Black History Month: Black Inventors Who Helped Shape American Lives

Lonnie Johnson

Lonnie Johnson (1949 – )

An engineer for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory working on the Galileo mission to Jupiter, the Mars Observer project, and the Cassini mission to Saturn.

Pioneered: The Super Soaker and Nerf Gun

Background: Born in Mobile, Alabama, Johnson attended Tuskegee University before joining the United States Air Force.

Inventions: He invented the Super Soaker – initially called the “Power Drencher” – in 1990. The Nerf Gun was an upgrade to the Super Soaker, which he invented in 1996 by replacing the water in the Super Soaker with a “toy (Nerf) projectile.” That same year, Mr. Johnson patented “pneumatic launcher for a toy projectile and the like.”

Johnson considers a robot that he built in high school to be one of this top three inventions, along with the Super Soaker and his work for the Galileo project.

Marie Van Brittan Brown

Marie Van Brittan Brown (1922 –1999)

Pioneered: Home Security System

Background: Born and died in Jamaica, Queens, New York

Invention: In 1966, she invented the home security system, which had a set of three peep-holes with the camera attached to slide up and down to allow the person to see through each peephole.

The system included a device that enabled a homeowner to use a television set to view the person at the door, a voice component to speak to the person at the door and hear the caller’s voice via a radio-controlled wireless system. She invented a system that contacted police and emergency responders with just the tap of a button. The system was originally intended for domestic uses, many businesses began to adopt her system due to its effectiveness.

For this invention of the home security system, she received an award from the National Science Committee. The invention was basically the first closed-circuit television security system and is a predecessor to today’s modern home systems.

Mary Kenner

Mary Kenner (1912 – 2006)

The designer of a device to make periods more tolerable.

Pioneered: The sanitary belt

Background: Kenner was born in North Carolina to a family of inventors. She graduated from high school in 1931 and attended Howard University, although did not finish due to finances.

Inventions: In 1956, she invented the adjustable sanitary belt with an inbuilt, moisture-proof napkin pocket. The patent, however, was rejected by Sonn-Nap-Pack Company after discovering that she was Black. She never made any money off of the sanitary belt because her patent expired and became public domain.

In 1959, she patented the carrier attachment for a walker after developing multiple sclerosis. 23 years later, she shared the patent on the toilet tissue holder she had created with her sister, Mildred Davidson, in order for the invention to be more accessible for blind individuals and people with arthritis.

Lastly, in 1987, she patented a back washer that could be mounted on the shower or bathtub wall.

Dr. Charles Drew

Dr. Charles Drew (1904 – 1950)

Physician, surgeon, scientist, and educator.

Pioneered: Blood plasma preservation and America’s first large-scale blood bank during World War II.

Background: Born in Washington, D.C., Dr. Drew received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Amherst College in 1926. He later received a Medical Certificate from McGill University in Montreal, Canada in 1933. He graduated from Columbia University in 1940 with a Doctorate in Medical Sciences.

Invention: In the late 1930s, Drew invented a way to process and preserve blood plasma, allowing it to be stored and shipped for blood transfusions. Until then, blood was perishable and not fit for use after about a week. Drew’s invention vastly improved the efficiency of blood banks.

In 1941, Dr. Drew was named medical director of the American Red Cross National Blood Donor Service and agitated authorities to stop excluding the blood of African Americans from plasma-supply networks.

When American armed forces decided to segregate storage of blood from Black and White donors in 1942, Dr. Drew spoke out against this racist and unnecessary practice. However, the military refused to change the policy and Dr. Drew ultimately resigned.

From 1942 to 1950, Dr. Drew was a surgeon and Professor of Medicine at Howard University.

Death: Dr. Drew’s death was caused by an automobile accident. Some say a blood transfusion (which he did not receive) could have saved his life.

Dr. Patricia Bath

Dr. Patricia Bath (1942 – )

Pioneered: Surgical laser tool to restore or improve vision in patients

Background: Born in Harlem, New York, Dr. Bath attended medical school at Howard University. Afterward, she completed a fellowship in Ophthalmology at Columbia University.

Invention: In 1981, Dr. Bath invented the Laserphaco Probe, which was patented seven years later. The probe is a laser tool used globally to correct cataracts. It is a more precise, less invasive, and less risky procedure than what came before. Around that time, Dr. Bath also co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness.

