The Black American Inventors, Scientists, and Engineers Who Changed the World - Part Two

These African-American inventors and scientists transformed our world.

The Black American Inventors, Scientists, and Engineers Who Changed the World - Part Two
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Martin Luther King Jr., who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his non-violent campaign against racism, summarized the drive and strong will of African-Americans.

Their inventions, scientific discoveries, and legacy have greatly contributed to the advancement and betterment of science, technology, engineering, and humanity as a whole.

“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
The time is always right to do what is right.”- Martin Luther King Jr. 

From science to technology to agriculture and medicine, African-American men and women have empowered the global society and future generations of any race with their contributions and example. They continue to be an inspiration up to this day.

To truly understand the life journey, significance, and impact of the inventions and discoveries of the first African-American men and women, to learn and understand about these geniuses of the 19th and 20th centuries, we need to look back into American history, back to the year 1619.

The first Africans arrived at Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. They were recorded as “20 and odd Negroes.” These Africans had been stolen from a Portuguese slave ship, transported to an English warship flying a Dutch flag and sold to colonial settlers in American.

It was the beginning of a chapter of cruelty, injustice, abuse, and unpunished murder in American history. It was a time that brought out the worst in human behavior in the form of heartless masters and mistresses who mercilessly lashed enslaved people, including young children, rubbing their wounds with salt right after to intensify the punishment. Such pain is unimaginable. 

In cases, the crime had been eating a cookie when being hungry, as documented in the story by Jenny Proctor narrating her experiences as a 10-year-old slave in I Was A Slave: True Life Stories Dictated by Former American Slaves in the 1930s.


Plantations had spread to the south as cotton became more profitable for white masters. Between 1800 and 1860, one million enslaved humans were transported to new locations. At least, a third of enslaved families split apart without any remorse or consideration.

A fifth of young children separated and sold away from their parents in slave auctions, usually bought for $200 as playmates for white children who became their first masters.

“My new master was only two.” - Martin Jackson’s memory from when he was five years old. From Readings from The Slave Narratives

It was forbidden for enslaved children to go to school or for enslaved individuals of any age to learn or possess any knowledge. Their curiosity had to be hidden. Getting close to a book was an exciting but dangerous adventure.  

Enslaved people allied with Native Americans in the 19th century. The Underground Railroad was neither underground nor it was a railroad. Underground Railroad is a symbolic name for the 200-year long struggle to break free from slavery in America. 


The Underground Railroad was a code name and a system used to escape slavery from 1820 to 1861. The system comprised dozens of secret routes and safe houses that extended to the Canadian border. Other routes led south, from Florida to Cuba or from Texas to Mexico.

 "None of us was allowed to see a book, or try to learn.” -Jenny Proctor, who was enslaved from age 10. From I Was A Slave: True Life Stories Dictated by Former American Slaves in the 1930s (full story of Jenny Proctor)

It was extremely difficult to escape and the consequences of being caught were unthinkable. Punishment could be extreme such as mutilation or death. Yet, the risk of dying was a better alternative to many who were willing to do anything in order to obtain their freedom.

In the late 1930s, there were 100,000 ex-slaves still alive in the U.S.; 2,300 were interviewed for the Slave Narratives, which are currently housed at the Library of Congress.

The Slave Narratives contain evidence and testimony of some of the approximately 12,000 Africans shipped across the Atlantic Ocean against their will between 1450 and 1850, many of them ending up in the United States.


Their descendants became known as African-Americans, born in slavery in many cases.

Enslaved people suffered many prohibitions and injustices of all sorts. It was forbidden for them to receive patents for their inventions. Even though after the American Civil War free African-Americans were supposed to be legally able to receive a patent, in most cases this did not happen.

The last former African-American slave, Sylvester Magee, who became America’s oldest citizen, died in 1971 in Mississippi at 130. This marked the end of a long chapter of slavery in American history.

Despite the odds and struggles, they had to suffer, the first African slaves and their African-American descendants never gave up. For generations, they continued pursuing their dreams of freedom and rights as human beings.

Despite their struggles that African-Americans have endured along the history of the United States of America, many brilliant minds have flourished to accomplish greatness for themselves and for their nation.


There are over 42 million people in the United States today who identify as African-American.

Here is a modest sample of extraordinary African-American men and women from the 19th and 20th centuries. They have demonstrated unmistakable excellence, guiding others with their unbreakable spirit and high human values.

Many others have gone unnoticed, or without registry in history. However, the ones who made it to the history books continue to be a source of inspiration for today’s generations and the generations to come.

1 - George Washington Carver: inventor, scientist, botanist, professor, humanitarian

George Washington Carver was an African-American who discovered over 300 different uses for peanuts, including cooking oil, printer’s ink, and axle grease.

"It would be difficult to explain to a lady that I wake up every day at four in the morning to go talk to the flowers."-George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver was born a slave in Missouri in 1864, at the time of the Civil War. The exact date of birth and year are unknown. According to various reports, it is estimated between 1860 and 1865.


He grew up as a free child, thanks to the end of the Civil War. His mother’s former master, Moses Carver and his wife Susan raised young George. The Carvers had owned George's mother Mary since she was 13 years old and had given her their last name, as it was the custom.

During the war, Mary and little George were kidnapped by riders who took them to Arkansas. Moses sent a Union scout to find them. Only baby George was found, he was deadly ill. Susan Carver nursed the baby and cared for him.

As a child, George had an interest in plants and liked to collect specimens.

Being a curious child with initiative and determination, at age 11 George left home to pursue an education. In the nearby town of Neosho, an African-American couple took him in to do some work.


Working odd jobs while attending school, young George soon got disappointed in the school, that perhaps was too slow for him, and left for Kansas.

For several years, he supported himself while studying. He earned his high school diploma in his twenties. Then he found out that there were no opportunities to attend college for young black men in Kansas.

In the late 1880s, young Carver relocated to Iowa where he met the Mulholland, a white couple who spent time with him and encouraged Carver to enroll in college.

Carver started studying music and art; he wanted to become an artist. Soon his teacher noticed he was interested in botany. She encouraged him to transfer to Iowa State Agricultural College. (Iowa State University today)

In 1894, Carver earned his bachelor’s degree in agricultural science from Iowa State, and then his master’s in 1896. At that time, he demonstrated a rare talent for identifying and treating plant diseases.

When Booker T. Washington was looking to establish an agricultural department and research facility at his Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama, a vocational school for African-Americans that he had founded in 1881, he asked Carver to join the faculty of Tuskegee.

Carver was the only African-American in the United States with an advanced degree in scientific agriculture. Carver joined the faculty in 1896 where he remained for the rest of his life as both a teacher and researcher. He was the head of the Institute's Agricultural Experiment Station.

Washington, the leading black statesman of the day, and two others had founded the institute in 1881 as a new vocational school for African Americans, and the institute had steadily grown.

Carver used agricultural chemistry and scientific methodology to improve the lives of impoverished farmers in southeastern Alabama.

He conducted soil studies to determine the difference in crop growth in the region and which ones would grow best. While doing this, he found out that the local soil was perfect for growing peanuts and sweet potatoes.

Then he taught local farmers about fertilization and crop rotation. Using these methods would increase soil productivity. Cotton was the primary crop in the south, which depleted soil nutrients severely.

However, by rotating crops, for example by alternating cotton with soil-enriching crops such as legumes and sweet potatoes, farmers could see an increase in their cotton yield for a plot of land. Moreover, crop rotation was much cheaper than commercial fertilization.

Carver had almost a perfect plan. But what to do with all the extra sweet potatoes and peanuts? Not many people ate them. They were not crops with many uses or applications. They were pretty much undesirable crops.

Resourceful and inventive as he was, Carver started to work on inventing new food, industrial and commercial products such as flour, sugar, vinegar, cosmetic products, ink, paint, and many others came out from these plants.

Seeing a potential economic advantage for adopting crop rotation farmers were going to be happier about it.

Dr. Carver developed hundreds of new products from peanuts. He created a new market for this inexpensive, soil-enriching legumes.

He started to be known as the Peanut Man. In 1896the peanut was not recognized as a U.S. crop. However, by 1940, the peanut had become one of the six leading crops and the second cash crop in the south only after cotton.

Peanuts and sweet potatoes were incorporated into southern cooking, spreading quickly to the rest of the nation. Dr. Carver found 105 Different Ways of Preparing The Peanut for The Table.

