These Black Inventors Changed the World and Everyday Lives
During Black History Month, a look at how Black Americans changed the world and everyday lives, from peanut oil to home security systems.
Many know the history of George Washington Carver and how he changed American farming. Fewer may be familiar with Marie Van Brittan Brown, a nurse who worked long hours and came home alone, late at night to her Queens, New York apartment, and ended up inventing the first home security system.
From changing the world to making everyday life easier, Black scientists and inventors have long imagined, then created, pioneering works, often without recognition or compensation.
Through the film "Hidden Figures" and the miniseries "Self Made," the considerable contributions of NASA mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson to the 1960s Space Race received greater attention and Madam C.J. Walker, the inventor of beauty products who became America's first self-made female millionaire, sustained bigger acclaim.
But as we celebrate Black History Month, here is a look at the historical offerings of great thinkers — including the enslaved and entrepreneurs — who changed the lives of us all, in extraordinary and ordinary ways.
George Washington Carver (1865 to 1943)
An agricultural scientist and professor at Alabama's Tuskegee Institute, Carver was born into slavery, but became the most prominent Black scientist of the early 20th century. In his research, Carver toiled to replenish Deep South soils, depleted from decades of cotton planting.
He encouraged farmers to plant peanuts and sweet potatoes, which provided much-need nutrients to the soil and to Black diets. When farmers dutifully heeded his advice, but found there was no market for their crops, Carver retreated to his laboratory.
There, he invented more than 300 products from peanuts including oil, flour, paste, insulation, soap, shaving cream and skin lotion. Contrary to popular myth, he did not invent peanut butter.
But his groundbreaking products and research into rotating crops gained national and international attention and Carver was lauded by U.S. presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge and Franklin D. Roosevelt, all of whom made a point of meeting him in person.
Henry Ford invited him to speak at a conference on crop rotation during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, and the two became friends. When Carver's health began to decline as he grew older, Ford had an elevator installed at his Tuskegee office so the elderly man wouldn't have to climb stairs.
Lewis Howard Latimer (1848 to 1928)
Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, but it was Lewis Latimer who turned it into something that lasted longer than a few days. An engineer and inventor himself, Latimer designed a carbon filament for Edison's gadget that lasted much longer than filaments used at the time, such as bamboo, which burned up in hours.
Latimer's discovery would lead to widespread distribution of electricity to homes, businesses and street lamps, revolutionizing the way light was delivered. But those advances were only part of his stellar legacy.
He also worked with Alexander Graham Bell in developing a patent for the telephone, created an early version of an air conditioning unit, and improved bathrooms on railroad cars.
His parents, George and Rebecca Latimer, escaped slavery in Virginia six years before he was born. His father was captured in Boston and tried as a fugitive. His lawyers were abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. The elder Latimer was ultimately able to purchase his freedom, aided by a local minister and a group of abolitionists.
Lewis Latimer joined the Navy at age 15 and served during the Civil War. After that, he joined a patent firm as an office boy and learned how to be a draftsman, a skill he used to help Bell obtain his patent. Ultimately, Latimer joined Edison's lighting company, drafting patents for a firm that became the General Electric Co.
Frederick McKinley Jones (1893 to 1961)
Orphaned at the age of 7, Frederick Jones taught himself mechanical and electrical engineering. By age 20, he was skilled enough to obtain an engineering license. After serving in World War I, he lived on a Minnesota farm, where he helped build a radio station transmitter tower and ultimately developed a device to combine moving pictures with sound, which local entrepreneur Joseph Numero used to improve the audio equipment made by his firm, Cinema Supplies Inc.
It was the beginning of a lucrative partnership for both men. In 1935, Numero was playing golf with a local farmer, who complained of not being able to transport his crops on long hauls without them rotting during the journey.
That set Numero to thinking, and he put Jones on the case. Thus came the invention of refrigerated vehicles, which Jones accomplished by building a cooling unit from odds and ends and attaching it to a truck.
The technology was expanded to rail cars and cargo ships and Numero created Thermo King, which still exists. Jones was named vice president. During World War II, the military used Jones' invention to ship food, blood and medicines to the battlefield. His refrigeration units cooled field hospitals and kitchens, and saved countless lives.
In his life, Jones received more than 60 patents. The majority related to refrigeration techniques, but others included X-ray machines, including a portable device that help revolutionize medical treatment.
In 1991, President George H.W. Bush awarded the National Medal of Technology posthumously to Numero and Jones, presenting the honors to their widows at a White House Rose Garden ceremony. Jones was the first Black American to receive that medal. He had died 30 years earlier from lung cancer.
Marie Van Brittan Brown (1922 to 1999)
Necessity was the mother of invention for New York nurse Marie Brown, who worked long, odd hours and had two children to worry about in her high-crime neighborhood of Jamaica, Queens, where police were often slow to arrive.
Brown and her husband, Albert, who was an electric technician, also worked different schedules, meaning she walked home alone, late at night, and was often the only adult in the house with two young kids.
She did not feel safe. And she set out to fix that.
