The Black American Inventors, Scientists, and Engineers Who Changed the World - Part Two
Martin Luther King Jr., who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his non-violent campaign for civil rights for African-Americans, summarized the drive and strong will of African-Americans.
The inventions, scientific discoveries, and legacy of Black Americans have greatly contributed to the advancement of science, technology, engineering, and humanity as a whole, but their achievements have often been overlooked, as well.
“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, agriculture, and medicine, African-Americans have empowered society and future generations of every race with their contributions and ways of struggling against the odds. They continue to inspire people up to this day.
To understand how significant are the achievements of many African-American scientists and inventors truly, we need to start with looking back into American history, back to the year 1619.
The first African slaves to be recorded arriving in North America, landed at Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. They had been kidnapped in what is now Angola, stolen from a Portuguese slave ship by privateers, transported to an English warship flying a Dutch flag, and traded to colonial settlers in America in exchange for food.
This was just the beginning of a long 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 tortured enslaved people, including young children, separating families, branding humans to show ownership, rubbing their wounds with salt right after to intensify the punishment and leave scars. Such pain is unimaginable.
In some cases, harsh punishment was meted out for crimes as small as 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 spread to the South as demand for cotton and tobacco increased and became more profitable to grow. Between 1800 and 1860, it is estimated that one million enslaved humans were transported to new locations. At least a third of enslaved families were split apart without any remorse or consideration.
A fifth of young children were separated and sold away from their parents in slave auctions, some bought 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 to read and write or possess any technical knowledge. Their curiosity had to be hidden. Getting close to a book was an exciting but dangerous adventure.
Some enslaved people allied with Native Americans in the 19th century. The Underground Railroad was neither underground nor it was a railroad. The 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 for a system used by many to escape slavery from roughly 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. Slaves were guided along the route by free Blacks, abolitionist whites, and slaves who had escaped and returned to help others.
"None of us was allowed to see a book, or try to learn.”
-Jenny Proctor. From I Was A Slave: True Life Stories Dictated by Former American Slaves in the 1930s
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 death was considered by many a better alternative to slavery and many were willing to do anything in order to obtain their freedom.
In the late 1930s, there were 100,000 former 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 from just a few of the many Africans shipped across the Atlantic Ocean against their will between 1450 and 1850, and who ended up in what would become the United States. Their descendants became known as African-Americans.
Enslaved people suffered many prohibitions and injustices of all sorts. For example, it was forbidden for them to receive patents for their inventions, as slaves were not considered citizens. Even after the American Civil War, when free African-Americans were supposed to be legally able to receive a patent, this did not happen in many cases.
The last living African-American slave, Sylvester Magee, who was purported to be America’s oldest citizen at the time of his death, died in 1971 in Mississippi at the age of 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 civil rights as human beings.
Despite the struggles that African-Americans have endured along with the history of the United States of America, many brilliant minds have flourished to accomplish great things for themselves and for their nation.
There are more than 42 million people in the United States today who identify as African-American, and here is a modest sample of some of the extraordinary African-American scientists and inventors from the 19th and 20th centuries. Each of these people demonstrated unmistakable excellence, guiding others with their unbreakable spirit and high human values.
Many others have gone unnoticed or unremarked in the historical record. However, the ones who made it into 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 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 around 1864, near the end of the Civil War. The exact date of his birth is unknown. According to various reports, it has been estimated as 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 raiders who took them to Kentucky. Moses sent a neighbor to find them. Only baby George was found, and he was seriously ill. Susan Carver nursed the baby and cared for him and his brother. Later, the Carvers taught George how to read and write.
As a child, George was too frail for farm work, so Susan taught him how to cook, sew, and garden, as well as how to concoct simple herbal medicines. As a child, Carver took a keen interest in plants and experimented with natural pesticides, fungicides, and soil conditioners. Local farmers called him “the plant doctor” because he was able to improve the health of their crops.
Being a curious child with initiative and determination, George left home to pursue an education at the age of 11 and attended an all-Black school in the nearby town of Neosho. An African-American couple took him in, in exchange for help with household chores.
Soon after, the quality of the school's education disappointed Young Carber, so he went to Kansas.
For several years, he traveled and looked after himself while studying. He received 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 Mulhollands, a white couple who spent time with him and encouraged him to enroll in Simpson College, a Methodist school that admitted all qualified applicants.
Carver started studying music and art, he wanted to become an artist. Soon one of his teachers noticed he was interested in botany. She encouraged him to transfer to Iowa State Agricultural College.
