Black History Month: Unsung Heroes & Their Inventions You Can’t Live Without

Every single day, we underappreciate the technology around us, yet we consume it without even batting an eyelash.  From our iPhones to our laptops, to the gear shifts in cars and light bulbs.  A typical day without the inventions from under-credited African Americans would leave many of us in the dark…literally.

It should be quite notable that black inventors have significantly altered the way we interact and live in the world we do, in more ways than one.  In honor of Black history month, let’s take a closer look at some of these brilliant innovations and innovators who have immensely changed our lives.  It’s time we know and celebrate their names.  This list is not conclusive by any means.   You can do a simple Google search of black inventions and find a host of others, including the innovator, Daniel Hale Williams, who performed the first open heart surgery in 1893 from his clinic.

Let’s dive in.

Richard Spikes:  There has been little written about Richard Spikes early years, education or even his personal life.  We barely know anything about this man, other than the fact that he was an inconceivable innovator, with a wide array of creations that have had a significant impact on the lives of every-day Americans.  Here are the inventions that he developed over the course of his lifetime.  We all owe him a huge debt of gratitude. Learn more about Richard Spikes here: Richard Spikes (1878-1965)

  • railroad semaphore (1906)
  • automatic car washer (1913)
  • automobile directional signals (1913)
  • beer keg tap (1910)
  • self-locking rack for billiard cues (1910)
  • continuous contact trolley pole (1919)
  • combination milk bottle opener and cover (1926)
  • method and apparatus for obtaining average samples and temperature of tank liquids (1931)
  • automatic gear shift (1932)
  • transmission and shifting thereof (1933)
  • automatic shoe shine chair (1939)
  • multiple barrel machine gun (1940)
  • horizontally swinging barber chair (1950)
  • automatic safety brake (1962)

Benjamin Banneker:   “Motown Man”.  The song written and sung by Stevie Wonder was describing Benjamin Banneker, maker of America’s first clock.   Benjamin was more than just a song monicker.  He was a farmer, a mathematician, astronomer, author, and land surveyor.    Somewhere in the early 1750s.  Benjamin was able to get his hands on the pocket watch of a wealthy associate, and he set to take the watch apart and studied its components.    He then put the watch back together and set out to make the first fully functioning clock, entirely made from carved wooden pieces.    Learn more about Benjamin Banneker here:  Benjamin Banneker (1731 – 1806)

Alexander Miles:  Despite John W. Meaker’s patented invention of the first automatic elevator door system (U.S. Patent 147,853) in 1874, many elevators still required the doors and the shaft to be manually opened and closed. Miles became concerned with the dangerous risks associated with elevators once he noticed a shaft door left open during a ride with his young daughter. Due to people forgetting to close the shaft doors before utilizing the elevator, there were many reported incidents of people falling into the shafts.

Although Meaker received the patent first, it was Miles’ innovation that made electric-powered elevator doors widely accepted around the world. Today, the influence of his patent is present in modern designs for elevator systems in which automatic doors are a standard feature.

In 1899, Miles and his family relocated to Chicago, Illinois where he founded The United Brotherhood, a life insurance company which sold life insurance primarily to African Americans who usually could not get coverage from white-owned firms.  Learn more about Alexander Miles here: Alexander Miles (1830s–1918)

Garrett Morgan:  This child of two former slaves would become the 46-year-old inventor of the 3-position traffic light.  He was granted a patent from the U.S. Patent Office in 1923.  It is important to note, that the first traffic light, in general, was installed in London in 1868, but Morgan’s traffic signal adopted the red, yellow and green regulatory crossing symbols, which made the roads safer for us all.  Read more about Garrett Morgan here:  Garrett Morgan (1877-1963)

Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson:  Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, a theoretical physicist and famous black inventor, has been credited with making many advances in science. She first developed an interest in science and mathematics during her childhood and conducted experiments and studies, such as those on the eating habits of honeybees. She followed this interest to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she received a bachelor, and doctoral degree, all in the field of physics. In doing so she became the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. from MIT.

