19 Inspiring Black Inventors and Their Inventions You Should Know About

19 Inspiring Black Inventors and Their Inventions You Should Know About

By Dream McClinton, Thomas Net

Black History Month was created in part to reflect the many ways Black Americans have contributed to the world and the United States. Though the feats of Black people have historically been diminished through systematic racism, research from Brookings suggests in the so-called Golden Age of Invention (a period from 1870 to 1940) Black people in the North were given patents at a rate equal to their population. In the South, where racism was heightened, Black inventors did not receive as many patents. Unfortunately, because enslavers were able to take credit for the inventions of those they enslaved*, it is difficult to know how many Black inventors there truly were. Despite this, there is no facet of American society in which Black people did not leave an impact, and inventions are no exception. From traffic lights to telephones to pacemakers, their innovations have helped build America.

Black Inventors and their Inventions

Judy W. Reed
Judy Reed may have been the first Black woman to receive a patent for her dough kneading machine in 1884. Reed was born in 1826, and worked as a seamstress while raising five children and dealing with widowhood in the years after the civil war.

Reed’s invention was an improvement over existing designs; it passed dough through two rollers with intermeshing slats to mix it more evenly, then fed the dough into a covered bin to protect it from dust or other materials. She signed her patent with an X, which may mean she was illiterate. However, that did not stop her from boldly stating her race and gender on her patent. Race was not mandatory on the patent, and women often signed with their initials to avoid prejudice. It’s possible there were other female Black patent holders before Reed, but unfortunately, there is no way to be sure.

Garrett Morgan
Often the first name discussed when the topic of Black inventors comes up, Garrett Morgan was not only innovative and imaginative, he had an outstanding patent record to prove it. Born in Kentucky in 1877, the young inventor first became interested in machinery and inventing when he repaired sewing machines in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1912, he developed a belt fastener for sewing machines. Using the money from sewing equipment repair jobs, Morgan started his own sewing repair business, adding a garment shop and, eventually, a newspaper.

However, his most prominent invention is that of the three-position traffic signal. After witnessing a traffic accident at an intersection, Morgan later invented his own traffic light, adding what is known today as the yield signal onto the original design. This new signal allowed drivers to be more cautious than the previous “stop” and “go” signals from previous traffic lights. He would later sell the rights to his invention to General Electric. Morgan’s other notable innovations include the smoke hood, a predecessor to the gas mask, and a chemical straightening solution.

Lewis Howard Latimer
Born in Massachusetts to formerly escaped people, Lewis Howard Latimer played a crucial role in the development of technology like the telephone and the lightbulb. After serving in the US Navy during the Civil War at the tender age of 15, he received an honorable discharge from the US Navy and became an assistant in a patent law firm. His time at the law firm was especially formative, as Latimer taught himself mechanical drawing and drafting. This led to his being hired as a drafter and later, his promotion to head drafter. Word of his work reached Alexander Graham Bell, looking for a drafter for his invention, the telephone.

Latimer, however, didn’t stop at drafting the telephone. He began to work on extending the lifespan of an Edison invention: the lightbulb. Not only did he figure out a way to encase the filament in Edison’s device, Latimer would later create his own carbon filament. His brilliance did not go unnoticed, even in a time where anti-Black discrimination was taking shape. With his growing reputation, he aided in the installation of electric plants in cities like Montreal, Philadelphia and New York City. Inventing was not Latimer’s only passion either: he also wrote poetry and taught immigrants English and drafting.

Percy Lavon Julian
Born in Alabama in 1899, Percy Lavon Julian is most known for his work in developing a process of chemical synthesis for physostigmine, a crucial compound in treating glaucoma. Before Julian’s intervention, this medicine was only found in plants, and its extraction was time-consuming and expensive. The production of physostigmine also created the steroid stigmasterol as a byproduct. This compound, which was also found in soybeans, could be converted to progesterone, a hormone with the power to reduce miscarriages. However, there was no way to mass produce it.

As the director of research at the Glidden Company of Chicago, Julian found a way after an accident leaked water into a purified soybean oil tank. He would also go on to invent ways to synthesize cortisone and hydrocortisone. In his lifetime, Julian received more than 130 patents.

