Pioneering Black Inventors

It’s Black History Month, a time to highlight the contributions of African Americans. While many of us know about the legendary George Washington Carver, who determined over one hundred uses for the peanut, or Elijah McCoy, who worked with steam engines, there are many pioneering black inventors whom you may not have heard of. Below are ten of our favorites, five general inventors and five in the sciences!

General

Madam C.J. Walker

Born in Louisiana only a few years after the end of the Civil War, Sarah Breedlove was orphaned at the age of seven. She first married at the age of fourteen, and after being widowed, met and married her second husband, Charles J. Walker. She later developed a scalp disorder that caused her to lose much of her hair, and consequently, she began exploring various treatments.

In 1905, calling herself Madam C.J. Walker, she used the knowledge she had acquired to design a line of haircare products for African-American women. With the help of her husband, she traveled across the country to promote her products, and before long, opened her own factory and beauty school. Her business endeavors led her to become one of America’s first female self-made millionaires.

James West

“If I had a screwdriver and a pair of pliers, anything that could be opened was in danger,” is how James West described his childhood in the 1930s. Fascinated by appliances, West grew up to attend Temple University and later joined Bell Laboratories.

In 1962, West and colleague Gerhard Sessler designed the electret microphone. This portable and noise-sensitive technology is used in a variety of products, including telephones and hearing aids. Despite being invented over fifty years ago, this design is still used by 90% of modern microphones.

After leaving Bell Laboratories in 2002, West took up a faculty position at Johns Hopkins. Over the course of his career, he has developed over 250 patents and authored countless scientific papers.

Thomas Jennings

In 1821, Thomas Jennings became the first African-American man to successfully procure a patent. Born as a free black in 1791, Jennings had access to various opportunities that would have been impossible as a slave. He became a tailor in New York City, where he invented dry-scouring, a process that would later evolve into modern-day dry cleaning.

Despite the controversy surrounding the patent he was awarded, Jennings had full rights to his process because of his status as a free man. He developed and marketed the process, and saved up the money from his earnings to buy his family their freedom. A devoted abolitionist, he died in 1856, just years before the onset of the Civil War.

Garrett Morgan

One of eleven children in a poor Kentucky family, Garrett Morgan was only able to attend elementary school. Undeterred by his lack of formal education, Morgan moved to Cincinnati, where he found work fixing sewing machines. He was fascinated by the mechanics, and before long developed his own design.

While working with sewing machines, he stumbled across yet another iconic development. He attempted to create a chemical solution which would prevent cloth damage from the machine, but instead found that it straightened the fibers of the cloth he was using. He experimented with the solution on a neighboring dog’s fur and his own hair, eventually perfecting his hair-straightening cream.

Despite blatant racial discrimination from the public, Morgan continued pursuing new inventions. Over the years, he developed a breathing device to protect the wearer from gas. When a tunnel under Lake Erie collapsed, he and his brother used the devices and rushed in to rescue victims, ultimately saving two lives.

Morgan died in 1963, shortly after receiving honors from the United States government and being hailed as a hero.

Granville Woods

Granville Woods, commonly called the “Black Edison,” was born free in Ohio in 1856. He found employment as a railroad engineer, and began to study electricity. He is most famous for his invention of the Induction Telegraph, which allowed voices to be transmitted through telegraph wires. This technological achievement attracted the attention of Thomas Edison, who sued Woods and claimed ownership of the invention. When the lawsuit failed, Edison begrudgingly offered to form a partnership, a position that Woods denied.

Woods went on to create a range of electrical devices, eventually garnering nearly 60 patents. He passed away in New York City in 1910.

Sciences

Ernest Everett Just

Just was born in 1883 in Charleston South Carolina. He was a brilliant learner at Dartmouth college, making the best grades in his Greek and being chosen twice for the Rufus Choate scholarship. After college he worked his way up from an English teacher to head of the newly-funded zoology program at Howard University. He held this position the rest of his life, but spent summers at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts, where he made most of his historical discoveries. Once he began to to be internationally recognized in the scientific community, he started to make continuous trips to Europe to work with other prestigious researchers in a less oppressive environment and continued to do this until his death. Through his life he produced a myriad of influential papers and made discoveries, specifically in cytology and embryology, that propelled biology forward.

Percy Lavon Julian

Julian was born in Alabama in 1899. This put countless obstructions in his academic and professional pursuits, but regardless he became one of the most renowned chemists in American history. He was not allowed to go to high school in Alabama, but attended DePauw University in Indiana which allowed him to take classes for high school credit in addition to university schooling and eventually graduated first in his class. After undergrad he climbed the rest of the academic ladder, studying at multiple universities until he could achieve a PhD at University of Vienna in Austria.

After completing his studies he became lab director at Gidden Company, where he expanded his biomedical research, focusing on progesterone and testosterone and synthesizing cortisone, which was used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. He eventually opened his own lab, and when he sold it in 1961 he became the first black millionaire, using the money to open a nonprofit named the Julian Research Institute where he helped others pursue paths in science.

Charles Richard Drew

Charles Richard Drew grew up in the early twentieth century in Washington D.C., where he became well-known for his athletic capabilities. He attended Amherst College on an athletic scholarship, and later went to McGill University after a two-year gap due to financial struggles.

While working at Columbia University under the Rockefeller Fellowship, Drew and his colleague John Scudder investigated the composition of blood. They discovered that cells can be removed from blood, forming a substance called plasma, which was much easier to store and preserve than whole blood. He organized blood banking efforts for World War II, first with the initiative “Blood for Britain,” which involved roughly 14,500 pints of plasma, and later with the American Red Cross. However, he abandoned the latter effort due to the Red Cross’ insistence on segregating African-American and white blood.

Drew died in a car crash not long after. He was memorialized by the United States Postal Service’s Great Americans stamp series, and is still remembered for his life-saving advances in blood banking.

George Alcorn

In his youth, Alcorn excelled in both academics and athletics. He participated in varsity baseball and football, and later completed a physics degree and PhD in molecular physics. Alcorn worked for numerous companies that were leading the way in science and technology, including NASA, where he held a variety of positions and assisted in the Apollo programs. He holds a large collection of patents and inventions, but he is most well known for his x-ray spectrometer, which helps to identify materials through their x-rays and is used to gather data on space materials and distant solar systems. For this invention, he was named NASA inventor of the year. In addition to his plentiful research-based contributions to science, he also spent time as an professor at University of the District of Columbia and as a supporter of women and minorities looking to pursue work in scientific fields.

Shirley Ann Jackson

Jackson is a trailblazer for women and African Americans in science. She obtained a PhD in physics at MIT, the first black woman to receive a doctorate of any kind in this school. She did not stop there, also becoming the first African American woman to serve as the president of any research institute, to this day acting as the head of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She has also held numerous positions in national governmental advisory positions, including Barack Obama’s President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and the United States Secretary of Energy Advisory Board. In 2015, she was awarded the National Medal of science, and to this day continues to serve as a role model for black women wishing to become leaders in science.

Sources:
http://www.tubmanmuseum.com/inventors-gallery/
https://www.biography.com/people/james-west-538802
https://www.biography.com/people/madam-cj-walker-9522174
http://www.blackpast.org/aah/jennings-thomas-l-1791-1856
https://www.biography.com/people/garrett-morgan-9414691
https://www.biography.com/people/granville-t-woods-9536481
https://www.biography.com/people/ernest-everett-just-9359195
https://www.biography.com/people/percy-julian-9359018
https://www.biography.com/people/charles-drew-9279094
http://blackinventor.com/george-alcorn
http://www.cpnas.org/aahp/biographies/shirley-a-jackson.html/