Jackson conducted successful experiments in theoretical physics and used her knowledge of physics to foster advances in telecommunications research while working at Bell Laboratories. Dr. Jackson conducted breakthrough basic scientific research that enabled others to invent the portable fax, the touch-tone telephone, solar cells, fiber optic cables, and the technology behind caller ID and call waiting. Read more about Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson here:  Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson (1946- )

Frederick Jones: Anytime you see a truck on the highway transporting refrigerated or frozen food, you’re seeing the work of Frederick McKinley Jones.

One of the most prolific Black inventors ever, Jones patented more than 60 inventions in his lifetime. While more than 40 of those patents were in the field of refrigeration, Jones is most famous for inventing an automatic refrigeration system for long haul trucks and railroad cars.

Before Jones’ invention, the only way to keep food cool in trucks was to load them with ice. Jones was inspired to invent the system after talking with a truck driver who lost his whole cargo of chicken because he couldn’t reach his destination before the ice melted. As a solution, the African-American inventor developed a roof-mounted cooling system to make sure food stayed fresh.

In addition to that refrigerator invention, Jones also invented an air-conditioning unit for military field hospitals, a refrigerator for military field kitchens, a self-starting gas engine, a series of devices for movie projectors and box-office equipment that gave tickets and made change. Jones was posthumously awarded the National Medal of Technology in 1991 – the first Black inventor to ever receive such an honor.

Read more about Frederick Jones here:  Frederick Jones (1893-1961)

Lonnie G. Johnson: An anonymous source said of the Super Soaker®: “I got fired from a job once because of my Super Soaker. I guess that’s what happens when you accidentally drench a customer when you’re trying to get a co-worker who ducks.”

Famous black inventor and scientist Lonnie G. Johnson probably didn’t have that little scenario in mind when he invented the Super Soaker squirt gun, but it is one of the countless memories that can be recalled by those who were young enough to enjoy the Super Soaker after its release in 1989.  Read more about Lonnie G. Johnson here:  Lonnie G. Johnson (1949- )

William H. Richardson:  The baby carriage was invented in 1733 by English architect William Kent. It was designed for the 3rd Duke of Devonshire’s children and was basically a child’s version of a horse-drawn carriage.

African American inventor William H. Richardson patented an improvement to the baby carriage in the United States on June 18, 1889. It is U.S. patent number 405,600. His design ditched the shell shape for a basket-shaped carriage that was more symmetrical. The bassinet could be positioned to face either out or in and rotated on a central joint.

A limiting device kept it from being rotated more than 90 degrees. The wheels also moved independently, which made it more maneuverable. Now a parent or nanny could have the child face them or face away from them, whichever they preferred, and change it at will. Read more about William H. Ricardson here:  William H. Richardson (1808-1878)

George Crum (George Speck):  The fine details surrounding the invention of one of the United States’ favorite snack foods are somewhat hazy, but all signs point to a man named George Crum, a cook and restaurateur who is said to have come up with the idea for the tasty crisp.  As the story goes, Crum, whose sister Kate worked alongside him as a prep cook, became agitated when a customer sent his French-fried potatoes back to the kitchen, complaining that they were cut too thickly. Crum, by all accounts somewhat of an ornery and, at times, sarcastic man, reacted by slicing the potatoes as thin as he possibly could, frying them in grease, and sending the crunchy brown chips back out on the guest’s plate that way.

The reaction was unexpected: The guest loved the crisps. In fact, other guests began asking for them as well, and soon Crum’s “Saratoga Chips” became one of lodge’s most popular treats. Crum never patented or attempted to widely distribute his potato chips. Nevertheless, they were soon on their way to becoming an international phenomenon with the help of a number of aspiring snack food entrepreneurs around the country. Crum closed his restaurant in 1890. He died on July 22, 1914 at the age of 92.  Read more about George Crum here:  George Crum (1824-1914)

Otis Boykin: Boykin improved the pacemaker and made everyday electronic devices, such as television and computers, more efficient and affordable.  After working in electronics, Boykin developed a special interest in resistors. Resistors slow the flow of electricity, allowing a safe amount of electricity to move through a device. In 1959, he patented a “wire precision resistor,” which allowed specific amounts of electrical currents to flow for a specific purpose. Soon after, he created a new resistor that could withstand shifts in temperature and air pressure.