In 1894, Carver got his bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Science from Iowa State and became the first African American to earn a Bachelor of Science degree. Then he got his Master’s degree in 1896. At that time, he demonstrated a rare talent for identifying and treating plant diseases.
When Booker T. Washington was aiming to establish an agricultural department and a 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.
Washington, who was also the leading Black statesman of the day, had founded the institute in 1881 as a new vocational school for African Americans, and the institute grew steadily.
Carver, on the other hand, became the first African-American in the United States with an advanced degree in scientific agriculture. He joined the faculty in 1896 and spent the rest of his life there as both a teacher and researcher. He was the head of the Institute's Agricultural Experiment Station.
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 so, he found out that the local soil was perfect for growing peanuts and sweet potatoes.
He taught local farmers about fertilization and crop rotation methods, using which increased soil productivity. Cotton was the primary crop in the south, which depleted soil nutrients severely.
However, 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. Furthermore, crop rotation was much cheaper than commercial fertilization.
Carver's plan was useful in many aspects, but it also lead to the unnecessary production of undesirable plants such as sweet potatoes and peanuts.
Carver led to the development of more than 300 industrial and commercial products from peanuts. These include milk, Worcestershire sauce, punches, cooking oils, paper, cosmetics, soaps, and wood treatments. He even experimented with peanut-based medicines. Finally, he created a new market for these inexpensive, soil-enriching legumes. Of course, not every one of these panned out, but enough were successful so that more and more farmers began to take up peanut cultivation.
Carver started to be known as the Peanut Man. The peanut was not recognized as an important U.S. crop In 1896. But by 1940, it had become one of the six leading crops and the second cash crop in the South after cotton.
In order to educate farmers, Carver also traveled to schools and developed other easy-to-access outreach programs. He wrote popular agricultural bulletins that he distributed to farmers for free. In the bulletins, he reported on his research at the Agricultural Experiment Station and on its applications.
Through his knowledge of chemistry and agriculture, paired with his conviction, Carver revolutionized Southern agriculture. He also raised the standard of living of many Southern farmers, especially of poor Black sharecroppers, and became one of the most recognized names in African-American history.
Soon after his death, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation for Carver to receive his own monument, the George Washington Carver National Monument, which was the first national monument dedicated to an African-American.
George Washington Carver continued to invent, discover, and teach others throughout his entire life. He never pursued fortune or fame. He repeatedly said that he was always content with working to make the world a better place. 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 - Madam C.J. Walker (Sarah Breedlove): 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." -Madam C.J.Walker
An inspirational life journey from the cotton fields in Louisiana to becoming the wealthiest African-American woman in America, Madam C.J. Walker was the first self-made female American millionaire of any race.
Sarah Breedlove, also known as Madam C. J. Walker, was born in 1867 to sharecropper parents who had been slaves. Sarah was her parent's fifth child, and 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 married to Moses McWilliams at the age of 14, after escaping from her brother-in-law’s abuse. She became a mother at 17, to a baby girl called A’Lelia, and was a widow at age 20. Her husband Moses is thought to have died in an accident, according to author and journalist A’Lelia Bundles, who is the great-great-granddaughter and biographer of Madam C. J. Walker.
Walker and her daughter then moved to St. Louis, where she worked as a laundress and attended night school. This was also where she met Charles J. Walker, who would become her second husband.
Walker was inspired to create hair care products for Black women after losing much of her own hair to a scalp disorder. She invented a treatment that would completely change the hair care industry.
Walker started her business career selling the first hair products known as Madam C. J. Walker Wonderful Hair Grower and Madam C. J. Walker Vegetable Shampoo. As her hair loss increased rapidly, she developed a formula mixing petroleum —similar to vaseline,— sulfur, and a little perfume to make it smell better.
She used this formula to treat a severe scalp disease, which was common at the time and was causing hair loss. After the successful results, Walker started bottling the formula and selling it door-to-door to other African-American women suffering from the same disease.
Walker moved to Denver, Colorado, in 1905, with only $1.05 in savings in her pocket. Her products soon gained a loyal following, changing her fortunes. She established the Madam 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.
In 1908, she opened a beauty school and factory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and in 1910, she moved her business to Indianapolis, which had better railroad access for distribution.
It is estimated that up to 25,000 Black women, most of which were door-to-door beauty consultants, worked for the company in the early 1900s. Walker is known to pay fair wages, approximately $25 per week to the members of her team. Otherwise, these women would have earned about $2 per week in domestic work.