In order to educate farmers, Dr. Carver developed traveling schools and other outreach programs of easy access.

He wrote especial popular bulletins that he distributed to farmers for free. In the bulletins, he reported on his research at the Agricultural Experiment Station and its applications.

Through his knowledge of chemistry and agriculture paired with his conviction, Dr. Carver revolutionized southern agriculture.

He raised the standard of living of his fellow man. Dr. Carver was one of the most recognized names in African-American history.

He received the 1923 Spingarn Medal and was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

George Washington Carver National Monument
Source: National Park Service

The George Washington Carver National Monument was the first national monument dedicated to an African-American and the first to be a non-resident. 

George Washington Carver continued to invent, discover, and teach others along his entire life. He never married.

When asked about this, he once he said it would be difficult to explain to a lady that he woke up every day at four in the morning to go talk to the flowers.

Carver never pursued fortune or fame. He repeatedly said that he was always happily working to make the world a better place to live. He believed his inventions could contribute to this purpose.

George Washington Carver died in Tuskegee, Alabama, on January 5, 1943. 

He is acknowledged and remembered as one of the most sensitive and creative scientists of all times and all races.

2 - Madame C.J. Walker: (Sarah Breedlove) - African American Hair-Care Entrepreneur, Inventor, Philanthropist, Activist

"I am a woman that came from the cotton fields of the South.  I was promoted to wash tub. Then I was promoted to cook kitchen.  I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing." -Madame C.J.Walker

An inspirational life journey from the cotton fields in Louisiana to becoming the wealthiest African-American woman in America and the first self-made female American millionaire of any race.

Sarah Breedlove, better known as Madame C.J.Walker, was born in 1867 to a family of slaves on a plantation in Louisiana. Thanks to Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation that took effect on January 1st, 1863, she was the first child in her family born into freedom.

Sarah Breedlove became an orphan at the age of seven after both her parents died from yellow fever. She was a wife to Moses McWilliams at the age of 14 after escaping from her brother-in-law’s abuse. Sarah was a mother at 17, to a baby girl called A’Lelia. Soon, a widow at 20, after Moses died presumably in an accident, according to author and journalist A’Lelia Bundles, who is a great-great-granddaughter and biographist of Madame C.J.Walker.

Aged 33, Sarah started her business career selling the first hair products known as Madame C.J.Walker Wonderful Hair Grower and Madame C.J.Walker Vegetable Shampoo. As her hair loss increased rapidly, Madame C.J.Walker developed a formula mixing petroleum —similar to vaseline,— sulfur, and a little perfume to make it smell better.

She used this formula to treat the severe scalp disease, a common disease of the time, which was causing the hair loss. After the successful results, Madame Walker started bottling the formula and selling it door-to-door to other African-American women suffering from the same disease.

At 38, she married Charles Joseph Walker, and set up the Madame C.J.Walker Manufacturing Company in the US, and later expanded her business to Central America and the Caribbean.

Her line of hair treatment, maintenance, scalp stimulation, and beauty products mainly targeted at black women focused on the need for a healthy and clean scalp, something not always possible due to living conditions back then. She recruited 25,000 black women by the early 1900s from North and Central America, and the Caribbean as door-to-door beauty consultants.

Madame C.J.Walker paid fair wages. She paid $25 per week to members of her team. Otherwise, these women would have earned about $2 per week in domestic work. An estimate of around 40,000 African-American worked for Madame C.J.Walker over the years.

A pioneer of the modern cosmetics industry, Madame C.J.Walker was the first one using the method known today as direct sales marketing to distribute and sell her products, a method adopted later on by Avon, TupperWare, and others.

A remarkable woman, who fought against racism, she used her wealth to support African-American institutions, the black YMCA, helped people with their mortgages, donated to orphan and senior citizens homes, she wanted to found a school for black girls in Nigeria although she was not able to do it. She thought educating young girls and women would make a difference in society.

One of the most successful African-American entrepreneurs throughout history, Madame C.J.Walker passed away at the age of 51 from kidney failure in 1919.

Her great-great-granddaughter, author and journalist A’Lelia Bundles, wrote On Her Own Ground: Life and Time of Madame C.J. Walker, a detailed biography on the legendary African-American entrepreneur and philanthropist.

3 - Elijah McCoy: engineer, inventor

elija mccoy
Source: Ypsilanti Historical Society/Wikimedia Commons

Elijah McCoy was born in 1844 in Ontario, Canada. He was the son of an enslaved couple who escaped slavery from Kentucky through the Underground Railroad which was a code name and a system used to escape slavery from 1820 to 1861. Escaping from slavery, if unsuccessful, was severely punished with mutilation, or even death.

Safe and free in Ontario, and despite having very little resources and being extremely poor, Elijah’s parents worked hard to save money for their son’s education. The McCoys returned to the United States in 1847 and settled in Michigan.

At the age of 15, Elijah’s parents sent him to a boarding school in Edinburgh, Scotland where he learned mechanical engineering through an apprenticeship.

Back in the United States as a certified mechanical engineer, McCoy found it difficult to obtain a job as a skilled African-American. Instead, he accepted a job as a fireman for the Michigan Central Railroad oiling the various working parts of the trains.

McCoy had plenty of time to think while performing this very slow and boring task. It was then when he developed his curiosity in the challenges of self-lubrication for machines. The moving parts of the trains had to be lubricated by hand, and he began to develop and test his ideas for automatic lubrication.

McCoy finally developed the Lubricator Cup in a device that continuously dropped small amounts of oil onto the moving parts of the machines. In 1870, his Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company began to produce his lubricators.

He received the patent number 139,407 for his Lubricator Cup on May 27, 1873. The lubricator cup allowed steam trains to run continuously without pausing for maintenance, saving time and money to owners who insisted on buying McCoy lubrication systems. Soon it became common to hear that machinery buyers would take nothing less than The Real McCoy.

For over 25 years, McCoy kept on refining his invention and receiving a patent for every update and modification of the lubricator cup. He received over 60 patents over the course of his life.

Elijah McCoy died in Detroit, Michigan on October 10, 1929, at the age of 85. He suffered from Dementia.

He is buried at Detroit Memorial Park East in Warren, Michigan. Elijah McCoy is considered one of the most predominant African-American inventors of the 19th century.

4 - Dr. Patricia Era Bath: Scientist, Inventor of the Laserphaco Probe that removes cataracts

Patricia Bath
Source: National Library of Medicine/Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Patricia Bath is a pioneer ophthalmologist, inventor, and academic who is known for inventing a tool and procedure for the removal of cataracts using a laser beam called the Laserphaco probe.

The daughter of the first African-American motorman to work for the New York City subway system and a domestic worker mother who saved her money for her children’s education, Patricia was born in 1942 in Harlem, New York.

Patricia’s interest in science became evident at an early age and her mother bought her a chemistry set. Dr. Bath describes herself as being a curious child.

“I was what is called a nerd.” -Patricia Bath

“Striving for excellence, working hard, and giving back to the community,” Patricia Bath said during an interview with Good Morning America. Patricia Bath graduated with a medical degree from Howard University in 1968.

She was involved in the Civil Rights Movement during her years as a medical student and was greatly influenced by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who in 1964 became the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize at thirty five, and was assassinated in April 1968, the same year of Dr. Bath’s graduation. Up to this day, she remembers Dr. King's influence. 

Patricia Bath’s life has been a series of “firsts.” In 1973, Patricia Bath became the first African-American to complete a residency in ophthalmology.

A year after that, Dr. Bath became the first female to be appointed to the faculty of the University of California at Los Angeles School of Medicine Jules Stein Eye Institute.

In 1983, Dr, Bath became the first woman to chair an ophthalmology residency program in the United States.

It took her several years working long hours in the lab until two or three in the morning to develop her invention. Finally, one long rainy night in 1985, the Laserphaco probe which has increased accuracy of cataracts surgery, a procedure previously performed manually came through.

On December 18, 1986, Dr. Bath filed a patent for her groundbreaking discovery becoming the first African-American female doctor to receive a medical patent.

The patent for the “Apparatus for Ablating and Removing Cataract Lenses” was granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office on May 17, 1988, with the number 4,744,360.

In 1993, Howard University name Dr. Bath a Howard University Pioneer in Academic University. Today, Dr. Bath is a retired professor of Ophthalmology, UCLA, and the co-founder and President of the American Institution for The Prevention of Blindness that establishes that “eyesight is a basic human right.”