It was a huge breakthrough that allowed many electronic devices to be made more cheaply and more reliably than ever before. Boykin’s resistors were used in products from televisions and IBM computers to military missiles. Boykin also famously invented a control unit for the pacemaker, a device implanted in the body to help the heart beat normally. Boykin’s invention allowed the pacemaker to be more precisely regulated.  Read more about Otis Boykin here:  Otis Boykin (1920-1982) 

George Alcorn: Not many inventors have resumes as impressive as George Edward Alcorn’s. Among his credits, the African-American inventor received a B.A. in physics, a master’s degree in nuclear physics and a Ph.D in atomic and molecular physics. On top of that, Alcorn worked for the likes of Philco-Ford, Perkin-Elmer, IBM, and NASA, created over 20 different inventions and was granted eight patents.

Despite such impressive credentials, Alcorn is probably most famous for his innovation of the imaging x-ray spectrometer – a device that helps scientists better understand what materials are composed of when they cannot be broken down. Receiving a patent for his method in 1984, Alcorn’s inclusion of the thermomigration of aluminum in the spectrometer was regarded as a major innovation by experts in the field. The invention led to Alcorn’s reception of the NASA Inventor of the Year Award.

And that wasn’t the only award George Edward Alcorn received. Along with being awarded a NASA medal for his work in recruiting minority scientists and engineers, he also won the Government Executives Magazine’s prestigious Technology Leadership Award for the Airborne Lidar Topographical Mapping System. And, in 2001, Alcorn was awarded special congressional recognition for his efforts in helping Virgin Islands businesses through the application of NASA technology and technology programs. Read more about George Alcorn here:  George Alcorn (1940- )

Kenneth J. Dunkley: Kenneth J. Dunkley is currently the president of the Holospace Laboratories Inc. in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. He is best known for inventing Three Dimensional Viewing Glasses (3-DVG) – his patented invention that displays 3-D effects from regular 2-D photos without any type of lenses, mirrors or optical elements. By studying human vision, Dunkley discovered that blocking two points in a person’s peripheral vision will cause an ordinary picture to appear 3-Dimensional, so he developed his 3-DVG to block out these points.

In addition to his 3-DVG invention, Kenneth Dunkley also receives attention for his efforts as a visual pioneer. In Harrisburg, PA, at the Museum of Scientific Discovery, he has conducted visual effects workshops for four years. Dunkley is also a leader in the field of holography.  Read more about Kenneth J. Dunkley here:  Kenneth J. Dunkley (1939 – 2010)

Philip Emeagwali: Dr. Philip Emeagwali, who has been called the “Bill Gates of Africa,” was born in Nigeria in 1954. Like many African schoolchildren, he dropped out of school at age 14 because his father could not continue paying Emeagwali’s school fees. However, his father continued teaching him at home, and everyday Emeagwali performed mental exercises such as solving 100 math problems in one hour. His father taught him until Philip “knew more than he did.”

Growing up in a country torn by civil war, Emeagwali lived in a building crumbled by rocket shells. He believed his intellect was a way out of the line of fire. So he studied hard and eventually received a scholarship to Oregon State University when he was 17 where he obtained a BS in mathematics. He also earned three other degrees – a Ph.D. in Scientific computing from the University of Michigan and two Masters degrees from George Washington University.

The noted black inventor received acclaim based, at least in part, on his study of nature, specifically bees.  Read more about Dr. Philip Emeagwali here:  Dr. Philip Emeagwali (1954 – )

Valerie Thomas: Did you ever think of what it might be like if your television could project the on-screen image directly into your living room as a 3-Dimensional image? Maybe not, but if it happens, you’ll have African-American inventor Valerie Thomas to thank for it.