A pioneer of the modern cosmetics industry, Madam 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 many other companies.
Walker was a remarkable woman who fought against racism. She used her wealth to support African-American institutions such as the Black YMCA and helped people with their mortgages. She also 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 American history, Madam C. J. Walker passed away in 1919 at the age of 51.
Her great-great-granddaughter, author, and journalist A’Lelia Bundles wrote On Her Own Ground: Life and Time of Madam C.J. Walker, a detailed biography on the legendary African-American entrepreneur and philanthropist.
3 - Elijah McCoy: engineer, inventor, and "the real McCoy"
Elijah McCoy is considered one of the most predominant African-American inventors of the 19th century. He was born in 1844, in Ontario, Canada, and was a son of former slaves who escaped from Kentucky to Canada.
Safe and free in Ontario, McCoy’s parents worked hard to save money for their son’s education even though they had very few resources and were extremely poor. The McCoys returned to the United States after the Civil War and settled in Michigan.
At the age of 15, McCoy’s parents sent him to a boarding school in Edinburgh, Scotland where he learned mechanical engineering through apprenticeship. When he returned to the United States, though, it was very difficult for him to obtain a skilled job as an African-American. So, he accepted a job as a fireman for the Michigan Central Railroad instead.
McCoy was oiling the various working parts of the trains in this job and he had plenty of time to think while performing this very slow and boring task. It was then 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.
In 1872, McCoy patented the lubricating cup, a device that continuously dropped small amounts of oil onto the moving parts of the machines. Lubricating cup allowed steam engines to run for much longer without pausing for maintenance, saving time and money for owners. Although the device was easy to copy, McCoy's version had the best reputation. According to some, it soon became common to hear that machinery buyers would take nothing less than "The Real McCoy."
McCoy used the money he earned from his first patent to continue inventing, developing a number of railway-related inventions as well as an improved ironing board. In 1916, when he was 72, McCoy patented the graphite lubricator — a mixture of graphite and oil designed to work in the newer “superheater” locomotives.
McCoy was injured in a 1922 accident, which also killed his wife, and he died in 1929 after suffering a number of physical and mental problems. He is buried at Detroit Memorial Park East in Warren, Michigan.
4 - Dr. Patricia Era Bath: scientist and inventor
Dr. Patricia Bath was a pioneering 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 who works for the New York City subway system and a domestic worker mother who saved her money for her children’s education, Patricia Era Bath was born in 1942 in Harlem, New York.
Bath’s interest in science became evident at an early age when 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 once said during an interview with Good Morning America.
At the age of 16, Bath attended a cancer research workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The program head incorporated her findings in a scientific paper and the ensuing publicity earned Bath Mademoiselle magazine's Merit Award in 1960.
Bath completed her high school education in only two years and earned her bachelor's degree from Hunter College in 1964. She then earned a medical degree from Howard University. After graduating in 1968, she did her internship at Harlem Hospital. The following year, she received a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University.
Bath was involved in the Civil Rights Movement during her years as a medical student and was greatly influenced by Martin Luther King Jr., who in 1964 became the youngest man to -receive the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of thirty-five. He was assassinated in April 1968, the same year of Dr. Bath’s graduation.
During her studies, Bath learned that African Americans were twice as likely to suffer from blindness than white patients, and eight times more likely to develop glaucoma. In response, she developed a community ophthalmology program to provide eye care to those unable to afford treatment.
Patricia Bath’s life was full of “firsts.” In 1973, she became the first African-American to complete a residency in ophthalmology. In 1975, she became the first woman 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 helped create the Ophthalmology Residency Training program at UCLA-Drew and 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: the Laserphaco Probe. The probe used laser technology for a less painful and more precise treatment of cataracts. She received a patent for the device in 1988, becoming the first African American woman to receive a patent for medical purposes.
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. She had earlier co-founded and acted as President of the American Institution for The Prevention of Blindness, which established that “eyesight is a basic human right.”
In recognition of 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) honored Dr. Bath by endowing the Patricia E. Bath MD scholarship for a female medical student, a scholarship that she sponsors.
Dr. Bath died on May 30, 2019, in San Francisco, California.
5 - Jan Ernst Matzeliger: inventor of the shoe Lasting Machine
Jan Matzeliger 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, and 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.
As a colored man with little command of the English language, the young Matzeliger struggled to earn a living. In 1877, he moved to Lynn, Massachusetts, which had a booming shoe industry.