Thomas L. Jennings
Born free in New York in the antebellum period, Thomas L. Jennings developed a process that he called dry scouring, a precursor to dry cleaning. He began his career as a tailor’s apprentice and then opened a clothing shop in Manhattan. During this time, he patented his process of removing dirt and grease with solvents. The Smithsonian notes this process was patented in 1821, a date which the publication notes could very likely make Jennings one of the first Black people to receive a patent in the United States (though many publications deem him the very first).

Unfortunately, it is believed the patent burned in a facility fire. While some of the patents of the time have been recovered, Jennings’ patent has not. The world may never know what the “dry scouring” process entailed. However, one thing is clear: his work paved the way both for modern dry cleaning techniques and the abolition of enslavement and segregation (particularly in New York). The wealth generated from this patent meant Jennings could often donate his time and income to abolition causes.

Mary Kenner
Born in 1912 to a family of inventors in North Carolina, Mary Kenner followed in the family tradition of innovation and creation. A florist by day, in her spare time she invented the sanitary belt with a moisture-proof napkin pocket meant for menstruation. One company, hearing about her invention, sought her out to manufacture it for her, but then dropped the product once they found out Kenner was Black. Consequently, she never made any money on it and her sanitary belt became public domain.

Despite such a setback, Kenner never stopped inventing. In her lifetime, she received five patents for personal use and household creations, as well as sharing a patent for the first toilet tissue holder with her sister Mildred.

Emmett Chappelle
Born in Arizona in 1925, Emmett Chappelle’s area of expertise was in bioluminescence, but he was certainly not limited to it. After serving in the army during WWII, Chappelle acquired degrees in electrical engineering and biology. From there he researched iron recycling in the blood, which would get him noticed in the biochemical field. In 1958, he discovered that single-celled organisms can photosynthesize, research which became essential in the space age. His discoveries led to algae’s use as a vital source of oxygen for astronauts, reducing the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning in space.

Chappelle would later join NASA, where he worked on the Viking spacecraft and created instruments to collect soil from Mars. During this time, he became interested in bioluminescence, using this work to develop ways to check for agricultural crop stress, ATP, and bacteria levels in blood and urine. His ATP assays, used to detect living cells, are still commonly used to detect and study bacteria.

Lonnie Johnson
Another NASA scientist on the list, Lonnie Johnson was born in Mobile, Alabama. He told the BBC when he was growing up, he had “… always like to tinker with things,” a propensity which earned him the nickname “The Professor.” He attended the historically Black Tuskegee University where he obtained a bachelor’s of science in mechanical engineering and a master’s in nuclear engineering. After his education, he joined the Air Force and later NASA, though he would shuffle back and forth between the organizations.

However, it was during his free time that he created the invention that would make his name ubiquitous with summertime. While tinkering with the idea of a more eco-friendly household refrigerator, he discovered one of the nozzles could shoot a powerful stream of water. He would later capitalize on this discovery by creating a toy water gun more powerful than any other on the market, now known as the Super-Soaker. Johnson also continued on help to develop the N-strike NERF gun. Ever the inventor, Johnson continues to this day to create toys and environmentally friendly energy alternatives.

Alice H. Parker
Born in 1895, Alice H. Parker earned a degree with honors and invented a revolutionary gas furnace heating system before women were even able to vote. Though not much is known about her, Parker attended an affiliate of Howard University in Washington D.C. and graduated with honors in 1910. During that time people were still using fireplaces to heat buildings, which relied on large amounts of coal or firewood. The amounts required to constantly heat homes and businesses either required constantly buying these materials or spending large amounts of time chopping wood.

Parker’s innovative design used natural gas to heat the building, which was more efficient. The design also featured a system of multiple burners that could be individually controlled, which was safer than an open fireplace, especially since people heated houses by keeping a lit fireplace all night. On top of that, she created a system of pipes and air vents to distribute the heat and control temperatures in different rooms. She received a patent for the burner system in 1919, but her furnace system was never fully built because of concerns with heat flow. Following heating system designs, however, used her work as a blueprint, taking from her the idea of thermostats, zone heating, and the use of gas instead of coal or wood.