From 1964 to 1995, Thomas worked in a variety of capacities for NASA where she developed real-time computer data systems, conducted large-scale experiments and managed various operations, projects and facilities. While managing a project for NASA’s image processing systems, Thomas’ team spearheaded the development of “Landsat,” the first satellite to send images from space.

In 1976, Thomas learned how concave mirrors can be set up to create the illusion of a 3-dimensional object. She believed this would be revolutionary if technology could be harnessed to transmit this illusion. With an eye to the future, Valerie Thomas began experimenting on an illusion transmitter in 1977.

Read more about Valarie Thomas here:  Valarie Thomas (1943 – )

Dr. Patricia Bath: Imagine living in a world ranging from hazy, clouded vision to that of total darkness for 30 years. Before 1985, that was the plight of those with cataracts who did not want to risk surgery with a mechanical grinder. Now imagine sitting in a doctor’s office without being able to see her as she explains that it may be possible to restore your vision. You can’t tell by studying body language whether to trust this person or if they’re pulling your leg.

All you have to go by is the sound of the voice assuring you that this procedure is safe, more accurate and more comfortable than traditional cataract surgery. As a noted Ophthalmologist and famous black inventor, Dr. Patricia Bath has dedicated her life to the treatment and prevention of visual impairments.  Read more about Dr. Patricia Bath here:  Dr. Patricia Bath (1942 – )

Marie Van Brittain Brown:  While home security systems today are more advanced than ever, back in 1966 the idea for a home surveillance device seemed almost unthinkable. That was the year famous African-American inventor Marie Van Brittan Brown, and her partner Albert Brown, applied for an invention patent for a closed-circuit television security system – the forerunner to the modern home security system.

Brown’s system had a set of four peepholes and a camera that could slide up and down to look out each one. Anything the camera picked up would appear on a monitor. An additional feature of Brown’s invention was that a person also could unlock a door with remote control.

A female black inventor far ahead of her time, Marie Van Brittan Brown created an invention that was the first in a long string of home-security inventions that continue to flood the market today. Read more about Marie Van Brittan Brown here;  Marie Van Brittan Brown (1922-1999)

Alice H. Parker: On Dec. 23, 1919, inventor Alice H. Parker of Morristown, New Jersey, patented her design for the gas heating furnace. Parker’s design would help provide central heating in millions of homes and buildings around the world today.

Parker’s gas heating furnace revolutionized how people heat their homes. With her invention, people no longer needed to stock and burn wood in a traditional furnace, which presented a high fire risk when left unattended.  Read more about Alice H. Parker here:  Alice H. Parker (1895 – ?)

Lewis Latimer: Lewis Howard Latimer was an inventor and draftsman best known for his contributions to the patenting of the light bulb and the telephone. Lewis Howard Latimer was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on September 4, 1848, to parents who had fled slavery. Latimer learned the art of mechanical drawing while working at a patent firm. Over the course of his career as a draftsman, Latimer worked closely with Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, in addition to designing his own inventions. He died in Flushing, Queens, New York, on December 11, 1928.   Read more about Lewis Latimer here:  Lewis Latimer (1848-1928)

Sources:  Wikipedia, AAREG (African American Registry), Scholastic

Renee’ s Column, “Dem Words: Wednesday Words of Wisdom”, breaks down everyday issues from the perspective of the black community.

Her hope is that through her words, she can get more people in her community and across America to become consistently involved in our democracy and become educated and re-informed about how politics does, in fact, affect our every day lives.

Everyone of every race, religion, gender, and creed are encouraged to read this blog each Wednesday and increase your awareness of the African American experience. This is for everyone….so we never have to worry about history repeating itself! Let’s say enough is enough and let’s stay engaged, and keep those around us engaged as well!

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4 thoughts on “Black History Month: Unsung Heroes & Their Inventions You Can’t Live Without

  1. I have a question concerning William H. Richardson who died in 1878. It’s stated that William H. Richardson patented an improvement to the baby carriage in the United States on June 18, 1889. It is U.S. patent number 405,600. This is 21 years after his death, how was it patent?

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