In recognition for her advocacy for the blind, President Barack Obama appointed Dr. Bath to his commission for Digital Accessibility for The Blind in 2009.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Patricia Bath and the Class of 1968 graduation from Howard University College of Medicine in May 2018, the Howard University Medical Alumni Association (HUMAA) honors Dr. Bath by endowing the Patricia E. Bath MD scholarship for a female medical student, a scholarship that she sponsors. 

5 - Jan Ernst Matzeliger: Inventor of the shoe Lasting Machine

Jan Matzeliger was the son of a Surinamese woman and a Dutch engineer. He was born on September 15th, 1852 in Paramaribo, the capital city of Dutch Guiana, a plantation colony of The Netherlands that today is known as Suriname, one of the smallest countries in South America which gained its independence in 1975.

Jan Matzeliger’s interest in mechanics began at a young age. At the age of 10, he began working in his father’s machine shop. At 19, he joined a merchant ship in search of adventure, and in 1873 he settled in Philadelphia.

The young Matzeliger struggled to survive. He was a dark skinned man with a little command of the English language.

He received support from a local black church and began working for a cobbler. In 1877, he moved to Lynn, Massachusetts, where the American shoe industry was centered.

Determined and skillful, the young Matzeliger obtained a job at a shoe factory operating a sole-sewing machine that stitched different pieces of a shoe together.

This process, called ‘lasting,’ attached the upper part of a shoe to the sole was done by hand and it was extremely time-consuming.

After experimenting with different designs, Jan Matzeliger invented a shoe lasting machine that adjusted the shoe leather upper snugly over the mold, arranging the leather under the sole and then pinned it with nails while the sole was stitched to the leather upper.

Matzeliger's new Lasting Machine attached a sole in only one minute rather than the 15 minutes the process took when done by hand.

Using Matzeliger's invention, shoe manufacturers could last 700 shoes in one day using the single machine instead of 50 by a hand laster.

The use of the Lasting Machine resulted in shoe mass production, employment for more unskilled workers, low-cost, high-quality shoes for people around the world, and the beginning of the shoe industry revolution.

On March 20, 1883, Jan Matzeliger received a U.S. Patent for his invention with the number 274,207.

The Consolidated Lasting Machine Company was established in 1889 to manufacture Matzeliger’s patented device and the inventor received a large amount of stock. 

jan matzelinger's grave
Source: Find a Grave

Sadly, Jan Matzeliger had developed tuberculosis in 1886. He died poor on August 24th, 1889 at the very early age of 37.

With no family, Matzeliger left his stock holdings to his friends and to the First Church of Christ in Lynn, Massachusetts.

The United Shoe Machinery Company acquired Matzeliger’s Lasting Machine patent after his death.

6 - Martha Jones: inventor, first known African-American woman to be granted a U.S. patent

martha jones-patent
Source: U.S.Patent Database Search 

The U.S. Patent and Trandemark Office lost records of many "first" patents when they were distroyed in the fire of 1836. For this reason, making a statement of "first" patents must be taken carefully.

Examining patent numbers and dates can help determine which patent came first. This is useful in the case of wanting to establish who was the first known African-American woman to be granted a U.S. patent for her invention after the fire in 1836.

Even though it is somehow unclear how African-American women could apply for a patent before the American Civil War, the evidence of the patent registries is clear. 

Martha Jones, of Amelia County, Va., was an African-American woman who registered her invention at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Little is known about her other than her patented invention.

She received the U.S. patent number 77,494 on May 5, 1868, for her Improvement to The Corn Husker, Sheller becoming the first known African-American woman to receive a U.S. patent for her invention.

Her invention was able to husk, shell, cut up, and separate husks from corn in one step. This represented an advancement in the automation of agricultural processes.

7 - Mary Jones De Leon: inventor, second known African-American woman to be granted a U.S. patent  

mary jones patent
Source: U.S. Patent Database Search

The second known African-American woman who registered and patented her invention was Mary Jones De Leon of Baltimore.

She received U.S. patent number 140.253 for her invention of a  cooking apparatus in 1873.

De Leon’s invention was an early precursor of the steam tables that we see at food buffets worldwide today.

8 - July Reed: inventor, third known African-American woman to be granted a U.S. patent 

judy reed's patent
 Source: U.S. Patent Database Search 

Judy W. Reed from Washington, D.C. might be the third African-American woman who received a U.S. patent.  

Her patent number 305,474 granted on September 23, 1884, was for her dough kneader and roller invention. 

Reed is often wrongly credited as the first African American to receive a patent.

However, both Mary Jones De Leon with U.S. Patent number 140,253 for a cooking apparatus and Martha Jones with U.S. Patent number 77,494 for the Improvement to the Corn Husker, Sheller were granted patents prior to Judy Reed.  

Little is known about Reed beside her patent registry. 

9 - Sarah E. Goode: inventor, fourth known African-American woman to be granted a U.S. patent  

Frequently wrongly credited as the first African-American woman to receive a U.S. patent for her invention, Sarah E. Goode from Chicago was the fourth known African-American woman to be granted the patent number 322,177 on July 14, 1885, for her Folding Cabinet Bed.

Sarah, the second child of Oliver and Harriet Jacobs’ seven children, was born into slavery in 1855 in Ohio and freed toward the end of the American Civil War.

Her name was Sarah Elizabeth Jacobs. Her father, Oliver Jacobs, was an Indiana native who moved his family to Chicago, Illinois after the end of the Civil War.

It was in Chicago where Sarah met her husband, Archibald Goode, a carpenter, and stair builder. Possessing an entrepreneurial spirit, Sarah opened a furniture store.

Soon she learned that people in the neighborhood complained about the size of their homes being too small to take in a lot of furniture.

Sarah began working on sketches to try to find a solution that could be beneficial for both her customers and her business.

She invented an ingenious piece of furniture: a desk by day that unfolded into a full bed by night. Her invention became popular and known as the Cabinet Bed.

folding cabinet bed
Source: Digging History

Sarah Goode’s invention inspired other African-American women who came up with their own inventions and received a patent for them.

Sarah died on April 8, 1905, in Chicago at the age of 50.

10 - Harold Amos: microbiologist, professor

harold amos
Source: Umbrasearch

 Harold Amos was the first African-American Microbiologist and the first African-American department chair of Harvard Medical School.

Harold was born in 1918 in Pennsauken, New Jersey to Howard R. Amos, who was employed by a renowned Philadelphia post office and Lola Johnson, employed by a renowned Philadelphia Quaker family that had adopted her when she was a child.

The Quaker family had home-schooled Lola together with their children. And when Lola left the family to marry Harold’s father they stayed in close touch.

The Quaker family frequently supplied the young Amos family with a variety of books.

In one occasion, one of the books was a biography of Louis PasteurHarold, who was a fourth-grader back then, became fascinated with the book and in particular with the fact that Pasteur used goats as experimental animals. This intrigued young Harold because he particularly disliked his family’s goats.

Later on, Harold confides that Pasteur’s biography had an impact in his early life and it became one factor in his interest and passion for microbiology and immunology.

A curious and extraordinary student, Harold graduated top of his class from a segregated school in Pennsauken. Later on, he obtained his undergraduate degree from Springfield College in Springfield with Summa Cum Laude (With Highest Honor) in 1941; he majored in Biology and did a minor in Chemistry.

In 1942, Amos joined the U.S. Army as a warrant officer in the battalion which supplied gasoline to the troops. He spent two years in England and got into France for six days after the Normandy’s invasion.

This experience changed dramatically his life leaving him with a love for France and everything French that was going to last for the rest of his life.

Back in the U.S. in 1946, he enrolled for a Biological Sciences’ graduate program at the Division of Medical Sciences at the Harvard Medical School.

After graduating with his M.A. in 1947, he went on to earn his Ph.D. in 1952 becoming the first African-American to get a doctoral degree from this Division of Medical Sciences at Harvard.

A Fulbright Fellowship took Amos back to his beloved France to the Pasteur Institute, a Mecca for American scientists. He returned to Harvard as a faculty member, directing an unusually broad array of studies for over 30 years. He had an infinite passion for teaching, which he described as one of his greatest joys.

Amos was close to his students, following their careers as well as their personal lives with the enthusiasm. He remained active as a faculty member at Harvard Medical School for nearly 50 years.

Harold Amos received numerous awards, including the first Charles Drew World Medical Prize from Harvard University in 1989, an Honoris Causa doctoral degree from Harvard University in 1996, the Centennial Medal of the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 2000, and the National Academy of Science’ highest honor, the Public Welfare Medal in 1995.

