Black inventors and scientists are everywhere in our daily lives. They have made so many invaluable contributions to science, technology, and the modern world that it’s hard to count. Yet, our science and history books’ pages remain mostly white (and male, but that’s a post for another day). These men and women have overcome incredible barriers, from not being credited with their own work to enslavement to historic inequality in our education system.
You don’t have to look very far to see the inventions of black minds. Just turn on a light! This month, I challenge you to appreciate these inventors and the barriers they overcame, by acknowledging the modern conveniences we all enjoy at their invention and improvement!
Here are just a few of the inventors that you can thank today!
When We Wake Up
Chances are that you start your day by flipping on a light. Most of us know that Thomas Edison is credited as being the inventor of the lightbulb, but what about the parts? Edison struggled with his filament design, until Lewis Latimer took a job at his lab and developed a longer lasting carbon filament. Latimer is also credited with the threaded light socket that we all still use today and worked on the patent for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, as well as an early air conditioner.
When We Get Ready for the Day
If your clothes are ironed, think of Sarah Boone, who improved the design of the ironing board. If your clothes didn’t need to be ironed, you might need to thank George T. Sampson, who invented the precursor to the clothes dryer. Or maybe your clothes were dry cleaned. You might think that credit goes solely to Jean Baptiste Jolly, but actually the black inventor Thomas L. Jennings patented a dry cleaning method first. Jennings was also a trailblazer as the first African American to hold a patent in the United States, during the slavery era no less.
When styling your hair, think of Walter Sammons, the black inventor of the hot comb, and Lydia O. Newman, who re-imagined the brush. While you continue to style your hair or put on makeup, think of Annie Malone and Madam C.J. Walker, both millionaires from their hair care and cosmetics companies and generous philanthropists.
If you’re menstruating, think of the sisters Mildred and Mary Davidson, who invented a sanitary belt. These sisters’ keen, problem-solving minds contributed other modern conveniences, without a formal scientific education. Mary went on to invent the walker and toilet paper holder!
Don’t forget about Jan E. Matzelinger as you put on your shoes. He worked in a shoe factory and invented the machine that attaches the uppers to the sole of shoes. His invention drastically changed production and shoe prices, so you can also remember him when you’re buying new shoes for half the price!
When We Leave Our Homes
Many of us use home security systems for peace of mind. You might be surprised to find that it’s the work of a nurse named Marie Van Brittan Brown. Her systems included peepholes, cameras, microphones, monitors, and alarm buttons. Henry Brown invented the first home safe for keeping valuables secured without a trip to the bank. If you live in a multi-floor building or visit one, take the elevator and think of Alexander Miles, who patented the automation of elevator doors.
As you get in your car or onto a bus, think of Richard Spikes, who was not only a musician, public school teacher, and barber in his lifetime, but also held patents for car directional signals, an automatic gear shift, and buses’ safety braking system. You might also think of Ralph Gilles who designed the Chrysler 300C, SRT Viper, Charger, and Magnum. Or maybe Earl Lucas who designed the Ford Taurus among other Ford and Lincoln designs, Crystal Windham who designed the interior of the Chevy Malibu and Impala, or Michael Burton who contributed to many vehicles, including the Ford Mustang, Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia, Chevy Traverse, Cadillac XLR, SRX, and STS.
As you drive through your town, make sure you thank Garrett Morgan, the black inventor who dreamed up the concept of an automated traffic light to tell cars when to stop and go, after witnessing a car accident on his street. If your streets are clean of debris, that’s due in part to the design of a self-propelled street sweeping vehicle by Charles Brooks. If you cross a train track safely, think of Granville T. Woods, known as the “Black Edison”, who invented the induction telegraph system that helped trains communicate with each other and dispatchers. He also invented the third rail and the automatic air brake that many trains still use today.
When We Cook and Eat a Meal
Refrigeration is a modern day convenience we take for granted. Our refrigerators were improved by John Standard. And all of that food inside? It arrived at your local grocery store in a refrigerated truck invented by Frederick McKinley Jones. This invention radically changed food accessibility. If you’ve reached for your butter, instead of hand churning it, remember Albert Richardson, who invented amechanical butter churn.
We wouldn’t have peanuts, pecans, soybeans, or sweet potatoes without George Washington Carver and his revolutionary crop rotation method. His work with peanuts extends beyond the kitchen too – he developed over 300 uses for the peanut, including laundry soap and lotion!
If you’re snacking on potato chips, remember George Crum, who invented them after a customer complaint at the restaurant where he served as head chef. If you’re getting your starch in bread form, that may be thanks to Joseph Lee who invented a breadcrumb machine and automatic bread making machine.
Ice cream wouldn’t be the same without Augustus Jackson. Although he’s didn’t invent ice cream, he did improve the ice cream making method and created many delicious recipes, which is why he’s known as the “Father of Ice Cream”. And don’t forget about Alfred L. Cralle, who invented the ice cream scoop!
When We Clean Our Homes
As you mop your floors, thank Thomas Stewart, who saved you some trouble with his self-wringing design. As you sweep your dust into a dustpan without bending over, you should also thank its inventor Lloyd Ray.
Outside of your home, a black inventor named John Albert Burr improved the rotary blade on lawnmowers, so they wouldn’t be clogged with clippings. Elijah McCoy (the root of the expression “the Real McCoy”) created the lawn sprinkler, one of many groundbreaking inventions.
When We Work or Go to School
As you write with your freshly sharpened pencil, remember John Lee Love, the inventor of the portable pencil sharpener. If you’re more of a pen person, you still have a black inventor to thank. William Purvis designed an improved fountain pen, among many other important inventions.
If you step outside to mail a letter, thank Philip Downing for saving you a trip to the post office. He invented the predecessor to the modern day mailbox, along with railroad technology. William Barry also made several mail-based innovations.
And don’t forget to thank Dr. Shirley Jackson when you use your phone. Her work in theoretical physics laid the foundation for many communication technologies we use today, among them fiber optic cables, caller ID, and the touch tone telephone. Benjamin Thornton invented the first answering machine.
Black inventors’ hands are all over computer technology. Philip Emeagwali is an African computer scientist who created the world’s first supercomputer. Mark E. Dean worked for IBM, where he led the technological development that allows us to plug multiple devices into our computers. He also helped develop the gigahertz chip and first color monitor. Otis Boykin developed a wire precision resistor that allowed specific amounts of electricity to flow to devices. He went on to improve his design to be more temperature and pressure resistant too.
When We Relax and Play
While enjoying a gif or Facebook video, thank Lisa Gelobter, who played an integral role in the birth of online video. And don’t forget James E. West who developed the microphone we use on devices like our laptops and cell phones, and even baby monitors. If you’re using fiber optic based internet service, you might also want to thank Thomas Mensah, who was a major innovator of the technology. He’s also the chairman of the first video game development company owned by an African American.
If you’ve ever had a fun water battle with a Super Soaker, that was thanks to NASA scientist Lonnie G. Johnson. Although he made many important contributions to space exploration and control systems, we can remember him in our daily lives for his creativity during a failed experiment that birthed the water gun!