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. Shoe manufacturers made wooden molds of customers' feet, called "lasts". The shoes were then sized and shaped according to the molds. 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 was able to attach 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 a single machine, instead of 50 by a hand laster.
The use of the Lasting Machine resulted in the mass production of shoes, employment for more unskilled workers, low-cost, high-quality shoes for people around the world, and the beginning of a revolution in the shoe industry.
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.
Sadly, Jan Matzeliger had developed tuberculosis in 1886. He died 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
The U.S. Patent and Trademark 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, as there is a gap in the evidence. However, Martha Jones, of Amelia County, Virginia, is believed to be the first African-American woman to be granted a patent.
Jones’ patent was issued after the 1793 Patent Act, which required patent applicants to be a U.S. citizen. Even after emancipation, African Americans could not legally claim to be citizens until the 14th Amendment was passed in 1868. Thus, it is possible that there were earlier African American women who invented devices that were patented in the name of someone else.
Little is known about Jones 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
The second known African-American woman to register and patent an 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 W. Reed from Washington, D.C. is thought to 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 a patent for an original invention. She was granted patent number 322,177 on July 14, 1885, for her Folding Cabinet Bed.
Goode was the second child of Oliver and Harriet Jacobs, who had seven children in total. She was born into slavery in 1855 in Ohio and was freed toward the end of the American Civil War. 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 and Archibald opened a furniture store.
Goode soon realized that people in the poor neighborhood lived in very cramped spaces, and did not have enough room for much furniture. She 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.
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 was one of the first African-American microbiologists and the first African-American department chair at Harvard Medical School.
One of nine children, Amos was born in 1918 in Pennsauken, New Jersey to Howard R. Amos, who was employed as a letter carrier by the Philadelphia post office, and Lola Johnson, who was employed by a Philadelphia Quaker family that had adopted her when she was a child. Johnson had been adopted by a Philadelphia Quaker family, who frequently supplied the young Amos family with a variety of books.
One of these books was a biography of Louis Pasteur. Harold, who was a fourth-grader at the time, was 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 confided that Pasteur’s biography had an impact on his early life and it became one factor in his interest and passion for microbiology and immunology.
A curious and extraordinary student, Harold graduated at the top of his class from a segregated high school in Pennsauken. He received an academic scholarship to attend Springfield College in Massachusetts, graduating summa cum laude in 1941 with a major in Biology and a minor in Chemistry.
During World War II, Amos served in the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps, an experience that would eventually bring him to France.
In 1942, Amos joined the U.S. Army as a warrant officer in the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps. The war brought him to England and France. 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.
After his discharge from the army, in 1946, Amos enrolled in the Biological Science program at Harvard Medical School. He received his M.A. in 1947 and his Ph.D. in 1952, becoming the first African-American to earn a doctoral degree from the Division of Medical Sciences at Harvard.
A Fulbright Fellowship took Amos back to his beloved France to work and study at the Pasteur Institute. After this, he returned to Harvard as a faculty member in the Department of Bacteriology and Immunology (later renamed Microbiology and Molecular Genetics), 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 became a full professor in 1969, conducting research on animal cells, including studies on RNA metabolism, enzyme inductions, and "glucose starvation, hexose metabolism, and transport”.
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, and he remained in this position until 1994.
Notably, Harold kept the tradition that made him famous with his former students. He kept in 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 a fellowship.
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 his long-life concerns for academics of all ages.
11 - Marie Van Brittan Brown: inventor, pioneer of the CCTV system
Marie Van Brittan Brown was a brilliant African-American inventor who was ahead of her time. She created a home security system that was one of the first 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. As an adult, Van Brittan worked as a nurse and her husband, Albert Brown, was an electronics technician. The crime rate in her neighborhood in Queens was very high and police tend to have a slow response to emergency calls.
Because Van Brittan and her husband worked somewhat non-standard hours, and she often came home late at night and alone, Van Britten was worried about her safety. She wanted a system that would allow her to know if anyone came to her door or had broken into her home, and that would help her contact relevant authorities as quickly as possible.
She and her husband developed a home security system and 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. Her invention and patent eventually evolved into the type of advanced home security technology in use today.
Van Brittan's innovation included a set of four peepholes, placed on the front door at different heights, a motorized camera that could slide up and down to look out each one, a monitor that could be placed in any part of the house, 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 via an intercom and open the door remotely.
The original patent was referenced by 13 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 was an African-American known for inventing and patenting an improved ironing board.
