African American scientists don’t get as much media hype as their white counterparts, with the possible exception of the media hit Neil Degrasse Tyson in recent years.
The same holds true for inventions and practical applications of scientific knowledge. How many famous black inventors and their inventions can you name off the top of your head?
If you could quickly think of more than 3, congrats. You’re one of the few.
And it’s a damn shame, because these people really deserve to be remembered and praised for their contribution to society.
Toward that end, let’s take a look at 7 praiseworthy African American inventors in no particular order.
1. Sarah Goode
In our times, interior designers are keen on finding new ways of maximizing available space within a building, due to the growing problem of housing, seeing as how there are so many of us on the planet.
Well, Sarah Goode, an African-American woman born in 1855 was way ahead of them. She invented a fully functional desk and cabinet which folded out into a bed and vice-versa.
She also holds the distinction of being the first African-American woman to receive a United States patent.
2. George Washington Carver
The man was born in 1860 and after his death appeared in many history textbooks for his contributions to US economic development using peanuts, often wrongly credited with inventing peanut butter.
But that isn’t true. There is a US patent for making peanut butter awarded 12 years before Carver started his work with peanuts and there are historical indications that the Aztecs were making it as early as the 15th century.
However, he did invent many many other things. The George Washington Carver inventions list is too long to mention here. Over 300 hundred uses for peanuts alone ranging from: food applications to ink, soap, dye, etc. Not to mention a few hundred more uses for sweet potatoes, soybeans and pecans, including a biofuel among other applications.
3. Madam C. J. Walker
Born in 1867 as Sarah Breedlove, she entered history as the first US female to become a millionaire by her own means.
What did Madam CJ Walker invent that got her millions? Why hair beauty and hair products! Makes sense now, doesn’t it?
Worth mentioning is that she invented the various hair care products because in her youth, she herself suffered from various head skin ailments which started to make her lose her hair. So she decided to take matters into her own hands and not wait for someone else to solve her problem.
Oh, and her parents were slaves, though she was born free. Talk about over-achieving.
4. Garrett Morgan
One of the most useful black inventions is that brought to the world by Garrett A Morgan (1877 – 1963).
He invented what was called at a time a “safety hood and smoke protector”. Read early-version gas mask.
But he didn’t just invent it. He was a hero and had the courage to use it himself (along with others he convinced), in order to save 32 people trapped due to an explosion in a tunnel, in 1916.
Naturally, fire departments immediately caught on to the benefits of having gas masks which led to them becoming standard and important equipment today.
Still, we’re not done with the Garrett Morgan inventions. Ever wondered who invented the traffic light? Not Garrett Morgan, as you might expect, because patents for prototypes already existed before his time.
But if you were to ask who invented the stop light that could actually be functional, reliable and commercially affordable so that it could be effectively applied on the streets of the US, that would be Garrett Morgan. All the models before his were expensive, prone to malfunctions, bulky, etc.
5. George Edward Alcorn Jr.
Born in 1940 and still alive, George Edward Alcorn is one of the African American inventors scientists should be thanking whenever they have to identify a material.
He helped develop the imaging x-ray spectrometer which helps greatly with the above. He received the patent for an imaging x-ray spectrometer in 1984 and another one for how to build an imaging x-ray spectrometer in 1986.
For these contributions, he was granted the Inventor of the Year Award by NASA and The Goddard Space Flight Center.
He also has 6 other patents apart from these.
6. Patricia Bath
Speaking of thanks, Patricia Bath, born in 1943 and also still alive, thankfully, is the lady we should tip our hats off when we think of the thousands of people she is credited with saving from that pesky rampaging bane of the eye: cataract.
Patricia Bath invented a system of lasers (Laserphaco Probe) that helps make the cataract removal operation safer and more efficient.
And like Sarah Goode and Madam CJ Walker before her, she also a first. The first African American woman to receive patent for medical applications, which she got for her Laserphaco Probe.
7. Lewis Latimer
Who invented the lightbulb is still very much a debate, because many inventors were working on this at the same time, in that period.
And guess what? African American inventors are represented in achieving this little wonder as well. In fact, the lightbulb might just have to be re-imagined as part of African American inventions.
Because even though Thomas Edison was without a doubt one of those that invented the early versions of the lightbulb, his offering was extremely primitive and had all the chances in the world of being commercially nonviable.
Picture lightbulbs that were expensive but last from 15 minutes to a few days top until they burned out. Those were Edison’s lightbulbs!
In comes Lewis Latimer (born in 1848), one of the African American inventors mentioned. While working for Hiram Maxim (Edison’s competitor) he developed a carbon filament which allowed lightbulbs to function way more (in effect, to be worth installing) and also made them cheaper to produce. Thus, they became a house-hold item.
As a side note, he also worked on developing the telephone with Alexander Graham Bell.