11 African American Inventors Who Changed the World
Can you imagine life without blood banks, personal computers, or touch-tone telephones? These innovative creations—and more—wouldn't exist today if it weren't for the brilliant minds of these 11 African American inventors.
1. THOMAS L. JENNINGS
Thomas L. Jennings (1791-1859) was the first African American person to receive a patent in the U.S., paving the way for future inventors of color to gain exclusive rights to their inventions. Born in 1791, Jennings lived and worked in New York City as a tailor and dry cleaner. He invented an early method of dry cleaning called "dry scouring" and patented it in 1821—four years before Paris tailor Jean Baptiste Jolly refined his own chemical technique and established what many people claim was history’s first dry cleaning business.
People objected to an African American receiving a patent, but Jennings had a loophole: He was a free man. At the time, U.S. patent laws said that the "[slavemaster] is the owner of the fruits of the labor of the slave both manual and intellectual"—meaning slaves couldn't legally own their ideas or inventions, but nothing was stopping Jennings. Several decades later, Congress extended patent rights to all African American individuals, both slaves and freedmen.
Jennings used the money from his invention to free the rest of his family and donate to abolitionist causes.
2. MARK E. DEAN
If you ever owned the original IBM personal computer, you can partially credit its existence to Mark E. Dean (born 1957). The computer scientist/engineer worked for IBM, where he led the team that designed the ISA bus—the hardware interface that allows multiple devices like printers, modems, and keyboards to be plugged into a computer. This innovation helped pave the way for the personal computer's use in office and business settings.
Dean also helped develop the first color computer monitor, and in 1999 he led the team of programmers that created the world's first gigahertz chip. Today, the computer scientist holds three of the company's original nine patents, and more than 20 overall.
Dean was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1997. He's currently a computer science professor at the University of Tennessee.
3. MADAM C.J. WALKER
Madam C. J. Walker is often referred to as America’s first self-made female millionaire—a far cry from her roots as the daughter of Louisiana sharecroppers. The entrepreneur was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, and her early life was filled with hardships: By the age of 20, she was both an orphan and a widow.
Breedlove's fortunes changed after she moved to St. Louis, where her brothers worked as barbers. She suffered from hair loss, and experimented with various products, including hair care recipes developed by an African American businesswoman named Annie Malone.
Breedlove became a sales representative for Malone and relocated to Denver, where she also married her husband, Charles Joseph Walker, a St. Louis newspaperman. Soon after, she began selling her own hair-growing formula developed specifically for African American women.
Breedlove renamed herself "Madam C.J. Walker," heavily promoted her products, and established beauty schools, salons, and training facilities across America. She died a famous millionaire and is today considered to be one of the founders of the African American hair-care and cosmetics industry.
4. DR. SHIRLEY JACKSON
Dr. Shirley Jackson is a theoretical physicist who currently serves as president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. While working at the former AT&T Bell Laboratories, she helped develop technologies that led to the invention of the portable fax, touch-tone telephone, solar cells, fiber optic cables, and the technology enabling caller ID and call waiting. Jackson was also the first black woman to graduate with a Ph.D. from M.I.T., and the first to be named chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
5. CHARLES RICHARD DREW
Countless individuals owe their lives to Charles Richard Drew (1904-1950), the physician responsible for America’s first major blood banks. Drew attended McGill University College of Medicine in Montreal, where he specialized in surgery. During a post-graduate internship and residency, the young doctor studied transfusion medicine—and later, while studying at Columbia University on fellowship, he refined key methods of collecting, processing, and storing plasma.
In 1940, World War II was in full swing, and Drew was put in charge of a project called "Blood for Britain." He helped collect thousands of pints of plasma from New York hospitals, and shipped them overseas to treat European soldiers. Drew is also responsible for introducing the use of “bloodmobiles”—refrigerated trucks that transport blood.