Though she was not recognized for her work while alive, Parker’s legacy continues, not only thanks to her widely-used innovation, but also in the form of the Alice H. Parker Women Leaders in Innovation Award. This award is granted to innovative women in New Jersey (her birth state) from the New Jersey Department of Commerce.

Granville T. Woods
According to Biography.com, Granville T. Woods is such an eminent inventor that he is often heralded as the “Black Edison” – though he once defeated Edison himself in court. Born in Columbus, Ohio in 1856, Woods worked as an engineer and railroad worker. Woods was not highly educated, but he took electricity and engineering classes after moving to New York.

Woods was finally able to finance his engineering pursuits after selling one of his patents to Alexander Graham Bell. He would then invented “trollers”: wheels that collected electrical power from overhead wires to be used on streetcars, or “trolleys.” Woods’ other inventions include the third rail, which uses electrical power to pull trains forward, and an improved automatic air brake. Another major accomplishment was his multiplex telegraph system, which allowed trains to communicate with each other while letting dispatchers locate trains, reducing accidents. When he passed away in 1910, he held around 60 patents. Much of the technology he invented is still in use today.

Marie van Brittan Brown
Though she made her living as a nurse, Marie van Brittan Brown also patented the first security system in 1969. She is also credited with creating the first closed-circuit television as part of this system. Van Brittan Brown was often home alone in an unsafe neighborhood while her husband worked odd hours, and as a nurse, she often came home late. However, these problems only spurred her on to create something that would contribute to the safety of people (and property) everywhere.

Van Brittan Brown’s system featured a camera that could look through a series of peepholes cut into a door to see people of different heights. From there video went to a monitor, and two-way speakers enabled the user to talk to whoever was at the door. Depending on who was outside, someone could then use a remote control to open the door, or push a button to call the police.

Van Brittan Brown’s invention paved the way for many of the features of modern security systems, including video surveillance, two-way communication, and police call buttons; 32 security system patents following hers referenced her work, even into the 21st century. She was also recognized in her own time: she received an award from the National Scientists Committee as well as getting interviewed by the New York Times.

Elijah McCoy
So famous, people still associate his name with authenticity, Elijah McCoy was born to escaped enslaved people in Canada in 1844. After spending his childhood experimenting with tools, McCoy was sent to study mechanical engineering in Scotland at the age of 15. However, when he returned to the United States, he had difficulty finding work that matched his skill set due to discrimination.

Eventually McCoy became a fireman for the Michigan railroad company, responsible for the oiling of trains. This led to the invention that made his reputation. In 1872, he developed the automatic lubricating cup for trains, which allowed for continuous lubrication to keep train gears from seizing up. Competitors began offering duplicates, but they would often fail, making McCoy’s invention and name synonymous with authenticity: “The Real McCoy.” McCoy continued to receive patents throughout his life as he pursued innovations in lubrication in a multitude of industries. He passed away in 1929.

James E. West
Born in 1931 in Virginia, James E. West was bitten by the electrical engineering bug when he was shocked by a radio he was fiddling with. Though his parents worried about discrimination in the scientific field, West persevered. He studied physics at Temple University and interned at Bell Labs during the summer, where he would later work. In 1962, West and his partner co-invented the foil electret microphone by replacing the traditional microphone condenser with sheets of electret foil. This condenser microphone was sensitive, inexpensive, and smaller than other microphones on the market.

In just a few years, West’s version of the microphone was mass produced and in great demand. It remains ubiquitous in virtually all technology that uses microphones today. James E. West is currently a research professor at John Hopkins University and holds more than 60 patents.

Mark Dean
Tennessee-born and educated, Mark Dean graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1979 with a bachelor’s of science in electrical engineering and began working for IBM almost immediately. During his time at IBM, he helped create several of the designs integral to the internet and computers. Dean invented the Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) bus with a colleague, which increased computer integration into everyday life and made communication with multiple devices easier. His computer mastery did not stop there: his research also helped create the first personal computer monitor that could display colors. Additionally, in 1999, he and other IBM engineers produced the first gigahertz processor chip. Three of IBM’s patents in this area bear his name.