Other firsts for Dr. Bath include being the first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology; being the first woman to chair an ophthalmology residency program in the United States; and being the first African American female doctor to secure a medical patent.

Garrett Morgan

Garrett Morgan (1877 – 1963)

African-American inventor, businessman, and community leader.

Pioneered: An early version of the gas mask and a new form of the traffic light

Background: Born in Paris, Kentucky, Morgan worked jobs at textile factories which inspired his interest in machines and how they work. He opened a repair business and was involved in the civic and political advancement of African-Americans in Ohio.

Inventions: In 1905, Morgan developed a chemical hair-processing and straightening solution, which was the catalyst for the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company. His company was created to market his hair product inventions along with a complete line of hair-care products.

Morgan added the curve-tooth comb for hair straightening in five years later, and in 1914, he invented a “safety hood” to make polluted air more breathable. This was an early version of the gas masks later used in World War I to protect soldiers from poison gas. The masks were also put to use in a tunnel construction disaster in Cleveland, Ohio to rescue 32 men trapped under Lake Erie.

In 1923, Morgan patented the first traffic light to have three commands, a third “warning position, instead of two, and which better controlled traffic. He sold the patent rights to General Electric for $40,000.

Otis Boykin

Otis Boykin (1920 – 1982)

Pioneered: Otis Boykin improved the pacemaker and made everyday electronic devices more efficient and affordable through the use of resistors.

Background: Born in Dallas, Texas, Boykin attended Fisk College in Nashville, Tennessee, and the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, Illinois.

Inventions: In 1959, Boykin patented a “wire precision resistor,” which allowed specific amounts of electrical currents to flow for a specific purpose. The resistor could withstand shifts in temperature and air pressure, and allowed electronic devices to be made more cheaply and more reliably. The resistor was used in televisions and IBM computers, and in military missiles.

Boykin also invented a control unit for the pacemaker allowing a pacemaker to be more precisely regulated.

Death: Heart failure

Madame C. J. Walker

Madame C.J. Walker (1867 – 1919)

American entrepreneur, philanthropist, and political and social activist. She became America’s first self-made female millionaire by developing and marketing a line of cosmetics and hair care products for Black women.

Background: Sarah Breedlove was born to former slaves on a cotton plantation near Delta, Louisiana. She was orphaned at the age of seven, married at the age of 14, and by the age of 20 was widowed with a small child. She relocated to St. Louis, Missouri and married Charles J. Walker.

Invention: During the 1890s, Walker suffered hair loss and experimented with homemade treatments. She created a formula titled “Madame C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower” and marketed it through her business, Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company.

Her knack for self-promotion made her one of American’s most successful businesswomen. She was recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first self-made female millionaire in America.

Death: Walker passed away from kidney failure and complications of hypertension.

Elijah McCoy

Elijah McCoy (1844 – 1929)

Inventor and engineer who had 57 U.S. patents, most having to do with the lubrication of steam engines.

Pioneered: Enabling trains to run faster and more efficiently.

Background: McCoy was born free in Colchester in Ontario, Canada to former slaves who had escaped from Kentucky to Canada via the Underground Railroad. He traveled to Scotland to study mechanical engineering and became a fireman with the Michigan Central Railroad oiling steam engine parts.

Invention: In 1872, he developed an automatic lubricator that spread the oil evenly over a train’s engine allowing trains to run for long periods of time without stopping.

The popular expression, “The Real McCoy,” meaning “the real thing,” was first published in Canada in 1881. With inferior copycats starting to pop up, railroad engineers would inquire if a locomotive was fitted with “the real McCoy system.”

Death: Injuries suffered from a car accident

Lewis Latimer

Lewis Latimer (1848–1928)

Pioneered: Making the lightbulb more practical and contributing to the invention of the first telephone.

Background: Born in Chelsea, MA to runaway Virginian slaves, Latimer enlisted in the Navy at the age of 15. He taught himself mechanical drawing.

Inventions & Patents: In 1874, Latimer and Charles M. Brown co-patented an improved toilet system for railroad cars called “The Water Closet for Railroad Cars.” In 1876, he drafted the drawings that Alexander Graham Bell sued to patent the first telephone. 

In 1879, Latimer invented a modification to the process for making carbon filaments to reduce breakages during the carbonization process. Several years alter, he patented the carbon filament for the incandescent lightbulb which helped make electric lighting practical and affordable.