Sarah Boone was born Sarah Marshall in 1832 in Craven County, North Carolina. Both of her parents were enslaved, but at some point, Boone earned her freedom, possibly in 1847 when she married James Boone, who was a free African American.
It is also reported that Boone, her husband, their children, and Boone's widowed mother used the Underground Railroad to migrate to New Haven, Connecticut before the Civil War.
There, Boone worked as a dressmaker and was successful enough to own her own house. She also learned to read, possibly through lessons at her local church.
In the 19th century, a woman who was an inventor was a rarity, let alone a female African-American inventor. But Boone was facing competition as a dressmaker and was looking for a way to promote her dresses.
At the time, most dressmakers ironed their clothes on a wooden plank placed across two chairs. This did not work very well for bodices, which were made to be tight-fitting.
Boone's solution was to create a narrow, curved board that allowed the garment to be moved around easily without getting wrinkled and to allow all parts to be easily ironed. The device was padded and collapsible for easy storage.
When Boone 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.”
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted her patent number 473,653 for the ironing board on April 26, 1892. There is little evidence that she benefitted financially from her invention, but Boone's ironing board is likely the prototype for what became a household item.
Boone died in 1904.
13 - Janet Emerson Bashen: inventor
Janet Emerson Bashen is the first African-American woman to hold a software patent in the United States.
Janet Emerson Bashen 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 attending Alabama A&M University, she married Steven Bashen and relocated to Houston, Texas. There, she earned a degree in legal studies and government from the University of Houston. She continued her studies at Rice University’s Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Administration. Bashen also has a master's degree from Tulane Law School, where she studied labor and employment law.
While working in the insurance industry after her graduation, Bashen called for the creation of third-party teams to investigate Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) claims. Basher argued that third-party investigators would be less exposed to influence from either side in complaints. But her CEO did not listen. So, in 1994, she started her own EEO complaints management business from her home with $5,000 she borrowed from her mother and one client
"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 was 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 in the cases that employees complain of discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Then, it works with the company’s human resource departments to solve the problems 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.
As the business grew, storing and retrieving information related to the EEO cases became more cumbersome. 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.
Their case management software was patented in 2006, making Bashen the first African-American woman to earn a patent for a software invention.
The Bashen Corporation continued to develop other software programs intended to support diversity in the workplace, including AAPLink Affirmative Action Software for helping the institution manage their affirmative action cases, 1-800InTake which 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 received a number of awards. She received the Pinnacle Award from the Houston Chamber of Commerce in 2003, the Crystal Award from the National Association of Negro Women in Business in 2004, and recognition from the 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 Alphonso Alexander was born on May 14, 1888, in Ottumwa, Iowa. He was the oldest of nine children of Price and Mary Alexander. When Archie was 11, his family moved to Des Moines where his father became the head custodian at the Des Moines National Bank.
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 that helped him save enough to enroll himself in the University of Iowa at age 20. Alexander was the only black student and the first African-American football player at his university.
Alexander had to overcome discouraging words from the very 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 one of the most successful African-American businessmen in America.
Alexander graduated in 1912 and was eventually hired by Marsh Engineering Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota. There, he was in charge of bridge-building programs in Iowa and Minnesota.
In 1917 Alexander left Marsh to form his own engineering company with a white contractor, George F. Higbee. In 1921, he took coursework in bridge design at the University of London and obtained a civil engineering degree from Iowa State University in 1925.
Together with Higbee, Alexander designed the Tuskegee Air Field and heating and cooling systems at Iowa State University. In 1925, Higbee died in a construction accident and four years later, Alexander partnered with his former University of Iowa classmate Maurice A. Repass to form the engineering firm of Alexander & Repass.
This firm was responsible for projects such as the construction of the Whitehurst Parkway and the Tidal Basin Bridge in Washington, D.C.
In 1932 Alexander served as the assistant chairman of the Iowa Republican State Committee, and in 1934, he was appointed as a member of a commission investigating social and economic conditions in Haiti.
In 1946, 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 although Alexander was very well known for his directness and honesty.
He 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 to a free but impoverished family. However, he overcame his obstacles and made a significant impact on the African-American community.
Bailey worked as a journeyman barber, but there is some evidence that he was an influential member of his community. In 1869, he served on Washington, D.C.'s first integrated jury. In 1888, he helped to found the Capitol Savings Bank, which aimed to provide affordable loans and insurance for poor households in the District of Columbia. Bailey served as the bank’s president for several years.