The following year, Drew developed another blood bank for military personnel, under the American Red Cross—an effort that grew into the American Red Cross Blood Donor Service. Eventually, he resigned in protest after he learned that the military separated blood donations according to race.
Drew spent the remainder of his life working as a surgeon and a professor, and in 1943, he became the first African American doctor to be chosen as a member of the American Board of Surgery.
6. MARIE VAN BRITTAN BROWN
Homeowners can rest a little easier thanks to Marie Van Brittan Brown (1922-1999), a nurse and inventor who invented a precursor to the modern home TV security system. The crime rate was high in Brown's New York City neighborhood, and the local police didn't always respond to emergencies. To feel safer, Brown and her husband developed a way for a motorized camera to peer through a set of peepholes and project images onto a TV monitor. The device also included a two-way microphone to speak with a person outside, and an emergency alarm button to notify the police.
The Browns filed a patent for their closed circuit television security system in 1966, and it was approved on December 2, 1969.
7. GEORGE CARRUTHERS
George Carruthers (born in 1939) is an astrophysicist who spent much of his career working with the Space Science Division of the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C. He’s most famous for creating the ultraviolet camera/spectograph, which NASA used when it launched Apollo 16 in 1972. It helped prove that molecular hydrogen existed in interstellar space, and in 1974 space scientists used a new model version of the camera to observe Halley’s Comet and other celestial phenomena on the U.S.’s first space station, Skylab.
Carruthers was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2003.
8. DR. PATRICIA BATH
Dr. Patricia Bath (born 1942) revolutionized the field of ophthalmology when she invented a device that refined laser cataract surgery, called the Laserphaco Probe. She patented the invention in 1988, and today she’s recognized as the first African American woman doctor to receive a medical patent.
Bath is a trailblazer in other areas, too: She was the first African American to finish a residency in ophthalmology; the first woman to chair an ophthalmology residency program in the U.S.; and she co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness. If that weren't enough, Bath's research on health disparities between African American patients and other patients gave birth to a new discipline, "community ophthalmology," in which volunteer eye workers offer primary care and treatment to underserved populations.
9. JAN ERNST MATZELIGER
The average 19th-century person couldn't afford shoes. This changed thanks to Jan Ernst Matzeliger, an immigrant from Dutch Guiana (today called Surinam) who worked as an apprentice in a Massachusetts shoe factory. Matzeliger invented an automated shoemaking machine that attached a shoe’s upper part to its sole. Once it was refined, the device could make 700 pairs of shoes each day—a far cry from the 50 per day that the average worker once sewed by hand. Matzeliger's creation led to lower shoe prices, making them finally within financial reach for the average person.
10. ALEXANDER MILES
Not too much is known about Alexander Miles’s life (1830s–1918), but we do know that the inventor was living in Duluth, Minnesota, when he designed an important safety feature for elevators: their automatic doors. During the 19th century, passengers had to manually open—and close—doors to both the elevator and its shaft. If a rider forgot to close the shaft door, other people risked accidentally falling down the long, vertical hole. Miles’s design—which he patented in 1867—allowed both of these doors to close at once, preventing unfortunate accidents in the making. Today's elevators still employ a similar technology.
11. GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER
George Washington Carver (1860s-1943) was born into slavery in Missouri. The Civil War ended when he was a boy, allowing the young man the chance to receive an education. Higher education opportunities for African Americans were limited at the time, but Carver eventually received his undergraduate and master's degrees in botany at Iowa State Agricultural College.
After graduation, Carver was hired by Booker T. Washington to run the Tuskegee Institute’s agricultural department, in southeastern Alabama. He helped poor agrarians by teaching them about fertilization and crop rotation—and since the region's primary crop was cotton, which drains nutrients from the soil, the scientist conducted studies to determine which crops naturally thrived in the region. Legumes and sweet potatoes enriched the fields, but there wasn't much of a demand for either. So Carver used the humble peanut to create more than 300 products, ranging from laundry soaps to plastics and diesel fuel. By 1940 it was the South's second-largest cash crop.