In spite of facing segregation and racial prejudice, a host of ‘World-Changing Black Inventors’ have left an indelible mark on society. Their outstanding innovations, which span across a diverse range of fields from three-way traffic signals and video games, to advanced security technologies and pioneering laser cataract surgery, continue to enrich our lives today.
The accomplishments of white individuals like Thomas Edison and Benjamin Franklin are often lauded in school history classes, but Black inventors have also significantly affected the world we inhabit today. Through their contributions to food, medicine, and safety, these eight Black inventors have made our lives healthier, safer, and more convenient; thus, every child should be aware of them.
George Washington Carver
George Washington Carver was a notable scientist of the early 20th century. He was born in Diamond, Missouri, the year before slavery was abolished. In 1894, he was the first African-American to get a Bachelor of Science. In 1896, he also got a Master of Agriculture degree. Carver taught at Tuskegee Institute and did research there (now Tuskegee University). He created hundreds of items from sweet potatoes and soybeans, but it was his work with peanuts that made him renowned, as he produced more than 300 food, industrial, and commercial products from peanuts. After his death, Carver was admitted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. He also has a memorial in Newton County, Missouri.
Garrett Morgan, who was born in Paris, Kentucky, in 1877, witnessed numerous incidents at traffic lights with simply “stop” and “go” signs. He recognized a way to improve it by adding a warning light, and thus the three-way signal was born, which significantly increased vehicle safety. Morgan gave General Electric the rights to his invention for $40,000. Prior to that, in 1914, Morgan had obtained a patent for a canvas hood that assisted firefighters’ breathing while on duty. During World War I, the Army utilized the safety hoods’ that he sold to the U.S. Navy.
Marie Van Brittany Brown
Marie Van Brittan Brown was born and worked as a full-time nurse in Queens, New York. Albert, her husband, was an electronic technician. Due to their unpredictable work schedules, Brown was frequently left alone at home. When crime rates in her neighborhood increased, Brown became afraid to answer the door. She invented the first home security system with her husband’s assistance. It was outfitted with four peepholes, a slidable camera, television monitors, two-way microphones, and a panic button to alert the authorities in the event of an emergency. Brown submitted her patent application in 1966 and gained permission in 1969.
Frederick McKinley Jones
Throughout his lifetime, Frederick McKinley Jones was granted 61 patents, including 40 for refrigeration equipment. The creation of refrigerated air-cooling units for trucks, railroad wagons, ships, and planes by a resident of Cincinnati in the late 1930s revolutionized the delivery of food and other perishables by making fresh produce available year-round, regardless of location or season. It also altered the American diet. During World War II, Jones’s refrigeration units played a crucial role in preserving blood, medicine, and food in army hospitals and battlefields. Jones was awarded the National Medal of Technology posthumously in 1991, becoming the first African American to earn the honor.
During Alexander Miles’ lifetime, human conductors manually operated elevator doors. People could fall in if the shaft was not adequately sealed, leading to horrifying accidents. Miles was given a patent in 1887 for his creation of a flexible belt that fastened to the elevator cage and drums positioned to notify when the elevator had reached a floor. The belt enabled the doors to open and close mechanically. In addition to achieving financial success, Miles was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Robert C. Drew
Charles Drew, M.D., was a notable surgeon, medical researcher, and pioneer in the fields of blood transfusion and large-scale blood bank storage. He was born in Washington, D.C. Dr. Drew was appointed medical director of the Blood for Britain initiative, where he oversaw the collection of 14,500 pints of crucial plasma due to his recognized research. In 1941, he also became the first director of the American Red Cross Blood Bank. During World War II, he worked with the U.S. Army and Navy and assisted medics in saving thousands of lives.
Dr. Drew battled against racial segregation in American blood banks, which banned African Americans’ blood from plasma supply networks. In 1942, he quit after the military announced that African-American blood would be received but stored separately. He continued to advocate for Black physicians’ participation in medical societies, specialty organizations, and the American Medical Association.
Patricia Era Bath
Dr. Patricia Bath was a talented ophthalmologist, inventor, humanitarian, and one of the earliest pioneers of laser cataract surgery. Dr. Bath, a graduate of Hunter College and Howard University College of Medicine, became New York University’s first African American ophthalmology resident. Moreover, she was the first African-American woman to work as a surgeon at the Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA Medical Center. Dr. Bath invented the Laserphaco Probe in 1981, which uses a laser to remove cataracts in a less unpleasant manner. Dr. Bath, co-founder of the organization American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness in Washington, D.C., claims her “personal best moment” occurred on a humanitarian mission when she restored the vision of a woman who had been blind for thirty years.
Gerald A. Lawson
Gerald “Jerry” Lawson, a pioneering scientist and video game creator born in Brooklyn made it feasible for individuals to play video games from the comfort of their own homes. In the early 1970s, Lawson relocated to Silicon Valley in the Bay Area, where he was one of the only African-American engineers in the technology industry. In 1976, he joined the computer business Fairchild Semiconductor as the division’s director of engineering and marketing. Under Lawson’s leadership, the Fairchild Channel F, a console that allowed users to play various games at home, was created, paving the way for the Atari 2600, Nintendo, Xbox, and PlayStation systems that are popular today.
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