What's that? FACTS!
Here’s a little bit of truth we rarely ever talk about: inventors make the world go ‘round. The only things germane to this earth are the elements and the original animals that inhabited it; everything else was invented and mostly likely by a Black person. Honestly, even we may be inventions — but that’s a theory for another Matrix Morpheus. The point is, that while inventions and technology are ever-present, the contributions of African-Americans often left out of the conversation. Sure, we know about major contributions from Black inventors such Charles Drew, who developed the theory of blood plasma, but the everyday inventions that make life easier and that much sweeter have been forgotten.
Take Dr. Patricia Bath for example, an ophthalmologist who invented the Laserphaco Probe for cataract treatment in 1986, making history as the first Black woman to receive a medical patent. There is also Lonnie Johnson, the NASA engineer turned Super Soaker water gun maker whose ingenuity is responsible for making all of our childhood summers that much more magical. The list of Black people who create things that bring joy, save lives, and just make everyday living easier can go on and on. We must know our history so we can continue honoring their contributions, while also creating our own inventions that address the evolution of the needs of Black Americans. Such is the case with youth inventor David Price, creator of The Safety Pouch, a storage device that aims to make interactions between civilians and police safer and more efficient.
To help you out, we’ve compiled a list of 10 things Black people invented that are still useful today. Check out the list below:
Sarah E. Goode was born into slavery in 1850, receiving her freedom just after the Civil War, Biography.com reports. She eventually moved to Chicago and became an entrepreneur. She and her husband Archibald, a carpenter, owned a furniture store. Most of their clientele were working-class residents who lived in small apartments and didn’t really have the space for furniture, especially not furniture that was the size of beds.
As a result, Goode invented what she called the “folding cabinet bed.” It conserved space; when the bed was not being used, it could simply be folded up and used as a roll-top desk, complete with stationary compartments that could be used for writing supplies. The invention was genius and on July 14, 1885, Goode made history as one of the first African-American women to receive a patent from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). While there are no verifiable portraits of Goode widely available, her invention is still used across the globe today.
Garrett A. Morgan was born in Paris, Kentucky on March 4, 1877 as number 7 of 11 children and the paternal grandson of a Confederate colonel. His biracial ethnicity influenced his business endeavors as an adult, Biography.com reports. When he was a teen, armed with only an elementary school education, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio to look for work and became a handyman for a rich landowner. He would use the money he made working to pay for lessons with a private tutor. Eventually, Morgan began working at sewing machine factories, learning the ins and outs of the machines enough to cement his passion as an inventor.
Morgan’s first patented invention was the improved sewing machine, which he invented around the late 19th century/early 20th century. Morgan opened his own repair shop as a result of his success. He went on to marry and settle in Cleveland; obtaining financial freedom through his sales, his tailoring shop lead him to his next invention. After dealing with the issue of scorched fabrics as a result of sewing machine needles, Morgan concocted a chemical solution that would help reduce the friction created by the needle. He noticed that the solution tended to make the hairs of the cloth straighter, eventually working to test the solution on his neighbor’s dog fur before finally running tests on his own hair.
What resulted was the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company, which sold a patented hair cream to African-Americans that made their hair straighter and later would become what we call a “relaxer.” Morgan continued inventing; in 1914, he patented a “safety hood,” or breathing device that protected wearers against smoke, gasses, and other pollutants. Morgan marketed to fire departments, most times personally demonstrating its reliability himself. As a result of racism, buyers in the South were hesitant to purchase and Morgan often hired white actors to pose as “the inventor” during presentations of his device while he would pose as the assistant. The tactic worked and sales skyrocketed among rescue workers.
However, in 1916 when the city of Cleveland was drilling a new tunnel under Lake Erie, they hit a pocket of natural gas and caused a massive explosion. Workers were subsequently trapped underground surrounded by suffocating fumes and dust. Morgan and his brother sprang into action, putting on their breathing devices and entering the tunnel to try and save as many as possible. They were successful and saved two lives, recovering four bodies before rescue efforts were ceased. The publicity caused a ripple effect and despite his heroism, people still refused to purchase once people discovered that Morgan was African-American.
Morgan’s breathing device invention eventually became the prototype for the gas masks used during World War I, and Morgan was nominated for a Carnegie Medal for his heroic efforts, although he did not win. Determined not to quit, Morgan would go on to invent his most popular design yet: the three-light traffic signal. Morgan’s success came with notoriety and an abundance of financial means. In Cleveland, he became the first Black man to own a car; he satisfied his appetite for fixing problems by developing a friction drive clutch for the car. After witnessing a horrible carriage accident at a busy intersection, in 1923, Morgan created a new kind of traffic signal, one that included a warning light to let drivers know when they would need to slow down or stop. That patented design became known as the modern-day three-way traffic signal which Morgan eventually sold to General Electric for $40,000.
Sarah Marshall (Boone) was born in Craven County, North Carolina in 1832, the daughter of enslaved parents, according to Biography.com. She married James Boone, a free man, in 1847, earning her freedom and using an Underground Railroad network to migrate north with her husband, eight children, and widowed mother to New Haven, Connecticut before the Civil War.
There, Boone worked as a dressmaker while her husband made his living as a bricklayer before passing in the 1870s. Boone became successful, making enough dresses to own her own home and learn to read and write in her late 40s. Over time, the dress business became competitive, and Boone was looking for ways to stand out to customers. She started tailoring her fits towards the corsets that were popular during the time. Back then, most dressmakers would iron their clothes on a wooden plank placed across two chairs, a method that worked well for a wide skirt but not so much for more contoured, tight-fitting material.