He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1974, named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1991, and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences in 1991 as well.

Despite all the recognition and awards, Amos was a truly modest human being. Very few of his colleagues and relatives were aware of the many honors he had received.

The sculptor who worked on his bust had to rely on a photograph that was only obtained by subterfuge, because Amos refused to sit for him.

The bust was placed in the Division of Medical Sciences graduate student lounge when it was named in his honor.

Amos was one of those persons who are happy being active and productive. At the age of 70, he noted that he “had to go back to work to try to do something useful with these few remaining years.”

He became the first national director of the Minority Medical Faculty Development Program (MMFDP) supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, position in which he remained until 1994.

Notably, Harold kept the tradition that had made him famous with his former students. He kept contact with the MMFDP Fellows and their family members.

He encouraged them during the tenure of the program and even went the extra mile seeking alternative positions for those applicants who were not awarded fellowships.

He encouraged and mentor all minorities and disadvantaged students to seek careers in academic medicine and science. Helping anyone at the beginning of their career was in Amos nature; he was known for collecting paintings and prints from emerging artists.

He conceived the ongoing Medical School’s popular annual Emeritus Day and Symposium.

Harold Amos died in Boston on February 26, 2003, due to complications after suffering a stroke. In 2004, the MMFDP was renamed the Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development Program to honor Harold’s long-life concerns for the academics at all ages.

11 - Marie Van Brittan Brown: inventor, pioneer of the CCTV system

marie von brittan brown
Source: Timeline

Marie Van Brittan Brown was a brilliant African-American inventor ahead of her time. She created a home security system that became the first surveillance device in a long line of surveillance devices that continue to populate the security market today.

Marie Van Brittan was born in Queens, New York City on October 22, 1922. The crime rate in her neighborhood in Queens was very high and police tend to have a slow response to emergency calls.

Marie and her partner, Albert Brown, who was an electronics technician, applied for a patent for their invention on August 1, 1966. Their patent was filed for their Home Security System Utilizing Television Surveillance, a closed circuit television system, known today as CCTV system.

Their patent was granted on December 2, 1969.

Marie was motivated to create an effective security system to protect herself and her own home when coming home back alone.

She worked long and odd hours at day and night as a nurse. Her neighborhood in Queens was dangerous and police did not always respond quickly to calls.

She created the first CCTV system to be used for the home monitor. Her inventions and patent evolved into all the advanced home security technology in use today.

home sec system
Source: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Patent Database Search 

Van Brittan Brown innovation included a set of four peepholes, a monitorized camera that could slide up and down to look out each one, monitors, as a two-way microphone, a remote-controlled operated door, and an alarm button. When it was pressed, the alarm button would immediately connect to the police.

Video of who was at the door and windows were sent to a receiver inside the home. Her invention allowed her to talk to visitors with an intercom and open the door remotely.

home sec sys detail
Source: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Patent Database Search

The original patent was referenced by 13 other later inventions including some filed in 2013. Marie Van Brittan Brown received the National Scientist Committee Award.

She died on February 2, 1999, at age 76.

12 - Sarah Boone: inventor

sarah boone inventor
Source: SHSMO

Sarah Boone was an African-American known for inventing and patenting the iron board.

Sarah Boon was born in 1832 in Craven County, North Carolina. In the 19th century, a woman who was an inventor was a rarity, let alone a female African-American inventor.

When Boon filed the application to patent her invention she described the purpose of it as “to produce cheap, simple, convenient, and highly effective device, particularly adapted to be used in ironing the sleeves and bodices of ladies’ garments.” 

ironing board
Source: Google Patents

Boon’s invention was made of a narrow wooden board, with collapsible legs and a padded cover. Clothing was then fitted onto the board for ironing.

Before her invention, it was most common to use a plank of wood rested across a pair of chairs or tables and place the garments on it for ironing them with a device made of the iron.

Sarah was living in New Haven, Connecticut, when the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted her patent number 473,653 for the ironing board on April 26, 1892.

Sarah died in 1904.

13 - Janet Emerson Bashen: inventor

janet bashen
Source: Prleap

Janet Emerson Bashen is the first African-American woman to hold a software patent in the United States.

Janet Emerson was born on February 12, 1957, to a working-class family. Her father was a garbage collector and her mother was the first African-American woman emergency room nurse in Huntsville, Alabama, where the family had moved when Janet was a child.

After marrying and becoming Janet Emerson Bashen relocating to Houston, Texas, she finished her degree in legal studies and government at the University of Houston.

Then she continued her studies at Rice University’s Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Administration. Bashen attended Harvard University’s Women and Power: Leadership in a New World.

When Bashen was working in the insurance industry after graduation, she called for the creation of third-party teams to investigate Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) claims. Basher argued that third-party investigators would be less subject to influence from either side in complaints.

Her CEO did not listen. So, in 1994, with $5,000 she borrowed from her mother, Bashen started her own EEO complaints management business from her home.

"My success and failures make me who I am, and who I am is a black woman raised in the south by working class parents who tried to give me a better life by fostering fervent commitment to succeed." --Janet Emerson Bashen 

She became the Founder, President, and CEO of  Bashen Corporation, which is a private consulting group that investigates Equal Employment Opportunity complaints under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The Bashen Corporation acts as a third-party fact-finder if employees complain of discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Then, working with the company’s human resource departments improving the situations through education, mediation, or policy changes.

This avoids costly and lengthy discrimination trials. Bashen herself oversaw EEO investigations at Flagstar corporation, Compaq Computers, Goodyear Tires, and General Motors.

After some time, storing and retrieving information related to the EEO cases became difficult. There was a need for a solution and in 2001, Bashen, together with her cousin Donny Moore who is a computer scientist from Tufts University, developed a software that could be used to securely store information about her cases and called it LinkLine.

In 2001, Janet Emerson Bashen filed a patent for LinkLine. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted Bashen her patent in 2006 and she became the first African-American woman in the United States to hold a patent for a software invention.

The Bashen Corporation continued to develop other software programs intended to facilitate corporate adherence to Title VII including AAPLink Affirmative Action Software for helping the institution manage their affirmative action cases, 1-800InTake that is a hotline for discrimination reporting for smaller companies, and EEO FedSoft that facilitates EEO complaints and manages cases files within government agencies.

Janet Bashen and her business have been awarded multiple times.

In 2003, she received the Pinnacle Award from the Houston Chamber of Commerce, in 2004 the Crystal Award from the National Association of Negro Women in Business, and recognition from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for LinkLine at the World Festival of Black Arts and Culture in Dakar, Senegal in 2010.

In 2014, Janet Bashen was elected to the Women’s Leadership Board at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Bashen is also a member of the Black Inventors’ Hall of Fame.

14 - Archie Alphonso Alexander: mathematician, civil engineer, design engineer, architect

Archie Alexander
Source: Cpnas

Born on May 14, 1888, in Ottumwa, Iowa, Archie Alphonso Alexander was the oldest of eight children of Price and Mary Alexander. Ottumwa had 14,000 residents at the time including fewer than 500 African-Americans.

His family moved to Des Moines when Archie was 11, where his father became head custodian at the Des Moines National Bank, a prestigious post for his background.

In 1905, Archie graduated from Des Moines’ Oak Park High School but his parents could not afford to send him to college to become the engineer he wanted to be.

The strong-willed and ambitious Alexander took on several part-time jobs and by 1908 he had saved enough to enroll himself in the college of engineering at the University of Iowa at age 20.

Alexander graduated from the State University of Iowa and became the first African-American engineering graduate in 1912. He was also the first African-American football player at his university.

Alexander had to overcome discouraging words from the beginning of his studies and early career. “Engineering is a tough field at best and it may be twice as tough for a Negro,” a professor at the State University of Iowa told young Alexander in 1909.

And even though the dean said he had “never heard of a Negro engineer,” Alexander’s tenacity and strong will led him to become the most successful African-American businessman in America.

The Ebony Magazine profiled Alexander in 1931 as an accomplished and wealthy African-American businessman.

Alexander started his own engineering company when he was 26. His 46-year engineering career was bracketed three times: by World War I and II, and by the Great Depression.

His interracial business partnership with George F. Higbee in 1917 was both unusual and successful. It was at this time when Alexander moved to London, England to continue his education at the University of London where he studied advanced bridge design and engineering.

