13 Amazing & Revolutionary Inventions You Should Know Were Created by Black People
Updated: Mar 29, 2022
Since February is Black History Month, I thought I'd take the time and share a little bit of black history - inventions specifically. Because of the constant and pervasive whitewashing that is done in schools, many people don't know about all the contributions that black people have made in the development and progress of this country. Without black people, so many commodities we often use, wouldn't exist.
1. Garrett Morgan - 3 Light Traffic Light & Precursor to the Present-Day Gas masks
Garrett Morgan was a mechanic and an inventor. He only had an elementary school education but went on to patent several inventions that we use every day. In 1914 he patented a breathing device that would protect its wearers from gases, smoke and other pollutants. His invention eventually caught on and became the prototype and the precursor to the gas masks used in WWI. He won the first prize at the Second International Exposition of Safety and Sanitation in NYC In 1923 Garrett improved upon the two light traffic signal and added a warning light that would tell the drivers to slow down and prepare to stop. He obtained the patent in the US, Britain, and Canada but eventually sold the rights to General Electric for $40,000. 
2. Lewis Latimer - Carbon Light Bulb Filament
Lewis Latimer was an inventor and engineer who learned mechanical drawing by watching the other workers at a patent firm. He worked with Alexander Bell and helped draft his concept for the telephone. Although the light bulb was developed by Thomas Edison, as we are taught in schools, what we weren't taught was that Latimer was the one who discovered that a carbon filament lasted longer and was more practical for light bulbs. Because of his brilliant discovery, he was able to compete with Edison, who eventually became his partner. 
3. Alice H. Parker - Central Heating Using Natural Gas
Alice Parker filed for her patent in 1919 after discovering that it would conserve energy. Central heating wasn't a new concept, but her idea was unique because it used natural gas instead of coal or wood. It was also safer because then people didn't have to venture outside in the snow to chop wood and it decreased the risk of home fires. Her patent was an extraordinary feat because she was a woman and she was black. 
4. Sarah Boone - Ironing Board
Sarah Boone was a dressmaker who had previously been a slave. She was born in North Carolina and moved to Connecticut with her husband. Although it was illegal for African Americans to learn to read or write, she overcame this challenge and became literate. Before her invention, dressmaker had to use a board laid across two chairs to iron their clothes. It worked for wide skirts, but couldn't handle the more fitted garments. Her solution was to create a padded board that would allow women to iron the smaller openings in their clothes. She applied for a patent in 1891 and was awarded it in 1892. 
5. Dr. Charles Drew - Blood Bank
Charles Drew was an African American physician, born in Washington, D.C. After graduating from Amherst high school in 1926, he worked as a biology instructor and coach for Morgan College before he later applied to medical schools. He was accepted into McGill University in Canada. He was a top student and won several awards and distinctions while he was there. He graduated second in his class and earned both a Doctor of Medicine and a Master of Surgery degree. In 1983 Charles received a Rockerfeller fellowship so he could study at Colombia University and train at a hospital in New York. While there, he developed a way to process and preserve blood plasma. Since blood plasma lasts so much longer, it could be stored for longer periods of time. It could also be dried and rehydrated. 
6. Marie Van Brittan Brown - Home Security System
Marie Van Brittan Brown was a nurse who worked in New York City. She worked long, late hours and didn't feel safe in her neighborhood. The police were unreliable (especially for black people) so she took matters into her own hands. Marie wanted to be able to see and hear who was at her door, no matter where she was located in her house. In 1996 she developed a system that could monitor visitors and project their images onto a TV monitor. She also designed a panic button that would alert the police immediately in an emergency. Her design consisted of three peepholes with a camera attached to slide over each hold to view outside the door. With her design you could not only see and hear a person outside the door, you could also communicate with them via a two-way microphone. She could even unlock and lock the door from where she was without having to do it manually. She filed for the patent that same year and was awarded it in 1969. 
7. Philip Downing - Letter Box
Philip Downing came from a well-known family. His father was an abolitionist and a business owner and his mother had familiar roots in New York City. His grandfather was well off with his own dining and catering establishment - the Downing's Oyester House. In June of 1890 he filed a patent for his invention which made improvements to the street-railway switches. In 1891 Philip filed two patents for his design of a street letter box which were approved. This way people who wanted to send letters didn't have to travel all the way to the post office. They could drop off the letter in the container and a letter carrier would pick them up on his route. 