That’s when Boone got the idea to create a curved board that could easily flip into sleeves and allow the garment to be moved around without getting wrinkled. The board was also padded to eliminate the impressions typically made from the wooden board. She also created a feature for it to collapse so it could be easily stored. Using the writing skills she acquired just a few years prior, Boone applied for a patent for the improved ironing board, earning it on April 26, 1892.
Frederick McKinley Jones was born May 17, 1893 in Cincinnati, Ohio to a white father and Black mother, Biography.com reports. His mother abandoned him as a child and his father struggled with raising him alone, eventually sending him to live with a Kentucky priest when he was just 7 years old. His father died when he was 9 and at age 11, he ran away and found odd jobs to support himself, including work as a janitor at a garage where he fell in love with automobile mechanics.
In 1912, he moved to Hallock, Minnesota, continuing his work in mechanics on a local farm, and studying daily to educate himself during his spare time. At the age of 20, he obtained an engineering license and went on to serve in the Army during World War I, often being asked to repair machines. After the war, he returned to the farm; when the town built a new radio station, it was Jones who built the transmitter to broadcast its programming. He would earn a patent for several sound machinations, including one for the device he developed to combine moving pictures with sound. He eventually partnered with local businessman, Joseph A. Numero, to improve the sound equipment he used for film industry production.
Jones’ inventions led him to the creation of a portable air-cooling unit for trucks carrying perishable food items, and he and Numero formed the U.S. Thermo Control Company. During World War II, Jones’ device was critical in preserving blood, medicine, and food needing to be transported, and by 1949, his company was worth millions. Jones would acquire more than 60 patents throughout his life, becoming the first African-American elected to the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers in 1944. In 1961, he passed away from lung cancer and in 1977, he was inducted into the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame. In 1991, Numero and Jones both received posthumous National Medal of Technology awards from President George H.W. Bush. Jones made history as the first African-American to receive such an award.
Alexander Miles was born near Circleville, Ohio, eventually moving to Wisconsin where he honed in on his passion for inventing, BlackPast reports. Working as a barber, Miles created hair products for his customers. In 1879, he relocated with his family to Duluth, Minnesota, using his earnings to open a barbershop in the St. Louis Hotel. He used that money to purchase a real estate office, making history as the first Black member of the Duluth Chamber of Commerce.
In 1884, he built a three-story brownstone building in Duluth, naming the surrounding area “Miles Block.” While taking an elevator ride one day with his daughter, he noticed an open shaft door, a potentially fatal flaw in the elevator design patented by John W. Meaker in 1874. Back then, the elevator required that both the shaft and doors be shut manually. It was quite commonplace to hear accidents of people falling into the shafts as a result of someone’s forgetfulness; Miles saw an opportunity to begin working on a design for automatic opening and closing elevator doors.
He received the patent for his design on October 11, 1887 then relocated to Chicago, Illinois. In 1899, he founded The United Brotherhood, a life insurance company primarily for African-Americans who were denied coverage because of their race. He eventually settled in Seattle, becoming known as the wealthiest African-American in the Pacific Northwest region before his passing on May 7, 1918. In 2007, Miles was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Marie Van Brittan Brown was a native of Queens, New York, a mother of two, and wife to Albert Brown, an electronics technician, Princeton University’s Council on Science and Technology reports. The 43-year-old nurse worked long late-night hours and her husband Albert was often away on business. Concerned with the rising crime rates in her neighborhood and the slow response of law enforcement regarding emergency calls, Brown decided to take action to protect herself.
Utilizing her husband’s electrical expertise, she created an early home security unit that would attach to the front door, using a motorized video camera to survey visitors of varying heights through four peepholes. The camera was connected to a bedside television monitor that Brown could use to screen unwanted guests. The system also included a microphone to communicate with people at the door, a button to unlock the door, and a button to alert the police via radio.
Brown and her husband Albert filed a patent for the device, listing Brown as the lead inventor in 1966. It was approved three years later but did not go into production, according to media reports at the time. The couple looked to attract manufacturers, but the high cost of technology prevented them from ever seeing any real financial gain. Brown passed away in 1999 at the age of 76 and closed-circuit television (CCTV) wouldn’t become available to residential customers until around 2005. Her design has since been featured in more than 35 U.S. patents, serving as the basis for many home security systems today, home security growing into a nearly $5 billion business in North America alone.
John A. Burr was born in Maryland as the son of enslaved African-Americans who were eventually freed, the African American Registry reports. As a teen during the Civil War, he worked as a field hand, being recognized early for his innovation. A group of wealthy Blacks helped Burr attend engineering classes at a private university; he used his mechanical skills to support himself, working on farms and repairing equipment.
Burr attended Harvard Business School before moving to Chicago where he worked as a steelworker during the 1970s. He continued his work as a repairman and, in 1898, he filed a patent for the rotary mower, the USPTO granting the patent on May 9, 1899. Burr would continue updating his patents through improvements to the original design, creating devices for mulching clippings, sifting, and dispersing them. He earned more than 30 U.S. patents over the course of his life in the areas of lawn care and agriculture. He received royalties for his inventions and traveled the country giving lectures before passing away in 1926 due to influenza at the age of 78.
While Black people across the globe continue to invent items that make life much more manageable, many are unaware of our historical contributions right here in the United States. We hope this list inspires you to keep going and follow in the footsteps of those who came before us. While this list is small, there are other Inventors like George T. Sampson, creator of the automatic clothes dryer, and inventor Thomas W. Stewart, the maker of the mop, who everyone should know. Black innovation and technology is who we are. Let’s keep the inventions coming.
Because of you, we can!
This article wasoriginally published on BOTWC