Throughout history African American inventors have overcome incredible odds including racism, discrimination, and bigotry to make numerous contributions to our country. In honor of Black History Month, I’ve compiled a list of who I think are the greatest Black Inventors of all time. I look forward to your thoughts, opinions and comments.
10. Lonnie G. Johnson 1949 –
Invented: The Super Soaker
Lonnie G. Johnson was born in Mobile, Alabama on October 6, 1949. He is best known for the invention of the world famous water gun, the Super Soaker. The Super Soaker gun was the top-selling toy in the United States in 1991 and 1992 and has generated over 1 billion dollars in sales. Recently Johnson’s company came out with a Nerf ball toy gun.
9. Madam C.J. Walker 1867 – 1919
Invented: Beauty & Hair products for black women
Madam C.J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, was an African American business woman, hair care entrepreneur and philanthropist. In 1906 she married Charles Joseph Walker, and changed her name from Sarah Breedlove to Madam C.J. Walker.
Her fortune was made by developing and marketing a hugely successful line of beauty and hair products for black women, under the company she founded Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. By 1917 she had the largest business in the United States owned by a black person.
The Guinness Book of Records cites Walker as the first female who became a millionaire by her own achievements.
8. Jan Ernst Matzeliger: 1852-1889
Invented: Shoe-making machine
Jan Ernst Matzeliger was an African American inventor in the shoe industry. Matzeliger was born in Paramaribo (then Dutch Guyana, now Suriname). His father was a Dutch engineer and his mother a black Surinamese slave. He had some interest in mechanics in his native country, but his efforts at inventing a shoe-lasting machine began in the United States after a life of working in a machinery shop. He settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at 19 after working as a sailor. By 1877 he spoke adequate English and had moved to Massachusetts. After five years of work he patented his invention in 1883. His machine would speed up the production of shoes considerably. Previously, working by hand, one could produce 50 pairs of shoes a day, but his machine could produce between 150 to 700 pairs of shoes a day. His shoe-lasting machine also cut the shoe prices across the nation in half. Because of his early death from tuberculosis, he never saw the full profit of his invention. In recognition of his accomplishment he was honored on a postage stamp on September 15, 1991.
7. Dr. Patricia E. Bath 1949 –
Invented: A device designed to help remove cataracts
Patricia Era Bath is an ophthalmologist credited as the first African American woman doctor to receive a patent for a medical purpose. Bath received the patent in 1988 for an “Apparatus for ablating and removing cataract lenses”, a version of a device designed to help remove cataracts with a fiber-optic laser.
Bath graduated with a baccalaureate degree from Hunter College in 1964, then from Howard University School of Medicine in 1968. She was the first female ophthalmologist at UCLA’s prestigious Jules Stein Eye Institute and the first female African American surgeon at the UCLA Medical Center.
Bath was also instrumental in bringing ophthalmic surgical services to Harlem Hospital’s Eye Clinic, which did not perform eye surgery in 1968. She persuaded her professors at Columbia to operate on blind patients for free, and she volunteered as an assistant surgeon. The first major eye operation at Harlem Hospital was performed in 1970 as a result of her efforts.
6. Lewis Latimore 1848-1928
Invented: Long life light bulb
Lewis Howard Latimer was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1848. He was an African American inventor and draftsman. Even though Thomas Edison was the inventor of the light bulb, it was Lewis Latimer that took the light bulb to the next level. The original light bulb by Edison only lasted a few days. Latimer set out to improve the life of the bulb by encasing the filament within a cardboard envelop which prevented the carbon from breaking and thereby provided a much longer life to the bulb and hence made the bulbs less expensive and more efficient. This enabled electric lighting to be installed in homes and throughout streets. In addition to working with Thomas Edison, Latimer also worked with Alexander Graham Bell and drafted the necessary drawings required to receive a patent for Bell’s telephone.