Latimer’s invention streak continued when he patented the “Process of Manufacturing Carbons“, an improved method to produce carbon filaments for lightbulbs.

In 1984, he developed a forerunner of the air conditioner called “Apparatus for cooling and disinfecting,” followed by a patent for the safety elevator that prevented the riders from falling out and into the shaft.

His last patents were for the “Locking rack for hats, coats, and umbrellas,” in 1896 and a co-patent with Norton and William Sheil in 1910 for the “Lamp fixture.”

Mark Dean

Mark Dean (1957 – )

Pioneered: Co-inventing the personal computer.

Background: Born in Jefferson City, Tennessee, Mark Dean graduated from the University of Tennessee and obtained a Master’s degree and a doctorate from Stanford University.

Inventions: Dean is one of the original inventors of the IBM personal computer and the color PC monitor. He created the technology that allows keyboard, mice, and printers to be plugged into a computer and communicate with each other. He also managed the team that created the one-gigahertz processor chip.

In 2011, he blogged that he had switched to using a tablet.

James E. West

James E. West (1931 – )

American inventor, champion of science and technology education for minorities and women, and acoustician — he holds over 250 foreign and U.S. patents.

Chances are that you use West’s microphone everyday.

Pioneered: Producing and designing microphones.

Background: Dean was born in Farmville, Virginia. He studied physics at Temple University.

Invention: In 1957, Dean co-developed an inexpensive, compact, and highly sensitive microphone, which he obtained the patent for in 1962. Today, 90 percent of microphones in cell phones, laptops, baby monitors, and hearing aids use this technology.

Jan Ernst Matzeliger

Jan Ernst Matzeliger (1852 – 1889)

Pioneered: Machine to make shoes for the masses.

Background: Matzeliger was born in Dutch Guyana (modern-day Suriname) on a coffee plantation. He immigrated to the United States in the 1870s and settled in Lynn, Massachusetts, where he worked at a shoe factory.

Invention: In 1883, he invented and patented the automated shoemaking machine that attached the show to the sole, called “an automated shoe laster.” The machine could produce 150 – 700 pairs of shoes in a day, superior to the 50 or so that could be produced by hand in 10 hours. This cut the price of shoes in half. Matzeliger’s first shoemaking machine model was made out of cigar boxes, elastic, and wire.

Death: Tuberculosis

George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver (1860s – 1943)

An American agricultural scientist, environmentalist, and inventor; most prominent Black scientist of the early 20th century

Pioneered: Revolutionizing agriculture in the South, transforming its economy.

Background: Born near Diamond Grove, Missouri to enslaved parents, George Washington Carver was orphaned as an infant and raised by the plantation owners, Moses and Susan Carver. He studied Botany at the Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) and, in 1896, was recruited by Booker T. Washington to the Tuskegee Institute’s Agriculture School.

Invention: He developed techniques to improve soils depleted by repeated plantings of cotton and promoted alternative crops to cotton (peanuts and sweet potatoes) and methods to prevent soil depletion. He also developed more than 300 uses for peanuts, from ink to hand lotion to cooking oil.

In 1943, Carver’s birthplace was declared a national monument, the first United States memorial dedicated to an African American. Congress also declared January 5th as George Washington Carver Day.

Vivien Thomas

Vivien Thomas (1910 – 1985)

An American laboratory supervisor, a cardiac surgery pioneer, and a teacher of operative techniques to many of the country’s most prominent surgeons.

Background: Born in New Iberia, Louisiana, Thomas enrolled in the Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial College (now known as Tennessee State University) as a premedical student in 1929. He was Assistant Surgeon to Alfred Blalock at Vanderbilt University and Johns Hopkins University. He also served as supervisor of the surgical laboratories and as an Instructor of Surgery at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine training and teaching operative techniques to many of the nations top white surgeons.

Inventions: In the 1930s, Thomas researched the causes of hemorrhagic and traumatic shock, which evolved into research on crush syndrome. This research, conducted with Blalock, saved the lives of thousands of soldiers on the battlefields of World War II. At this time, he also performed research that lead to the use of blood and plasma transfusions.

In the 1940s, Thomas developed a procedure with Blalock used to treat blue baby syndrome (now known as cyanotic heart disease).

From 1985, he completed his autobiography, Pioneering Research in Surgical Shock and Cardiovascular Surgery: Vivien Thomas and His Work With Alfred Blalock, in which he recalled his extraordinary life and work.

Death: Pancreatic cancer

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