The security system she devised became the foundation of two-way communication and camera surveillance still used today. Her invention combined peepholes, a camera, monitors and a two-way microphone. It also featured an alarm button that connected to the police precinct, and a button that would unlock the door for visitors.
Her design featured three vertical peepholes, drilled in the front door. The top one was for tall people, the middle hole was for people of average height and bottom one was for children. A camera that could slide up and down captured images through the peepholes and transmitted those images to a TV monitor that allowed you to see who was at the door.
The monitor was portable, and could be placed in any room in the house. It was the first closed-circuit television system.
Brown and her husband submitted U.S. Patent No. 3,482,037 in 1966. Albert Brown did the engineering drawings for the application. It was approved in 1969, and Marie Brown was interviewed by The New York Times for her pioneering work.
Using her device, she told the paper, “a woman alone could set off an alarm immediately by pressing a button, or if the system were installed in a doctor’s office, it might prevent holdups by drug addicts." The invention also had an audio feature that allowed the person inside and the visitor at the door to talk to each other.
Her system is still used in apartment buildings. She received an award from the National Scientists Committee and her patent was cited by 13 other inventors in their applications to the U.S. Patent Office, some as recently as 2013.
Her daughter, Norma, became a nurse and inventor like her mother.
Dr. Shirley Jackson (1946)
Dr. Jackson, the first Black woman to earn a doctorate at MIT, is a noted and honored scientist credited with groundbreaking research that led to inventions including fiber optic cable, caller ID, call waiting, the portable fax machine, touch-tone telephones and solar cells.
The theoretical physicist began experimenting with research as a child, charting the eating habits of honeybees. She was strongly encouraged by her parents to pursue her love of learning and was the valedictorian of her high school class.
Jackson began classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1964. There, she was the only Black student studying theoretical physics. She stayed at MIT to pursue her doctorate in nuclear physics, which she received in 1973. She remained at the revered campus, she said, to encourage other Black students to study there.
She often spoke of being shunned by white students at MIT, and questioned by professors about why a Black woman should dare to study physics.
She joined Bell Labs in 1976, studying materials used in the semiconductor industry as a theoretical physicist. Her renowned research led President Bill Clinton to appoint her as chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the first Black person and the first woman to head the agency, which governs nuclear power and safety measures in the country.
She also co-chaired President Barack Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board, and he awarded her the National Medal for Science in 2016. She has served on the boards of FedEx, IBM, and since 1999, she has been president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a private research university in New York. She is the first Black person and the first woman to preside over the prestigious institution.
Garrett Morgan (1877 to 1963)
Garrett Morgan was a newspaperman, entrepreneur, and inventor who gave Americans the gas mask and the three-position traffic signal. Born in Kentucky to formerly enslaved parents, Morgan lived an extraordinary life that he built from nothing and conducted always on his own terms.
At age 15 he left Kentucky alone, and like many before him, crossed the Ohio River into Cincinnati, where a big city with a bustling water port promised opportunities not available in the rural, hardscrabble environs surrounding it.
He found work as a handyman, and then moved north to Cleveland, where he got hired by a clothing maker as a sewing machine repairman. He had a keen sense of how things worked and how to mend them and his first invention was a belt fastener for sewing machines.
In 1907, he opened his own sewing machine store, and later helped established the Cleveland Association of Colored Men. In 1909, he and his wife started a clothing store that made women's coats, dresses and suits. He joined the NAACP, launched an all-Black country club on his own 122-acre farm and designed hair-care products for Black Americans.
Along the way, he developed a smoke hood that filtered gas and smoke. He wore his own device to help save workers during the Cleveland Waterworks Tunnel Disaster in 2016. A build-up of natural gas exploded under Lake Erie, trapping many men. Morgan carried several to safety, clad in his pajamas, and a photograph ran of him in the local newspaper, showing him in the rescue effort.
The water plant was later renamed in his honor.
Morgan began selling his mask around the country, sometimes using a white actor to demonstrate his invention to avoid racist reactions. He also adopted a disguise, calling himself "Big Chief Mason" and saying he was a full-blood Native American, to demonstrate the hood in theatrical public appearances, during which he would stand in a smoky fire for 20 minutes and then emerge unscathed.
The device, patented by Morgan, was later upgraded to become a gas mask with its own air supply and was sold to the U.S. government.
In 1920, he started the Cleveland Call, which grew to be a nationally important Black newspaper.
But it was Morgan's improved traffic signal that brought him the greatest fame and fortune.
In the early 1920s, after witnessing a serious collision at an intersection, he came up with the idea for a three-position traffic signal, which had a caution setting between the stop and go signs, much like the modern yellow circle in present-day traffic lights.
It was a much-lauded development in an era when newfangled automobiles competed with horse-drawn wagons, bicycles and pedestrians for a place in crowded thoroughfares. He sold his invention to General Electric for $40,000, which would be more than $609,000 today.
Morgan was diagnosed with glaucoma in 1943 and sought treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, which depleted his finances. He was left functionally blind. He also suffered long-term health problems from gas he was exposed to during the tunnel explosion rescue.
Nonetheless, he continued inventing things until his death at age 86. One of his last concoctions was a self-extinguishing cigarette that contained a plastic bubble of water just below the filter.
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