Back in Iowa, Alexander obtained his master’s degree in civil engineering from the Iowa State University in 1925, the same year Higbee died in a construction accident.

During the time working together, Alexander & Higbee designed the Tuskegee Air Field and the Iowa State University heating and cooling system.

A few years later in 1929, Alexander and Maurice A. Repass, his former classmate from the University of Iowa, formed the engineering firm, Alexander & Repass.

Under this new partnership, they were in charge of the construction of the Whitehurst Parkway and the Tidal Basin Bridge in Washington, D.C., and the extension to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

In 1946, the Howard University awarded Alexander with an honorary Doctor of Engineering. President Eisenhower appointed Alexander to be the governor of the United States Virgin Islands in 1954.

However, he resigned a year after due to critics accusing him of favoritism to old business partners despite Alexander being very well known for his directness and honesty.   

Alexander died in Des Moines of a heart attack on January 4, 1958, at 69.

Upon the death of Alexander’s wife, Audra Linzy Alexander a generous sum that Alexander had designated in his will was divided equally among the University of Iowa, Howard University, and Tuskegee Institute (University) in Alabama for endowed engineering scholarships.

15 - Leonard C. Bailey: inventor

Leonard C. Bailey was born in 1825 poor and with a physical disability. He overcame his obstacles and made a significant impact in the African-American community.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark office granted Leonard C. Bailey the patent number 620,286 for the Folding Bed on July 18, 1899. His invention was recommended and adopted by the United States Medical Board for tent and camping purposes.

Bailey also invented the rapid mail-stamping machine, a device to shunt trains to different tracks, and a hernia truss that was adopted by the United States Military.

Bailey was treasurer of the Capital Savings Bank, a bank for African-Americans of the late 19th century. Bailey served on the board of directors for the Industrial Building and Saving Company.

He took part as a member of the first mixed-race jury in Washington D.C. who tried Millie Gaines, an African-American girl who was found not guilty of murdering a White man by reason of insanity in 1869.

Leonard C. Bailey died in 1905.  

16 - Valerie Thomas: scientist, astronomer, inventor

valerie thomas
Source: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Valerie Thomas is an accomplished African-American scientist and inventor who patented the illusion transmitter and contributed greatly to NASA research.

Valerie Thomas was born in May 1943 in Maryland. As a little girl, Thomas was fascinated with technology. Despite this, her father would not encourage her or help her with any project, even though he had an interest in electronics himself.

She attended a school for girls that downplayed math and science.

Despite the discouragement, Thomas graduated with a degree in chemistry from Morgan State University where she was one of the only two women to major in physics.

Upon graduation, Thomas accepted a position as a data analyst at NASA in 1964 conducting large-scale experiments and developing real-time computer data systems.

In the 1970s, Thomas managed the development of the image-processing systems for LANDSAT, the first satellite to send images from space.

In 1977, Thomas began experimenting on an illusion transmitter. On October 21, 1980, she was granted patent number 4,229,761 for her invention. The device produces optical illusion images via two concave mirrors.

NASA adopted the technology and is also still used in surgery and in the production of television and video screens. This brilliant innovation placed Valerie Thomas among the most remarkable African-American inventors of the 20th century.

Thomas held various positions at NASA including Project Manager of the Space Physics Analysis Network and Associate Data Operations Officer.

She contributed to the development of computer programs designs used for the research on Halley’s Comet, the ozone layer, and satellite technology.

NASA awarded Thomas with the Goddard Space Flight Center Award of Merit and NASA Equal Opportunity Medal, among others. Valerie Thomas continued working at NASA until her retirement in 1995.

17 - Ellen Eglin: inventor

clothes wringer
Source: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

Ellen Eglin was born in 1849 in Washington D.C. She worked as a housekeeper and a government clerk. Little is known about this African-American inventor who invented a mechanical clothes wringer for washing machines.

She was afraid that White women would not buy her invention because of her color. She sold it off for a very low price in 1888 to a white person who was interested in manufacturing the device and reaped considerable financial awards.

Ellen Eglin died after 1890, though it is unfortunate that there is no recollection of a certain date.

18 - St Elmo Brady: chemist, academic

st elmo brady
Source: Chemistry Illinois

St. Elmo Brady was the first African-American to receive a doctorate in chemistry in the United States.

Elmo Brady was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1884. He left home at age 20 to attend the all-black college at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.

His chemistry teacher, Thomas Talley, encouraged and inspired the young Brady who graduated with his bachelor’s in 1908.

Brady then accepted a teaching position at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (Tuskegee University now) in Alabama. Both Booker T. Washington and the agricultural chemist George Washington Carver were Brady’s mentors.

He was a brilliant student and received a graduate scholarship to the University of Illinois. There, Brady earned his master’s degree in chemistry in 1914, and when Brady graduated from the same university with a Ph.D. in chemistry in 1916, he became the first African-American ever to earn this degree.

Elmo Brady also became the first African-American admitted to Phi Lambda Upsilon, the national chemistry honor society.

In 1916, Brady rejoined Tuskegee as head of the science division. In 1920, he was appointed chemistry department chair at Howard University.

In 1927, Brady became chair of the chemistry department at Fisk when Talley retire.

During the 25 years that Brady remained at Fisk, he developed the undergraduate curricula and found the first-ever graduate chemistry program at a black college.

Today, the Fisk campus counts with the Talley-Brady Hall that honors these two pioneers in chemistry and science education.

He went on to become highly regarded for his impressive teaching career at four historically black colleges, where he energized the chemistry curricula and established new programs for young African American scientists.

He wrote a series of leaflets titled “Household Chemistry for Girls” while at Tuskegee. (View a signed copy of the first in the series, digitized by the Harvard University Library.)

Brady officially retired in 1952. However, he continued collaborating with educators at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi for several years.

He helped them build their chemistry department. When this was completed, he moved back to Washington, D.C.

St. Elmo Brady died in 1966.

19 - Dr. Betty Wright Harris: chemist, inventor

Betty Harris
Source: Cpnas

Dr. Betty Wright Harris is a remarkable and accomplished African-American organic analytical chemist, a leading expert in explosives, environmental remediation, and hazardous waste treatment. She is also an inventor.

Betty Wright Harris was born in rural Louisiana on July 29, 1940. One of 12 children, Betty’s parents encouraged their children to work hard and pursue an education.

In 1961, Betty received a degree in chemistry with a minor in mathematics from Southern University. In 1963, she earned a master’s degrees in chemistry from Atlanta University. In 1973, she completed a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of New Mexico.

Dr. Harris taught chemistry and mathematics at Mississippi Valley State University and Southern University for a decade. She first worked at IBM and then accepted an offer to work at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico.

Dr. Harris worked as a research chemist developing expertise in a variety of areas within explosives and nuclear weapons, hazardous waste treatment, environmental restoration of facilities contaminated with energetic materials such as propellants, gun propellants, and explosives, becoming an expert in the chemistry of explosives.

Dr. Harris obtained U.S. patent number 4,618,452 for her invention of the TATB spot test, which identifies explosives in a field environment.

Dr. Harris retired from LANL in 2002 but continued work at the United States Department of Energy Office of Classification as a certified document reviewer.

Dr. Harris held a “Q” clearance allowing her to see documents with Secret Restricted Data. The agency determines which documents should remain classified and which ones can be released to the public.

Dr. Harris has been a member of the American Chemical Society for five decades. She is a member of Women in Science and Engineering and the American Society for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

She served as President of the New Mexico Business and Professional Women’s Organization. In 1999, Dr. Harris received a governor’s award for Outstanding New Mexico Women.

20 - Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson: theoretical physicist, inventor

Dr. Shirley Jackson
Source: World Economic Forum/Wikimedia Commons

Shirley Ann Jackson was born on August 5, 1946, in Washington, D.C.

When she was a child, she was actively curious and became interested in science and mathematics. She liked to conduct studies such as those on the eating habits of honeybees.

Dr. Shirley Jackson earned a bachelor, a master, and a doctorate all in the fields of physics becoming a Theoretical Physicist.

She is the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in any field, and the second African-American woman in the United States to earn a doctorate in Physics.

When she began classes at MIT in 1964, she was one of the fewer than 20 African-American students and the only one studying theoretical physics.

She earned her Ph.D. in nuclear physics at MIT in 1973.

Dr. Shirley Jackson is also the first to be awarded the National Medal of Science in 2014.

Dr. Jackson is a recognized inventor. Her inventions have contributed to multiple advances in science.