Bailey is also known for his inventions. In 1883, he patented a truss-and-bandage to provide support to patients with lower-body hernias. The design was later used by the U.S. Army Medical Board. Other inventions included a device for moving railway trains and a speed stamper for mail which was used by the U.S. Postal Service. In 1899, Bailey patented a bed that folded up for easy storage, and which was used by the U.S. Army.
He was also a director of the Manassas Industrial School for Colored Youth in Virginia and a Freemason.
Leonard C. Bailey died suddenly on September 1, 1918.
16 - Valerie Thomas: scientist, astronomer, inventor
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 February 1943 in Maryland. As a little girl, Thomas was fascinated with technology. Despite this, her father neither encouraged nor helped her with any project, even though he had an interest in electronics as well.
Thomas attended an all-girls high school that also downplayed math and science. At the time, scientific subjects were not considered important for women.
This lack of encouragement changed in college with Thomas being one of the only two women in her class at Morgan State University to major in physics.
She was an excellent student, and on graduation in 1964, Thomas accepted a position as a data analyst at NASA, 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 multi-spectral images to study the Earth's resources from outer space.
In 1976, Thomas saw a scientific exhibit that included an illusion of a lit light bulb that had been unscrewed and removed from a lamp. The illusion used a concave mirror to direct light from a hidden second bulb. Concave mirrors create images that appear to be real, or in front of the mirror itself.
Thomas was intrigued and she began experimenting on the transmission of such images. She realized that if it were possible to transmit realistic, three-dimensional images, this could lead to improvements in video and television.
On October 21, 1980, she was granted patent number 4,229,761 for her invention of the illusion transmitter. The device uses a concave mirror on both the transmitting and receiving ends to produce optical illusionss.
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.
17 - Ellen Eglin: inventor
Ellen Eglin was born in 1849 in Washington D.C. She worked as a housekeeper and a government clerk. Little is known about the life of this African-American inventor, who invented a labor-saving mechanical clothes wringer for washing machines.
As a housekeeper, Eglin spent many hours scrubbing clothes on a washboard and then wringing out the water - all by hand. To make this work easier, she invented a device with two wooden rollers attached to a crank. After clothes being washed and rinsed, they were fed between these rollers, and the excess water was squeezed out. Less work was required, and the clothes dried faster.
Although Elgin was credited with her invention, she was afraid that White women would not buy her invention because of her color. She sold off the rights to an unknown white buyer for just $18. By 1900, the American Wringer Company had been formed to market the device. This company grew rich on the profits earned from Eglin’s invention.
Ellen Eglin sometime died after 1890. Little is known about the end of Ellen Eglin’s life, including the place or date of her death.
18 - St. Elmo Brady: chemist, academic
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 graduated from Louisville Colored High School in 1903. He left home at age 20 to pursue his education at Fisk University, an all-black college 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 (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama. Both Booker T. Washington and the agricultural chemist George Washington Carver were Brady’s mentors.
After four years teaching at Tuskegee, Brady was offered a scholarship to study at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. 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. Brady's Ph.D. examined the mechanism by which a pair of hydrogen atoms in straight-chain carboxylic acids was replaced with an oxygen atom to give a keto acid.
This research resulted in a number of firsts, including new methods for preparing and purifying certain compounds and was an early contribution to the emerging field of physical organic chemistry.
Elmo Brady also became the first African-American admitted to Phi Lambda Upsilon, the national chemistry honor society, and he was one of the first African-Americans to be inducted into Sigma Xi, the science honor society.
After completing his Ph.D., Brady opted to return to Tuskegee as head of the Division of Science. In 1920, he took the role of chair of the chemistry department chair at Howard University, which would allow him to spend more time conducting research. At Howard, Brady helped developed the first graduate program in chemistry at an historically black college. In 1927, Brady became chair of the chemistry department at Fisk University, where he remained for the next 25 years.
At Fisk, Brady created an outstanding chemistry department. He began the Talley Lectures, named for his mentor as a Fisk undergraduate, Thomas W. Talley, which drew many famous chemists to Fisk. He raised funds for one of the first infrared spectrophotometers and established an infrared spectroscopy program that was open to faculty from all colleges and universities, eventually founding the Infrared Spectroscopy Institute.
He was also instrumental in the construction of the first modern chemistry building at an historically black university.