5. Garrett Morgan 1877 – 1963
Invented: The gas mask & the first traffic signal
Garrett Augustus Morgan, Sr. (March 4, 1877 – August 27, 1963) was an African American inventor who originated a respiratory protective hood (similar to the modern gas masks), invented a hair-straightening preparation, and patented a type of traffic signal. He is renowned for a heroic rescue in which he used his hood to save workers trapped in a tunnel system filled with fumes. He is also credited as the first African-American in Cleveland to own an automobile.
4. Otis Boykin 1920 – 1982
Invented: Control unit for the pacemaker
Otis Frank Boykin (1920-1982) was an African American inventor and engineer. Boykin in his lifetime, ultimately invented more than 25 electronic devices. One of his early inventions was an improved electrical resistor for computers, radios, televisions and an assortment of other electronic devices. Other notable inventions include a variable resistor used in guided missiles and small component thick-film resistors for computers. Boykin’s most famous invention was likely a control unit for the artificial heart pacemaker. The device essentially uses electrical impulses to maintain a regular heartbeat. Boykin himself died of heart failure in 1982.
3. Granville Woods 1856 – 1910
Invented: A train-to-station communicating system
Granville T. Woods was an African American inventor who developed several improvements to the railroad system, and was referred to by some as the “Black Edison”. In 1885, Woods patented an apparatus which was a combination of a telephone and a telegraph. The device, which he called “telegraphony”, would allow a telegraph station to send voice and telegraph messages over a single wire. The device was so successful, that he later sold the rights to this device to the American Bell Telephone Company. In 1887, Woods developed his most important invention to date – a device he called Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph. A variation of the “induction telegraph,” it allowed for messages to be sent from moving trains and railway stations. By allowing dispatchers to know the location of each train, it provided for greater safety and a decrease in railway accidents. Over the course of his life time Granville Woods would obtain more than 50 patents for inventions including an automatic brake and an egg incubator and for improvements to other inventions such as safety circuits, telegraph, telephone, and phonograph.
2. Elijah McCoy 1843 – 1929
Invented: Oil dripping cup for trains
Elijah J. McCoy was an African Canadian inventor and engineer, known for his many U.S. patents. In a home-based machine shop in Ypsilanti, Michigan, McCoy invented an automatic lubricator for oiling the steam engines of locomotives and boats. For this he obtained his first patent, “Improvement in Lubricators for Steam-Engines” on July 23, 1872. McCoy continued to refine his devices and design new ones, and after the turn of the century attracted notice among his African-American contemporaries. Booker T. Washington in Story of the Negro (1909) recognized him as having produced more patents than any other black inventor up to that time. This output ultimately propelled McCoy to a heroic status in the African American community which has persisted to this day. He continued to invent until late in life, obtaining as many as 57 patents mostly related to lubrication, but also including a folding ironing board and a lawn sprinkler. The saying the real McCoy, meaning the real thing, was accredited to Elijah’s invention. Other inventors tried to copy McCoy’s oil-dripping cup, but none of the other cups worked as well as his, so customers started asking for “the real McCoy”.
1. George Washington Carver 1860 – 1943
Invented: Peanut butter & 400 plant products
George Washington Carver was an American scientist, botanist, educator and inventor. Much of Carver’s fame is based on his research and promotion of alternative crops to cotton, such as peanuts and sweet potatoes. He wanted poor farmers to grow alternative crops both as a source of their own food and as a source of other products to improve their quality of life. The most popular of his 44 discoveries for farmers contained 105 food recipes that used peanuts. He also created about 100 products made from peanuts that were useful for the house and farm, including cosmetics, dye, paints, plastics, gasoline, and nitroglycerin. In addition to his work on agricultural extension education for purposes of advocacy of sustainable agriculture and appreciation of plants and nature, Carver’s important accomplishments also included improvement of racial relations, mentoring children, poetry, painting, and religion. He served as an example of the importance of hard work, a positive attitude, and a good education. His humility, humanitarianism, good nature, frugality, and rejection of economic materialism also have been admired widely. In 1941, Time magazine dubbed him a “Black Leonardo”, a reference to the Renaissance Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci.