan was a pioneer inventor. After improving the sewing machine, he created hair-straitening products, invented a new traffic signal and his respiratory device was used as a blueprint for gas masks in World War II.
Born in Harlem in 1942, Patricia Bath went on to become the first African-American woman to complete her residency in ophthalmology. She co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness and invented the Laserphaco Probe which helped in the treatment of cataracts. With the probe, she was able to restore the sight of individuals who had been blind for over thirty years.
Born in 1920, Otis Boykin took a job at Majestic Radio and Television Corporation shortly after graduating college. He went on to invent many of his own resistor products, including a wire precision resistor used in televisions and radios and a control unit for the pacemaker.
Computer scientist Mark Dean helped IBM invent the first color monitor and the first gigahertz chip. Along with fellow engineer Dennis Moeller he invented the Industry Standard Architecture system bus.
Joseph Lee helped invent machinery for processing food, becoming quite prominent in the food industry. His first invention was a machine that helped make bread crumbs for various dishes. After that became successful, he moved on to making the first bread making machine which made bread faster, cleaner, better, and more efficiently than six men.
After being hired over the telephone by Western Electric Company and then turned away when they found out he was a black man, Lloyd Hall went on to become chief chemist of the Chicago Department of Health and later went to work at Boyer Chemical Laboratory. There, he helped invent several ways to preserve meat which revolutionized the way they were processed, packaged, and shipped.
Ernest Just was a biologist and educator, pioneering physiology of development in fertilization. He published many papers on the process including ultraviolet carcinogenic radiation effects on cells.
Meredith Gourdine worked in the area of electrogasdynamics and helped invent electrostatic precipitator aids, including the “Incineraid” which helps remove smoke from burning buildings and fog from runways. He also invented systems to help cool circuit breakers and computer chips using the same principles.
Thomas Mensah worked in the field of telecommunications and fiber optics. While a number of engineers have worked on fiber optics, Thomas Mensah greatly contributed in making it more efficient to make low-cost cables, helping to bring fiber optics faster to market. He also invented semiconductors for space communication and solid state rechargeable cell phone batteries.
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