Her successful experiments in theoretical physics played an important role fostering advancements in the field of telecommunication research while she was working at AT&T and the Bells Laboratories.

Dr. Jackson headed the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission during the Clinton administration.

Dr. Jackson’s breakthrough scientific research led others to the invention of the portable fax machine, the touch-tone telephones, the solar cells, the fiber optic cables that are used to provide clarity in phone calls, the caller ID, and call waiting.

In the present, Dr. Jackson serves as the 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), the oldest technological research university in the United States.

She is both the first woman and the first African-American in this position.

Dr. Shirley Jackson has been quoted saying that her goal for the Rensselaer is “to achieve prominence in the 21st century as a top-tier world-class technological research university, with global reach and global impact.”

Dr. Jackson has received many honors and distinctions and serves on the board of directors in many organizations.

21 - Benjamin Banneker: self-taught astronomer, scientist, inventor 

“First clock to be made in America was created by a black man.” - From Black Man by Stevie Wonder, a 1976 tribute song to all races that salutes the genius of Banneker.

A man of many hats, Benjamin Banneker was a farmer, mathematician, astronomer, compiler of almanacs, scientist, inventor, land surveyor, anti-slavery proponent, author.

He was the first African-American intellectual.

He drew the plans of Washington D.C. as we know it today by heart. Although he became best known for creating the first clock in the United States.

Benjamin Banneker was born on November 9, 1731, in Ellicott’s Mills, Maryland as a free African-American.

Benjamin was the son of an African ex-slave who bought his freedom, her mother was the daughter of a freed African slave and an English woman. His grandfather had been a member of a royal family in Africa.

Like many early inventors, Benjamin was self-educated and incredibly intelligent. He first received some education from a Quaker School.

Soon he excelled in mathematics and progressed beyond the capabilities and knowledge of the teachers. He would then began to make up his own mathematical problems to solve them.

He worked on the family tobacco farm. At age 15, he invented an irrigation system to control water flows to the crops from nearby springs. The farm flourished even during severe droughts.

In the early 1750s, at the age of 21, the young Banneker met Josef Levi, a family friend. He immediately became fascinated by the man’s pocket watch.

Levi explained how the watch worked and gave it to Banneker who took the watch apart. He carefully studied all the components in the watch and then put it back together.

After studying a book on geometry and Isaac Newton’s Principia (Newton’s laws of motion), Banneker started a quest to build a larger version of the watch.

Two years later, by 1752, he had created a clock by carving each piece on the wood by hand, including the gears.

It was the first ever fully functional clock built in the United States. The clock kept perfect timing striking every hour for many decades. He started his own watch and clock repair business.

After a family friend died and left him a book on astronomy, a telescope, and other inventions Banneker taught himself astronomy and advanced mathematics. He predicted events such as solar eclipses, sunrises, and sunsets.

In 1792, he developed his first Almanac. The book contained predictions of the weather and seasonal changes. It also included medical remedies and advice on planting crops. 

Banneker sent a copy of his book to Thomas Jefferson, who was the Secretary of State, together with a letter explaining that Blacks possessed the equal intellectual capacity and mental capabilities as described in the Declaration of Independence.

He clearly stated why African-Americans should have the same rights and opportunities afforded to Whites. His correspondence with Jefferson was frequent for many years.

When President George Washington decided to move the Capitol from Philadelphia, Major Andrew Ellicott asked Banneker to assist in surveying the territory.

The plans for the new city were commissioned to a Frenchman, Major Pierre L’Enfant. Thomas Jefferson requested that Banneker was appointed to assist L’Enfant.

Banneker studied L’Enfant drafts and plans for the Capitol City carefully. He also consulted and discussed with L’Enfant about the project.

L’Enfant suddenly resigned the position and moved back to France due to hostility and criticism because he was a foreigner.

Banneker then reproduced the plans from memory in only two days. His plans were the layouts of streets, buildings, and monuments that exist up to this day in Washington D.C.

Lying in a field and looking at the stars through his telescope, Benjamin Banneker died peacefully on October 25, 1806, at age 75. Perhaps he was pondering what would it be like to travel to the stars.

He was a genius, the United States’ first great African-American Inventor.  

22 - Dr. James Edward Maceo West: inventor, professor

James E M West, inventor
Source: Nanoman657/Wikimedia Commons

James Edward Maceo West was born in Prince Edward County, Virginia on February 10, 1931.

His parents were concerned about his wishes to join in science academy because there was racism toward African-American scientists.  

However, James Edward West continued with his plans and attended Temple University in 1953 to study physics.

In the summers, he was an intern for the Acoustics Research Department at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey.

After graduation in 1957 and with a degree in physics, West was hired by Bell Labs as a full-time acoustical scientist, from where he retired in 2001. West was also a research professor at Johns Hopkins University Whiting School of Engineering in the electrical and computer engineering department.

"If I had a screwdriver and a pair of pliers, anything that could be opened was in danger." --James E.West

Dr. West’s invention of the first mike, officially known as the electroacoustic transducer electret microphone (ETEM) was conceived while he was working for Bells Labs.

In 1960, West teamed up with his fellow scientist and colleague Gerhard M.Sessler to develop the idea.

foil electret microphone
Source: Google Patents 

For its qualities of being inexpensive and compact, the foil electret microphone is used in 90 percent of the microphones used today in most telephones, old tape recorders, camcorders, and other devices such as hearing aids and baby monitors are based on this invention.

Dr. West received the U.S. patent number 3.118.022 for his invention in 1962. He has more than 250 patents in total.

By 1968, the electret microphone was in mass production. The current assignee for this invention is Finnish company Nokia Bell Labs.

West has also been a prolific writer contributing to scientific papers and books.

In 1997, Dr.West was appointed president-elect of the Acoustical Society of America. He also joined the National Academy of Engineering in 1998. Both West and Sessler were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1999.

West is known for his work with initiatives to entreat women and African-American students to pursue careers in the fields of science and technology.

23 - Henry Brown: inventor 

henry brown
Source: Build Nation

Henry Brown saw the need to secure and store money, valuables, and important papers in a private way. People used to keep those items in wooden or cardboard boxes in their homes or in banks. However, both options presented issues.

Banks provided safety against theft but it was not an ideal way to store sensitive important documents due to the lack of privacy; it was easy for bank employees to read the documents.

Keeping the valuables at home was not the best solution to prevent burglary.

Henry Brown came up with the idea of creating a safer container. He developed a forged-metal container that could be sealed with a lock and a key.


Henry Brown's strongbox
Source: Build Nation

He patented his invention for storing and preserving documents and valuables on November 2, 1886. Brown’s invention was later on improved to evolve into what is known today as a strongbox.

24 - Otis Boykin: inventor of an improved electrical resistor and the control unit for the pacemaker

otis boykin
Source: Biography

Just looking around in today’s households we can find many devices invented by Otis Boykin including computers, radios, and TV sets.

He was an African-American in times of segregation who was extremely curious and brilliant in the field of electronics.

Two of his most remarkable inventions include a wire precision resistor used in televisions and radios and a control unit for the pacemaker.

Otis Boykin was born in Dallas, Texas on August 29, 1920.

In 1941, Boykin graduated from Fisk College in Nashville, Tennessee at the same time that he took a job as a lab assistant at the Majestic Radio and TV Corporation.

In 1945, he worked at P.J. Nilsen Research Laboratories and went on with his studies at the Illinois Institute of Technologybut dropped out two years later in 1947 because he couldn’t afford the tuition to make it to graduation.

He then started working as an inventor and started his own business. His first patent for a wire resistor that allowed a precise amount of electricity to flow to a component was granted on June 16, 1959.

In 1961, he created an improved version of the resistor that could be cheaper to manufacture and withstand extreme temperature changes and shock.  

Boykin was able to create low cost and reliable products and this placed him at the forefront of American electronics. Soon, the success of his inventions prompted consumer electronics manufacturers, the United States Militaryand IBM to place orders for the wire resistor to be used in computers, household appliances, guided missiles.

Boykin’s wire resistor is still used in many devices today.

A version of Otis Boykin’s resistor was used by Wilson Greatbatch in the invention of the pacemakerhelping extend the life of thousands of individuals.

Even though Boykin’s most famous invention was a control unit for the pacemaker, ironically he died of heart failure in Chicago, Illinois on March 13, 1982.

In his lifetime, Boykin earned 26 patents and invented and patented 28 electronic devices.