8. Otis Boykin - Pacemaker
Otis Boykin was born in Dallas, Texas in 1920. After he graduated from Fisk University in 1941 he worked as a lab assistant with the Majestic Radio and TV Corporation in Chicago, IL. He was eventually promoted to supervisor, but decided to take another job at P.J. Nilson Research Laboratories while trying to launch his own business off the ground, Boyd-Fruth Incorporated. After he attempted to obtain a graduate degree at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, he had to drop out because of lack of funds. Boykin was especially interested in working with resistors and that lead to research of his own. He filed for a patent for his wire precision resistor and was awarded it in June of 1959. In 1961 he designed a revolutionary device that could handle extreme changes in temperature. That device gained popularity in the U.S. Military for their machinery. In 1946 Otis moved to Paris and continued inventing, eventually creating his most famous invention - the control unit for the pacemaker. 
9. Frederick Jones - Thermostat & Temperature Control
Frederick Jones was born in Cincinnati, Ohio to an interracial couple. His father was white and his mother was black. His mother deserted the family when he was still young and eventually his father sent him to stay with a priest in Kentucky. At 11 years-old Frederick ran away and returned to Cincinnati, where he worked doing odd jobs. In 1912 he moved to Minnesota, where he got a job doing mechanical work on a farm. He had a talent for working with machinery and self-taught himself by reading. By the time he reached 20 years-old, Frederick obtained his engineering license. He put his skills to use and built a transmission to broadcast programming for the new radio station. He also designed a device that would let you combine moving pictures and sound. In the 1930's Frederick developed and patented a portable unit that kept perishable food cool while it was being transported. He partnered with Numero and founded the U.S. Thermo Control Company. By the end of the 1940's, the company was worth millions of dollars. 
10. John Lee Love - Portable Pencil Sharpener
There's not much known about John Love, but was a carpenter, born in Fall River, Massachusetts. In addition to his patent for the "Love sharpener" he patented a lightweight plasterer's hawk in 1895, and then the pencil sharpener in 1897. His application stated that the sharpener could also be used as a paperweight or ornament. 
11. George "Crum" Speck & Kate Speck - Potato Chip
George Speck was born in 1824 in Saratoga Country, New York to an African American father and a Native American mother. In 1853, George was hired by a resort that catered to the wealthy near Saratoga Springs. One patron, who was a regular, always forgot George's last name and frequently called him "Crum." Although the idea of the potato chip has been credited to George, his sister says she was the one who came up with the idea when she accidentally dropped a slice of potato in a hot frying pan. George tasted it and gave his approval. However, there are cookbooks which circulated in the US and Great Britain, which described earlier versions of the chip called "fried potato shavings." Even if George didn't really come up with the potato chip, his promotion of the product made it popular. He opened up his own restaurant called "Crum's Place" in Malta, New York and served a basket of chips at every table. There were considered a delicacy until Herman Lay brought the chips to the south. Lay's production of the chips soon overshadowed George's hard work. 
12. Lonnie G. Johnson - Super Soaker
Lonnie Johnson was an engineer, member of the Airforce and inventor, born in Mobile, Alabama. His father was a handyman and taught his six children how to make their own toys. When Lonnie was young, he and his father built a Chinaberry shooter out of bamboo and at the age of thirteen he built a motorized go-kart by attaching a lawn-mower engine to the go-kart he built from scraps. Lonnie had dreams about becoming famous and became curious about how things worked. He was inspired by the story of George Washington Carver. In 1986, Lonnie was chosen to represent his high school in a science fair sponsored by the Junior Engineering Technical Society. He presented a "compressed-air-powered robot" that he had built from scraps. He won first prize! Later in his life he joined the Airforce and was assigned to the Strategic Air Command. He then joined NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1979 and worked as a systems engineer. Although Lonnie was very busy, he still found time to tinker with his own inventions. He developed an eco-friendly heat pump that used water instead of Freon. He completed the prototype in 1982 and left the Airforce (which he had rejoined) in 1989 to develop his business. He sold the device - the "Power Drencher" to Larami Corporation. Initially, the device flopped, but after the name was changed to "Super Soaker," it became a hit. In 1991, the device made over $200 million and has become one of the top 20 best-selling toys. 
13. Richard Spikes - Automatic Gear Shift & Automatic Brake Safety
Richard Spikes was a mechanic, saloon keeper, barber, and inventor with an interest in automobile mechanics. He was born in 1876 to Monroe and Medora Spikes. He had at least six other siblings, one of whom went on to become a famous jazz musician. After Richard got married, he patented a beer tapper which could be connected to a keg. It allowed the beer to remain fresh. His next invention, a self-locking rack for billiard cues, was was awarded a patent in October of 1910. He went on to patent at least seven more inventions before he died. His gear shifting device enhanced the previously existing automatic transmission and helped to keep the gears for various speeds in sync. He also developed an emergency brake safety system that could be used in the event that the normal braking system failed. 
The world is filled with many inventions created by African Americans throughout the centuries and its good to remember them each time we use their inventions. The only way to keep black history alive is to remember and share information with others.
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Happy Black History Month!