At the same time, Brady continued his own research, resulting in a number of publications. These included a 1938 paper on phytochemicals in magnolia seeds, a 1939 paper on the reactions of ricinoleic acid, and a 1951 paper on the preparation of 1,1-dichloroheptane.
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. While at Tougaloo, he continued his laboratory studies.
St. Elmo Brady died on Christmas Day, 1966.
19 - Dr. Betty Wright Harris: chemist, inventor
Dr. Betty Wright Harris is a remarkable organic analytical chemist, a leading expert in explosives, environmental remediation, and hazardous waste treatment. She was born in Louisiana on July 29, 1940, as the seventh of 12 children. Harris’s parents were farmers who encouraged their children to work hard and pursue education.
Harris received her B.S. in chemistry, with a minor in Mathematics, from Southern University in 1961. In 1963, she earned a master’s degree in chemistry from Atlanta University. She spent the next ten years teaching chemistry and mathematics at Mississippi Valley State University and Southern University. In 1973, she completed a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of New Mexico.
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
Shirley Ann Jackson was born on August 5, 1946, in Washington, D.C.
When she was a child, she was actively curious and interested in science and mathematics. She liked to conduct studies such as those on the eating habits of honeybees.
Her parents encouraged her interests in science and she graduated as valedictorian of her high school class. She went to MIT for undergraduate studies and encountered obstacles due to her race.
When she began classes at MIT in 1964, Jackson was one of the fewer than 20 African-American students and the only one studying theoretical physics. During her undergraduate years, students avoided sitting next to her in lecture halls and in the dining room. She was excluded from study groups and forced to work on her own. Despite being reduced to tears on many occasions, Jackson developed a resiliency that served her well.
After the assassination of Martin Luther King in April 1968, Jackson realized that it was not enough to remain silent and just study. She helped organize a group of African-American students that eventually became MIT's first Black Student Union. The group created proposals to recruit more minority students, provide more support for minority students, and hire more minority faculty members.
Jackson was appointed to an MIT task force on educational opportunity and charged with determining how to attract more minorities. In the fall of 1968, she traveled around the Midwest to help recruit minority students to MIT. A year later, 57 African-American freshmen enrolled - up from just 4 the year before.
Jackson opted to stay at MIT for master's and doctoral work, partly because she recognized the value of an MIT education, and partly because she “wasn’t going to give people the satisfaction of getting me to walk away.”
When she earned her Ph.D. in nuclear physics in 1973, she became the first African American woman to receive a doctorate from MIT — in any field.
After graduating, Jackson did postdoc work at Fermilab and a fellowship at CERN. In 1976, she took a position at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, where her work focused on the electronic properties of two-dimensional condensed matter systems and charge density waves, which describe how electrons organize themselves within layered crystals.
In 1991, she joined the faculty at Rutgers University and also began public policy work. She advised the governor of New Jersey on how the state should invest in science and technology.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton appointed her as chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). There, Jackson developed and implemented a new approach to assessing risk at nuclear power plants. She also led international efforts to promote nuclear safety, working in post-apartheid South Africa and the countries of the former Soviet Union. Jackson also spearheaded the creation of the International Nuclear Regulators Association, which supports nuclear regulation around the world.
In 1999, Jackson became president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She was 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.” On June 25, 2021, Jackson publicly announced she would be stepping down from her post as President as of July 1, 2022.
Dr. Shirley Jackson has been awarded numerous honors, including the National Medal of Science in 2014.
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 opponent, and author.
He drew the plans of Washington D.C. as we know it today by heart. Although he perhaps 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 the son of an ex-slave named Robert. Banneker's mother Mary was the daughter of an Englishwoman who was a former indentured servant and an ex-slave who claimed to be from West African tribal royalty.
Because both of his parents were free, Banneker was also born free. He was taught to read by his maternal grandmother and briefly attended a small Quaker school, but he was mostly self-educated.
Soon, he excelled in mathematics and progressed beyond the capabilities and knowledge of the teachers. Then he began to make up his own mathematical problems to solve them.
Since he worked on the family tobacco farm, he invented an irrigation system to control water flows to the crops from nearby springs at the age of 15. By means of the invention, the farm flourished even during severe droughts. After the death of his father, Banneker ran the farm for years.
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. 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 1791, Banneker was hired to assist in surveying territory for the nation’s capital city. He worked in the observatory tent using a zenith sector to record the movement of the stars.
In 1792, he wrote his first almanac. The book contained predictions of the weather and seasonal changes. It also included medical remedies, advice on planting crops, opinion pieces, literature, and tidal information. Banneker also published information on bees and calculated the cycle of the 17-year locust.
