No, not just peanut butter: the revolutionary Black inventors who changed everything

Without Black brilliance, we would not have life-saving medical devices like the artificial pacemaker or treatments for diseases like sickle cell anemia. We wouldn’t be able to enjoy items as commonplace as traffic lights and automatic doors. And we certainly wouldn’t have some of our most beloved toys, from Barbie dolls to Super Soakers. From early pioneers like George Washington Carver to modern day visionaries like Dr. Patricia Bath, Black inventors have made significant contributions to the world we live in today.

Their Black creativity, resilience, and determination — while not always credited — continue to inspire us all to reach for the stars. It is in Black inventors’ honor that we have put together this list of 10 revolutionary Black inventors whose inventions changed the world we live in.

Lewis Latimer — engineer and draftsman

Lewis Latimer.

Lewis Latimer was the son of a escaped slave and a free Black woman. He was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1848. At the age of 15, he became an apprentice for a Boston patent law firm. There he learned how to draft patent drawings which led to a career as a draftsman. He would eventually become a master draftsman, working with some of the most prolific inventors of his time including Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison.

Latimer was hired by Edison in 1884 to work on his electric lighting system. While employed by Edison, he created a method for mass-producing the carbon filaments that made lightbulbs more affordable and widely available.

He would later join the Bell Telephone Company where he created an improved method for manufacturing telephone wire which made long-distance calls possible.

Granville T. Woods — electrical and mechanical engineer

Granville T. Woods.

Granville T. Woods was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1856 to free Black parents. Not much is known about his early life or education but it’s believed that he worked as a day laborer and studied electrical engineering at night classes before eventually moving to Cincinnati, Ohio where he found work as a fireman on steamboats traveling up and down the Mississippi River.

Woods began filing patents in the 1870s for various inventions related to railroad safety including an improved method of coupling railcars and brakes that could be controlled from inside the locomotive cab. He continued developing railway-related technologies and ultimately held more than 50 patents related to electric railways by 1900.

In 1902, Woods teamed up with Charles Curtis Wrege to form the Woods-Wrege Company which produced batteries, motors, generators, dynamos, lighting systems, and other electrical equipment. The company was later renamed the Union Switch & Signal Company after it merged with another manufacturer.

Jan Matzeliger — engineer

Jan Matzeliger.

Jan Matzeliger was born in Suriname, South America to a Dutch father and Black mother in 1852. At the age of 19, he immigrated to Philadelphia where he found work as a machinist. He eventually saved up enough money to attend night classes at the Franklin Institute which is where he began experimenting with ideas for improving shoe production.

In 1883, he invented a machine that could lasting attach uppers to soles in just minutes, a process that previously took hours by hand. His invention dramatically increased the efficiency of shoe production and as a result, shoes became more affordable for the average consumer.

Matzeliger was issued 20 patents during his lifetime but sadly died at the age of 33 from an infection before he could fully reap the financial rewards of his inventions.

Garrett A. Morgan — businessman

Garrett A. Morgan.

Garrett A. Morgan was born in Paris, Kentucky in 1877. He moved to Cleveland, Ohio as a young adult where he found work as a sewing machine repairman. In 1907, he opened his own tailoring shop which employed Black and white workers.

Morgan is best known for inventing the traffic signal which he patented in 1923. His design featured three positions (stop, go, and caution) and two colors (red and green). It’s believed that Morgan was inspired to create the device after witnessing a serious accident at an intersection near his shop

He later sold the rights to his invention to General Electric Company for $40,000. In 2012, Google honored Garrett Morgan with a Doodle on what would have been his 135th birthday.

Marie Van Brittan Brown — nurse

Marie Van Brittan Brown was born in Queens, New York in 1922. She worked as a nurse and her husband Albert Brown was an electronic technician. Together they developed the concept for a home security system that would allow people to see who was at their door without having to open it.

The Browns were issued a patent for their invention in 1969 which included a camera, monitor, two-way audio communication, and remote control locks. This system served as the prototype for modern day home security systems. She was recognized in the New York Times and received an award from the National Scientists Committee for her work, but died before she could see the innovations that would make the home security system an ubiquitous part of our lives.

Dr Patricia Bath — ophthalmologist

Dr. Patricia Era Bath.

Dr Patricia Era Bath is best known for inventing Laserphaco surgery which is used to treat cataracts. She also holds patents related to methods for diagnosing glaucoma. Bath became interested in medicine after witnessing her grandmother go blind from untreated cataracts.

Despite facing racism and sexism throughout her career, she persevered and went on become one of the first African American women doctors to receive tenure at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute where she served as the director of ophthalmology.

Bath has been inducted into several Halls of Fame including the National Inventors Hall of Fame, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and she has received numerous honorary doctorates.

Lonnie Johnson — engineer

Lonnie Johnson.

Lonnie Johnson is an engineer and inventor best known for his work on the Super Soaker water gun which he invented in 1982 while working as a NASA scientist. He later founded his own company, Johnson Research & Development Co., to market his invention. The Super Soaker went on to become one of the most popular toys in history with sales exceeding $1 billion dollars.

In addition to the Super Soaker, Johnson holds more than 80 patents related to various technologies including a heat pump that’s used in refrigerators and air conditioners, a robotic arm for surgical procedures, and batteries that power hybrid cars. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2019.

Dr Shirley Jackson — theoretical physicist

Dr Shirley Jackson.

Dr Shirley Jackson is a theoretical physicist whose research has led to major advances in telecommunications such as caller ID, call waiting, touch-tone dialing, fiber optic cables carrying high speed data signals (like those used for internet), solar cells generating electricity from sunlight). She also headed up commissions responsible for approving both the building of the World Trade Center in New York City and the development of Amtrak.

In 1973, Jackson became the first African American woman to earn a doctorate from MIT. She has since gone on to become one of the most influential scientists in America serving as Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Director at IBM Research Laboratory. In 2018, she was inducted into the National Science Foundation Hall.

Meredith Gourdine — physicist and engineer

Meredith Gourdine.

Meredith Gourdine was born in East Orange, New Jersey in 1925. He excelled in track and field in high school and went on to compete in the 1948 and 1952 Olympic games. He was the first Black man to win an Olympic medal in the long jump.

After his athletic career, Gourdine turned his attention to engineering. He worked on the development of the supersonic wind tunnel and pioneered the field of plasma physics.

In 1955, he was issued a patent for his invention of the electrogasdynamic process which is used in jet engines and power plants. He also developed a method for using plasma to generate electricity which is now used in plasma TVs.

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