25 - Lyda D. Newman: hairdresser, inventor, women's rights activist

Lyda Newman
Source: Inventricity

Lyda D. Newman was an African-American hairdresser and inventor who patented an improved hairbrush design in 1898. She was also a women’s rights activist.

Lyda Newman was born in Ohio around 1885. Little is known about the life of Lyda Newman. She was registered as a New York City resident by the late 1890s, according to census records.

She was confirmed to live in Manhattan’s Westside and work privately for a family as a hairdresser.

In 1898, Lyda applied for a patent for a new style of an improved hairbrush.

She received her U.S patent on November 15, 1898.

Some of the new features in the hairbrush had been designed for improved efficiency and hygiene.

The brush had evenly spaced rows of bristles and open slots to guide debris away from the hair into a recessed compartment, also the back could be opened at the touch of a button for cleaning out the compartment.

Keeping the hair clean was important to avoid scalp disease which was common back then and could lead to hair loss.


Lyda Newman's patented brush
Source: Google Patents

Newman was also a women’s rights activist and one of the organizers of an African-American branch of the Woman Suffrage Party fighting to give women the legal right to vote. Her suffrage work was mentioned in a local newspaper in 1915.

26 - Dr. Leonidas Harry Berry: pioneer in gastroscopy and endoscopy

leonidas berry
Source: Adundi/Wikimedia Commons

Leonidas Harry Berry was an African-American physician who invented the Elder-Berry biopsy gastroscopy in 1955. This invention improves the way tissue is collected from the stomach without surgery.

Dr. Berry also determined that alcoholism does not damage the stomach but rather the liver. His discovery changed the way alcoholism is diagnosed.

Leonidas Harry Berry was born on July 20, 1902, in Woodsdale, North Carolina. He was a descendant of a self-liberated African who fought in the U.S. Civil War on the side of the Union Army.

Berry graduated from Wilberforce University in 1924. He then moved to Chicago, received a second bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago and an M.D. degree from the Rush Medical College of the University. He received an M.S. degree in Pathology from the University of Illinois Medical School in 1933.

After his impressive medical degrees, Berry worked at the Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. and at Cook County Hospital in Chicago specializing in gastroenterology. In 1975. Berry retired as chief of endoscopy and senior attending physician.

Berry was also active in civil rights, especially on the problems of public health. In the early 1950s, he started the “Berry Plan," which was a citywide movement providing medical counseling clinics for the prevention and follow-up care of young drug users.

The Berry Plan was implemented by the Illinois State Department of Health.

In 1986, Leonidas Harry Berry donated all his papers on his active professional and civic life to the National Library of Medicine. Papers in the collection include correspondence, photographs, publications, newspaper clippings, and lectures.

Most of the collection dates from the 1950s. However, there are early copies of family materials dated from the 1890s as well.

Dr. Berry was the first African-American to present a paper before the National Medical Association. From 1965 to 1966, Berry served as the president of the National Medical Association.

He authored a genealogical history of his family titled I Wouldn’t Take Nothin’ for My Journey: Two Centuries of an Afro-American Minister’s Family that was published in 1982.

Dr. Leonidas H. Berry died in 1995 at the age of 93. 

27 - Albert Turner Bharucha-Reid: mathematician, academic

Albert Bharucha-Reid
Source: UrbanAreas

Albert Turner Bharucha-Reid was born Albert Turner Reid on November 13, 1927, in Hampton, Virginia. After he married Rodab Phiroze Bharucha he adopted her surname.

Bharucha-Reid graduated from the Iowa State University in 1949 with a bachelor’s degree. In spite of not having completed a graduate degree in his chosen field, Bharucha-Reid was soon working as a research assistant and statistician at the University of Chicago, Columbia University, and the University of California at Berkeley.

It was early in his career when he published papers on mathematical biology. In 1956, he was teaching at the University of Oregon. In 1961 he joined the Wayne State University as an associate professor of mathematics where he was also head of the Center for Research in Probability.

His area of expertise was probabilistic analysis and its application. In addition, Bharucha-Reid published nearly 70 papers on biology, physics, engineering, economics, and six books including Elements of the Theory of Markov Processes and Their Applications which was published in 1960, Probabilistic Methods in Applied Mathematics, published in 1968, and Random Polynomials, Probability, and Mathematical Statistics, published in 1986.

He was Dean and Associate Provost for Graduate Study at Wayne State. In 1981, Bharucha-Reid became Professor of Mathematics at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

In 1983, he was a distinguished mathematics professor at Atlanta University.

In 1984, Bharucha-Reid was awarded an honorary science degree at Syracuse University. Albert Turner Bharucha-Reid died on February 26, 1985.

28 - Alice Augusta Ball: pharmaceutical chemist, academic, inventor

Alice Ball
Source: Zil/Wikimedia Commons

Alice Augusta Ball was an African-American pharmaceutical chemist who developed the first successful treatment for those suffering from Hansen’s disease (leprosy).

Alice Augusta Ball was born in Seattle, Washington in 1892. Alice’s grandfather was the well-known daguerreotypist James Presley Ball, better known as J.P.Ball. Alice’s father was James P. Ball Jr., a promising lawyer.

The daguerreotype process or daguerreotype was the first publicly available and most commonly used photographic process invented by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in France. It was introduced worldwide in 1839, remaining the most successful process in photography until 1860.

Her grandfather lived in Hawaii back then, where he opened a photographic studio. In 1903 Alice’s family moved to Hawaii due to her grandfather’s health. He dies little after that in 1904, and the family then returned to Seattle in 1905.

Alice Ball graduated from the University of Washington with two degrees in pharmaceutical chemistry in 1912 and a pharmacy in 1914.

She then moved back to Hawaii to continue graduate studies in chemistry at the College of Hawaii (later the University of Hawaii).

When she graduated with a master’s of Science degree in chemistry from the University of Hawaii on June 1, 1915, she became both the first African-American and the first woman to graduate with a degree in chemistry from the University of Hawaii.

She also became the first woman to teach chemistry in the institution during the 1914-1915 academic year when she was only 23 years old.

Alice Ball began working on a research project involving the effect of chaulmoogra oil on patients suffering from Hansen disease (leprosy).

She became exhausted while working under extreme pressure to produce injectable Chaulmoogra oil, became ill, and returned to Seattle.

Her obituary states that she due to complications suffered resulting from inhaling chlorine gas during a class demonstration in Honolulu.

Alice Ball died in Seattle on December 31, 1916, at the age of 24.

After her dead, Arthur Dean, the chairman of the Chemistry Department at the University of Hawaii began using Ball’s research work, testing and treating many patients successfully at Kalaupapa, a small community established in the 1870s on the Molokai Island in the Kalaupapa peninsula, where there is a special hospital for Hansen disease patients.

Dr. Arthur Dean stole Alice Ball's discovery, claiming her discovery and naming Alice's discovery after himself. He never credited Alice. 

By the year 1921, Dean was mass-producing the injectable leprosy treatment, shipping it to doctors, professors, and government agencies across the world.

It was common for men to take the credit of women's discoveries. Alice Ball was just one more victim if this malpractice.

In 1922, Dr. Harry T. Hollmann, the assistant surgeon at Kalihi Hospital who was a mentor of Alice and had encouraged her to explore chaulmoogra oil, published a research paper giving Alice Ball the proper credit she deserved for her discovery. 

The “Ball method” continued to be the most effective method of treatment for treating many patients with Hansen disease until the 1940s when it was replaced by antibiotic treatment.

As late as 1999, one medical journal indicated the “Ball Method” was still being used to treat Hansen disease patients in remote areas.

Despite Alice Ball’s extraordinary accomplishment and contribution to medicine at such a young age, she never received any acknowledgment from the medical world for her groundbreaking work in the cure of Hansen disease, which also cost her her own life.

After her death, the chairman of the Chemistry Department at the University of Hawaii, who had continued her work, received recognition.

It took several decades before researchers began to learn of Alice Ball’s crucial contribution.

Dr. Kathryn Takara, who studied at the University of Hawaii, and Stan Ali, whose attention was caught by the mention of Alice Ball in a book published in 1932, are the two persons who revisited the historical record and insisted in giving Alice Ball the recognition she deserved. 

Finally, a little too late in the year 2000, the University of Hawaii acknowledged Alice Augusta Ball as one of its most distinguished graduates.

A small plaque was installed at the University of Hawaii to commemorate Ball's accomplishments. Just nearby, lies Dean Hall.

