Discover Famous Black Inventors and Their Inventions
Synthetic cortisone to relieve arthritis pain. A closed-circuit television security system. Lingo computer programming and Macromedia’s multimedia workhorse tool, Director. These and countless other products, processes, and designs are part of the heritage left by Black inventors.
In this country, Black inventors are documented to have started as early as the 1700s. Thomas L. Jennings, for instance. Born in the late 18th century, Jennings is thought to have been the first Black inventor to receive a patent – which he did, at the age of 30, for a dry cleaning process. Jennings owned a dry cleaning shop in New York City, and used most of his income from the shop and his inventions for the abolitionist cause.
The first Black woman in the U.S. to receive a patent is considered to be Judy W. Reed. Manually kneading and rolling dough is a repetitive physical process, and Reed thought she could devise a hand-operated machine – which she did.
In fact, shortly after the Civil War, a Black congressman from South Carolina — farmer and teacher George Washington Murray — was able to cite 92 Black inventors, whose names and achievements he read into the Congressional Record.
Kit Bond once said that “America demands invention and innovation to succeed”, and the world is undoubtedly in debt to the United States for some of the devices and quirky ideas that have truly altered the way in which we live. And while most people take for granted the simplicity and convenience that most of these inventions have offered us, the fact is that we have taken for granted the origins of the inventors themselves for far too long, particularly when it comes to the contributions made by many black (or African American) inventors. Without the work of these true pioneers, who often had to overcome incredibly difficult personal circumstances in order to succeed, we would be unable to tell the time, drive safely on the roads, or enjoy the simple joy of soaking our friends and loved ones with a water pistol.
This site is a broad retrospective focussing on the contributions made by several famous, and lesser known black inventors alike. Also, the African American inventors discussed here are not limited by time – they have been selected from as far back as the 1700’s in order to show the rich and ongoing part that Black people have played in shaping our lives. And one final point of order – these inventors are all from America. Again, this is not an attempt to marginalize others, but rather to add a sense of continuity, because the United States is the home of dreams, commerce, and invention.
Benjamin Banneker – The Clock
Born to slaves, Benjamin Banneker is often more readily classified as a genius than a “mere” inventor. Driven by an insatiable love of knowledge, Banneker devoured books on almost any topic, essentially teaching himself everything that he could in the fields of farming, astronomy, mathematics, and science. In fact, many people classify him as America’s first true scientist, which is a massive accolade. He has been included here for his overwhelming contribution to the world of science, which is highlighted in our everyday lives every time we see a clock. Legend has it that he built a fully functioning clock by studying a pocket watch. it rung out proudly ever hour until he passed away, and his contribution is lauded as the start of commercial clock production outside of Europe.
Garrett Morgan – The Traffic Signal & Gas Mask
Another inventive genius from the 1700’s. Garrett A. Morgan was also born of slaves, and received almost no education – some say he had as little as a sixth grade qualification! However, this did not stop Morgan from making some truly incredible things. He was clearly blessed with a practical mind, and did not limit his ambitions. Of all the inventors of his age, he had the most innate flair for business, which led him to produce some highly profitable patents. The two that stand out the most are the gas mask, which he developed after his involvement in a mining accident. Life provided inspiration yet again, after a “car crash” prompted him to devise a system of coloured lights to dictate traffic flow. And thus, the traffic signal was born.
Otis Boykin – Mastered the Electrical Resistor
Take a moment to look around you. You probably have any number of electrical devices happily buzzing around you – computer, TV, fridge. Take a moment to thank Mr Otis Boykin for making all of these things possible. Another great black inventor who was hampered by the restrictions of poverty, Boykin saw his opportunity and took it. He managed to create an electrical resistor that could control the amount of electricity flowing through it. Not only did the resistor improve circuit reliability and performance, Boykin also found a way to manufacture them cheaply, en masse. The result is arguably the most important invention of modern times.
Dr Mark Dean – Computer Innovator
Moving forward to more modern times brings us to the work of Dr Mark Dean. After lifelong interest in the electrical, Dr Dean earned a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Florida Atlantic University, Dean began work at IBM. His work and innovation at the computer giant is reflected in the fact that he has 3 of the company’s initial 9 patents – and now has 20 to his name. Dr Dean is a true genius who embodies the excellence of black individuals when they are given an opportunity.
Valerie Thomas – The Illusion Transmitter
Valerie Thomas is the first woman mentioned here, and has been included to represent the countless black women who have made contributions in the world of invention. After working extensively at NASA, Thomas developed a unique concept based on the idea of television transmission and reception. Essentially what she has developed is a way to transmit entire 3D environments, which has the potential to entertain and educate in a way that is beyond our wildest dreams. Her work is on-going.
Lohnnie G Johnson – The Super Soaker
Lohnnie Johnson is an enigma within the world of invention. He was born with a clear gift for science and mathematics, and that saw him working closely with NASA, and even receiving an invitation to astronaut training. His inventions are many, and his contribution great, but he has been included here because he represents a key element of any scientific endeavour – fun. In 1989, Johnson created the world-renowned Super Soaker, a water pistol with a revolutionary suction mechanism and unrivalled power. The ability to entertain and create something ground-breaking at the same time surely warrants significant recognition.
It is clear that without the work, insight, passion, and dedication of some forgotten heroes, we would not be able to live in the world that we live in. Other stars deserve our gratitude too, so next time you are browsing the internet, take a look at the tremendous work done by other lack inventors. Like the South African youth who has developed no water shower gel to help the destitute. The world is in debt to these people, and we cannot move forward without them. To these incredible ladies and gentlemen of invention, we thank you!