Black Inventors through American History
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. Despite such impressive credentials, Alcorn is probably most famous for his innovation of the imaging x-ray spectrometer.
In the Stevie Wonder song “Black Man,” the Motown marvel sings of Benjamin Banneker: “first clock to be made in America was created by a black man.” Though the song is a fitting salute to a great inventor (and African Americans in general), it only touches on the genius of Benjamin Banneker and the many hats he wore – as a farmer, mathematician, astronomer, author and land surveyor.
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.
Few inventors have had the lasting impact of Otis Boykin. Look around the house today and you’ll see a variety of devices that utilize components made by Boykin – including computers, radios and TV sets. Boykin’s inventions are all the more impressive when one considers he was an African American in a time of segregation and the field of electronics was not as well-established as it is today.
Marie Van Brittan 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.
George Washington Carver
Generally, when people think of famous African-American inventors, one of the first names that springs to mind is George Washington Carver. Perhaps most famously, Carver discovered over 300 different uses for peanuts – including making cooking oil, axle grease and printer’s ink.
Every time a person crunches into a potato chip, he or she is enjoying the delicious taste of one of the world’s most famous snacks – a treat that might not exist without the contribution of black inventor George Crum.
Dr. Mark Dean
As a child, Mark Dean excelled in math. In elementary school, he took advanced level math courses and, in high school, Dean even built his own computer, radio, and amplifier. Dean continued his interests and went on to obtain a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Tennessee, a masters degree in electrical engineering from Florida Atlantic University and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford.
Dr. Charles Richard Drew
It’s impossible to determine how many hundreds of thousands of people would have lost their lives without the contributions of African-American inventor Dr. Charles Drew. This physician, researcher and surgeon revolutionized the understanding of blood plasma – leading to the invention of blood banks.
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.
Dr. Philip Emeagwali
Philip Emeagwali, who has been called the “Bill Gates of Africa,” was born in Nigeria in 1957. 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.
Dr. Betty Harris
Born and raised in Monroe, Louisiana, the young Betty Harris was interested in chemistry. At college she obtained a BS degree in chemistry from Southern University and an MS degree in chemistry from Atlanta University.
Dr. Shirley Jackson
Dr. Shirley Jackson, a theoretical physicist, 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 on the eating habits of honeybees. She followed this interest to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she received a bachelors, masters, and doctoral degree, all in the field of physics.
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.”
Frederick McKinley 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.
Garrett A. Morgan
Many of the world’s most famous inventors only produced one major invention that garnered recognition and cemented their prominent status. But Garret Augustus Morgan, one of the country’s most successful African-American inventors, created two – the gas mask and the traffic signal.
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 may have Valerie Thomas to thank for it.
John Henry Thompson
Even in high school, John Henry Thompson was interested in computer programming languages. He taught himself several programming languages such as FORTRAN, PLI, COBOL and JCL while working in a New York research facility. Thompson’s goal was to absorb as much knowledge as possible so he could develop his own computer language.
James E. West
Ninety percent of microphones used today are based on the ingenuity of James Edward West, an African-American inventor born in 1931 in Prince Edwards County, VA. If you’ve ever talked on the telephone, you’ve probably used his invention