29 - George Edward Alcorn: Jr., Inventor

George Alcorn
Source: NASA/Goddard/Debora McCallum via AAHP

George Edward Alcorn Jr.’s invention, the Imagining X-Ray Spectrometer, earned him the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Inventor of the Year in 1984 for his contribution to scientific research.

George Edward Alcorn Jr. was born on March 22, 1940. He attended Occidental College in Pasadena, California graduating with a B.A. in physics in 1962.

In 1963, Alcorn completed a master’s degree in nuclear physics from Howard University. Alcorn worked as a research engineer for the Space Division of North American Rockwell, computing trajectories, and orbital mechanics for the summers of 1962 and 1963.

After Alcorn earned his doctorate in atomic and molecular physics from Howard University in 1967, he spent 12 years in industry as a senior scientist at Philco-Ford, a senior physicist at Parker-Elmer, an advisory engineer at IBM Corporation.

In 1973, George Alcorn became IBM Visiting Professor in Electrical Engineering at Howard University. Since then, Acorn has held positions at Howard as a full professor.

He has taught courses from advanced engineering mathematics to microelectronics at the University of the District of Columbia, also as a full professor.

In 1978, Alcorn left IBM and joined NASA where he invented an imaging X-ray spectrometer using thermomigration of aluminum. He earned a patent for his discovery in 1984. In 1986, he improved a method of fabrication using laser drilling.

Alcorn's work on imaging X-ray spectrometers earned him the 1984 NASA/GSFC Inventor of the Year Award

Although best known for inventing an imagining of an imaging X-ray spectrometer, George Alcorn is responsible for a number of inventions currently widely used in the semiconductor industry.

He has over 20 inventions. Some of which have been patented while others have been published.

Alcorn is a recognized pioneer in the fabrication of plasma semiconductor devices, and his patent “Process for Controlling the Slope of a Via Hole” was an important contribution to the process of plasma etching.

Alcorn’s procedure is now used by many semiconductor manufacturing companies.

Alcorn was one of the first scientists to present a computer-modeling solution of wet etched and plasma etched structures, and he has received several cash prizes for his inventions of plasma-processing techniques.

He managed the GSFC Evolution Program, concerned with ensuring that over its 30-year mission the space station develops properly while incorporating new capabilities.

Alcorn has served as chief of Goddard’s Office of Commercial Programs supervising programs for technology transfer, small business innovation research, and the commercial use of space programs since 1992.

He managed a shuttle flight experiment that involved Robot Operated Material Processing System, or ROMPs, in 1994. The experiment involved the manufacture of materials in the microgravity of space.

Alcorn was awarded Government Executive Magazine’s prestigious— Government Technology Leadership Award in 1999, one of only two awards available to NASA employees that year for the development and commercialization of The Airborne LIDAR Topographic Mapping System.

Dr. Alcorn was awarded special congressional recognition in 2001 by Congresswoman Donna M. Christian-Christensen (D-VI) for his efforts in helping Virgin Islands businesses through the application of NASA technology and knowledge of technology programs.

Until recently, Dr. Alcorn was Chief of the Office of Commercial Programs for the Goddard Space Flight Center. In 2005, he became Assistant Director For Standards/Excellence and Applied Engineering and Technology Directorate

Alcorn was celebrated as a Black Achiever in the Science and Technology category.

30 - Marjorie Stewart-Joyner: hairdresser, psychologist, inventor

The Black American Inventors, Scientists, and Engineers Who Changed the World - Part Two
Source: Today in African American History

Marjorie Stewart-Joynerwas an African-American woman who invented the permanent wave machine with a double function: it could add curl to straight hair and also it could be used to straighten curly hair. 

“It all came to me in the kitchen when I was making a pot roast one day, looking at these long, thin rods that held the pot roast together and heated it up from the inside. I figured you could use them like hair rollers, then heat them up to cook a permanent curl into the hair.”-Marjorie Stewart Joyner

Marjorie also became a national supervisor for over 200 beauty colleges owned by Madame C.J. Walker, eventually joining the board of directors.

Marjorie Stewart was born on October 24, 1896, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia to parents who were both descended from African slaves. She was the granddaughter of a slave and a slave owner.

When Marjorie was a teenager her family joined the Great Migration, moving to Chicago where many African-Americans were moving for better job opportunities and a better life.

She met and married Robert Joyner before she was 20. Robert was studying podiatry and was busy with school and studies.

To also use her time wisely Marjorie enrolled at the A.B. Molar Beauty School, founded by A.B. Molar, who had founded the first barber school in the United States 1893.

Marjorie became the first African-American to graduate from this Beauty School in 1916. After graduation, she opened a beauty salon.

Marjorie was introduced to Madame C.J.Walker, a successful and well known African-American businesswoman owner of over 200 beauty salon shops across the United States.

After Madame C.J. Walker died in 1919, Marjorie was hired as a national supervisor to oversee the Madame C.J. Walker Beauty Colleges.

Back in the 1920s, In order to straighten tightly-curled hair, they could do so only by using a stove-heated curling iron. This was very time-consuming since only one iron could be used at a time. In 1926, Joyner was determined to make this process faster, easier and more efficient.

Marjorie imagined that if a number of curling irons could be arranged above a women’s head, they could work at the same time to straighten her hair all at once. Her solution and invention not only straighten but also provide a curl in a convenient manner.

Joyner thought that it could be possible to connect 16 rods to a single electric cord inside of a standard drying hood. A woman wearing the hood for the prescribed period of time would get her hair straightened or curled.

After two years of work, Joyner completed her invention and patented it in 1928. She called it the “Permanent Waving Machine.”

Her device was an immediate success. The curl that it added would often stay in place for several days, whereas curls from standard curling iron would generally last only one day.

Marjorie's device was not only a success among African-American women at Madame C.J. Walker's salons, it was also popular in white salons as well. In addition,  Marjorie also patented a scalp protector to use together with the Permanent Waving Machine.

Marjorie received none of the proceeds of her inventions. Her patented inventions were created within the scope of her employment with Madame C.J. Walker’s company, which therefore received all patent rights and royalties.

In 1945, Joyner co-founded the United Beauty School Owners and Teachers Association along with Mary Bethune McLeod. Marjorie tirelessly helped to raise money for African American colleges and founded the Alpha Chi Pi Omega Sorority and Fraternity in an effort to raise professional standards for beauticians.

She was awarded a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Florida in 1973. She was 77 years old.

Marjorie Joyner died on December 7, 1994, at the age of 98. Her legacy of creativity and selfishness has served to inspire many generations.

31 - Henry Blair: farmer, inventor 

Henry Blair was a farmer, an inventor, and best known as the second African-American to hold a United States patent.

Henry Blair was born in Glen Ross, Maryland, in 1807. Blair patented two devices designed to assist in the planting and harvesting of crops. He became the second African-American to receive a United States patent.

Although he came of age before the Emancipation Proclamation, Blair was apparently not enslaved.

Henry Blair received his first patent for his corn planter invention on October 14, 1834. The planter resembled a wheelbarrow, with a compartment to hold the seeds and rakes dragging behind to cover them.



seed planter
Source: Google Patents 

Blair's device enabled farmers to plant their crops more efficiently and enable a greater total yield. Blair signed the patent with an "X," indicating that he was illiterate.

Blair's second patent was for a cotton planter. It was granted on August 31, 1836.

This invention functioned by splitting the ground with two shovel-like blades which were pulled along by a horse, or other animals.

A wheel-driven cylinder behind the blades deposited seed into the freshly plowed ground. This invention helped to promote weed control while distributing seeds quickly and evenly.

Blair appears to have been a free man. However, the granting of his patents is not evidence of his status. At the time Henry Blair's patents were granted, the law allowed patents to be granted to both free and enslaved men.

The Complete List of Genius Black American Inventors, Scientists and Engineers - Part One

The Complete List of Genius Black American Inventors, Scientists and Engineers - Part One

In 1857, a slave owner challenged the courts for the right to claim credit for a slave's inventions. He argued that if a man owns a slave then anything in the possession of this slave was the owner's property as well.

The following year, the patent law changed to exclude slaves from patent eligibility.

After the Civil War in 1871, the law was revised to grant all American men, regardless of race, the right to patent their inventions. However, women were not included.

Blair followed Thomas Jennings as an African-American patent holder. Jennings received a patent in 1821 for the "dry scouring of clothes."

Henry Blair died in 1860.

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