Frederick Jones
Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1893, Frederick McKinley Jones taught himself the ins and outs of mechanical engineering when he was forced to provide for himself as a young child. He started as a janitor in a garage and eventually learned enough to become foreman of the shop. Jones later moved to Minnesota where, after World War I, he taught himself electronic engineering and built many of the first sound systems in local movie theaters. During this time, he also made the transmitter for the local radio station and developed technology to combine movies with sound. Seeing this, Joseph Numero hired Jones to improve the film sound equipment his company manufactured.

Even after all of this, Jones’ most crucial invention was that of portable refrigeration. In 1938, Jones designed an air refrigeration system for trucks and railroad cars, which reduced food spoilage during their transport. Another of Jones’ later inventions, portable air refrigeration, would also be named standard equipment to preserve food and blood in World War II. Jones received over 60 patents for the various technologies he created in his lifetime.

McKinley Thompson Jr.
Born in 1922, McKinley Thompson Jr. held onto his interest in cars since his childhood, often crediting a gray Desoto with the sparking of his interest in automobiles. This spark and later passion would carry Thompson to California, where he graduated from the ArtCenter College of Design with a degree in transportation design.

Thompson was one of the first Black designers in the automotive industry, and the first Black designer hired by Ford. According to Ford, Thompson’s designs were instrumental in the creation of the first generation Bronco. His concept sketches also were used in the Mustang, the GT40, and the 1961 concept car Ford Gyron.

Bessie Blount Griffin
Bessie Blount Griffin, born in 1914, invented a feeding device for amputees, but that is far from her only accomplishment. Blount Griffin started her career as a physiotherapist working with WWII veteran amputees, teaching them to write with their teeth or feet. She invented an “invalid feeder” during this period during her free time, working in her kitchen between 1-4 am. She later presented it in a New Jersey hospital to a standing ovation.

The feeder would work by sending bites of food through a spoon-shaped tool when a patient bit down on a tube. In between servings, the machine would pause to allow time to chew and swallow. Blount Griffin later donated the patent to the French government after the US government passed on buying it. She also invented the kidney-shaped vomit basin that is still used in hospitals today.

This was only the first half of her career, however. Blount Griffin went on to become a handwriting analyst after studying at Scotland Yard, as well as a public speaker and newspaper columnist on the side. She passed away at 94 while building a library and museum in her hometown in Virginia.

Jan Ernst Matzeigler
Born in Suriname in 1852, Jan Ernst Matzeigler began to work in machine shops under his father’s supervision at the age of 10. He arrived in Philadelphia in 1873 and later moved to Massachusetts, where he found work in a shoe factory. His work in the shoe factory made him ponder if there was a better, faster way to attach soles to the top of shoes, a process called ‘lasting.’ Matzeigler’s invention was an instant success, with the ability to produce up to 700 shoes a day. It singlehandedly reduced the price of shoes and allowed more workers without specialized training to work in show production lines. Unfortunately, his work on the machine took a toll on his health, and he contracted tuberculosis in 1886. He would later die from the disease in 1889.

Otis Boykin
Born in Dallas, Texas in 1920, Otis Boykin graduated from HBCU Fisk University and started his career in Illinois. In 1959, Boykin patented his improvement on the wire precision resistor, which allowed for a more precise amount of resistance at regularly timed intervals. Two years later, he patented a new electrical resistor that could hold up in air pressure and temperature changes. Boykin’s advancements in resistors allowed him to create better control units in pacemaking technology, leading to more reliable pacemakers. Over his lifetime, Boykin patented 26 inventions.

With inventions from the color PC to the machines that sped up shoe production, Black inventors have had a powerful influence on the course of technology’s development. Black History Month is a time to celebrate and acknowledge their tenacity, innovation, and many contributions to progress in the face of barriers such as enslavement, segregation, and discrimination. It is not only their inventions that should be recognized during this month, but also their spirit.

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