February is Black History Month! While we hope that black history is integrated throughout the year, the special focus in February is to highlight African-Americans whose achievements are under-appreciated, or even forgotten. Kids AND adults can take the time to learn something new about black history, or the contemporary black experience. We’ve decided to research famous African-American inventors, and their contributions to the world. How many African-American inventors do you know?
George Washington Carver
Popularized peanut butter, and invented hundreds of uses for peanuts, soybeans, pecans, and sweet potatoes such as:
- soaps and shampoos
- oils and fuels
- synthetic rubber
- inks, dyes, paints, and stains
Carver made his discoveries easy for other people to reproduce, especially farmers. His system for rotating specific crops in the south helped the depleted soil regain fertility by rotating peanuts and peas with cotton. In addition to keeping farms sustainable, this aided in the recover of the economy in the South as he invented hundreds of ways to use these new legume crops.
Dr. Patricia Bath
Dr. Bath was an ophthalmologist (medical doctor specializing in eye care), found that Blacks were twice as likely to suffer from blindness as the general population, and eight times more likely to suffer blindness as a result of glaucoma than whites. Because she believed that the main cause for this disparity was the lack of healthcare access poor people, she began numerous outreach programs.
In her work, she invented the “Laserphaco Probe,” which vaporized cataracts with more accuracy and less discomfort than previous procedures. Her invention was much more technologically advanced than others at the time, and today is used worldwide. Dr. Bath has helped countless people regain their sight, even for patients who had been blind for 30+ years!
Lewis Howard Latimer
Born to parents who escaped slavery, Lewis Howard Latimer fought in the US Navy during the Civil War. While working at a patent law office, he designed a number of his own inventions, such as an improved railroad car bathroom and an early version of an air conditioning unit.
Latimer worked closely with both Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, among other leading engineers and inventors of the time, as Edison’s original draftsman and draftsman of the patent for Bell’s design of the telephone. Around the same time, Latimer invented a method to make the carbon filaments for Hiram S Maxim’s electric incandescent lamp.
Gerald A. Lawson
Gerald A. Lawson was interested in becoming a scientist from a young age, disassembling and repairing electronics as a teenager. In college he invented an early coin-operated arcade game, and then moved on to work for a video game company.
He (and his team) invented the idea of game cartridges for a home video system that could be loaded with different game programs, and then inserted into the console one at a time. This allowed the company to sell individual games separately from the console itself, which was a revolutionary idea in gaming. Lawson’s invention included a new processor (Fairchild 8) as well as a mechanism that allowed users to insert and remove the cartridges without damaging the machine’s semiconductors.
Sarah E. Goode
In the early years of the United States, it was very difficult for a woman to get a patent in her own name. A patent is considered a kind of property, and in most states until the late 1800s, it was forbidden for women to own property in their own name. Sarah E. Goode is important in history because she was the first African-American woman to be granted a patent by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, for her invention of a folding cabinet bed.
She was born a slave in the South, but at the end of the Civil War Goode was free to move to Chicago. She started a furniture business with her husband, and served many working class customers who lived in small apartments. Because she saw the need for her clients to find furniture tht would fit in small spaces, she invented a “folding cabinet bed.” When the bed wasn’t being used, it could fold into a roll-top desk with compartments and storage spaces for writing supplies.
Garrett Morgan was an African-American inventor who invented an improved traffic signal, the zig-zag stitching pattern for sewing machines, among others.
His most famous invention came to the public light in 1916, when Garrett Morgan learned of an explosion in an underground tunnel beneath Lake Erie. He and a team of rescue volunteers put on Morgan’s gas mask invention, and went to the rescue to save the 32 men trapped. Receiving national attention, Morgan’s company received requests from fire departments who wished to purchase the new masks, and he later refined the design for use by the U.S. Army during World War I.