That year, Banneker sent a copy of his almanac to Thomas Jefferson, who was then 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. Jefferson responded and their correspondence continued for many years.
Banneker's outspokenness on the issue of slavery earned him the support of the abolitionist societies which helped him publish his almanac.
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 be appointed to assist L’Enfant. Banneker studied L’Enfant's drafts and plans for the Capitol City carefully. He also consulted and discussed with L’Enfant about the project.
L’Enfant suddenly resigned from the position and moved back to France due to the hostility and criticism directed at him 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.
Banneker never married and continued to conduct his scientific studies throughout his life. He died on October 25, 1806, at age 75.
22 - Dr. James Edward Maceo West: inventor, professor
James Edward Maceo West was born in Farmville, Virginia on February 10, 1931.
West had an interest in science from an early age. In one story, he inadvertently shocked himself while plugging in a radio, leading to an interest in electricity.
After high school, West’s parents expected him to study a field like medicine or law. West began college at Hampton University in Virginia as a premed student but left to serve in the military during the Korean War. After his discharge, he enrolled at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, earning a BS in Physics in 1957.
After graduation, West went to work in the Acoustics Research Department of Bell Laboratories, where he was one of a very few African Americans employed by the research firm. West remained at Bell Labs for the next 40 years.
He was instrumental in the development of what would become the foil electret microphone.
West spent more than forty years at Bell Laboratories and holds over 200 U.S. and foreign patents. When he retired in 2001, the company named him a Bell Laboratories Fellow, its highest honor.
After leaving Bell, West joined the faculty of Johns Hopkins University's Whiting School of Engineering.
"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.
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 1964. He has more than 250 patents in total.
By 1968, the electret microphone was in mass production. The current assignee for this invention is the 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. In 2006, West was awarded the National Medal of Technology, the nation’s most prestigious award for technological innovation.
West is known for his work with initiatives to encourage women and African-American students to pursue careers in the fields of science and technology.
23 - Henry Brown: inventor
In the 1880s, Henry Brown saw the need to secure and store important papers in a secure way.
At this time, the use of typewriters and carbon papers presented storage challenges. While carbon papers were very useful for making duplicates of typewritten documents, they could be easily smudged or torn. The delicate carbon papers could be damaged by scraping against the lid. They could also transfer carbon smudges to other documents, so it was important to keep them separate.
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. His box had a series of hinged trays. The trays could be lifted separately, allowing the user to separate papers and store them securely.
The box was made of sheet metal and could be locked. This allowed for secure storage of important documents at home or the office and kept the documents safe in the event of a fire.
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.
There is no biographical information about Brown, other than his place of residence, which was listed as Washington D.C. at the time of his patent application.
24 - Otis Boykin: inventor of an improved electrical resistor and the control unit for the pacemaker
Just looking around in today’s households, we can find many devices that use components invented by Otis Boykin.
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 were 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. After high school, he attended Fisk College in Nashville, Tennessee, graduating in 1941. After graduation, he worked as a lab assistant at the Majestic Radio and TV Corporation, in Chicago, Illinois.
In 1945, he started his own business, Boykin-Fruth Incorporated. He also continued with his studies at the Illinois Institute of Technology but was forced to drop out two years later in 1947 because he couldn’t afford the tuition to continue. He did, however, continue his work as an inventor. 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 and made it more reliable, cheaper to manufacture, and capable of withstanding extreme changes in temperature and pressure.
Boykin's ability to create low-cost and reliable resistors placed him at the forefront of American electronics. Soon, the success of his inventions prompted consumer electronics manufacturers, the United States Military, and IBM to place orders for the wire resistor to be used in computers, household appliances, guided missiles.
A version of Otis Boykin’s resistor was used in the control unit for the first pacemaker, helping extend the life of thousands of individuals.
Boykin 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 D. Newman was an African-American hairdresser and inventor who patented an improved hairbrush design in 1898.
Lyda Newman was born in Ohio around 1885 and little is known about the life of hers. 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 and 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.
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 Harry Berry was an African-American physician. He was the first doctor to perform gastroscopies, procedures that allowed doctors to see inside the digestive tract without conducting invasive surgery. He also devised a gastroscopic instrument. He dedicated himself to bringing medical care to Black communities that had none, and he was active in the Civil Rights movement.
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. His father, Llewellyn L. Berry, was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Berry graduated from Wilberforce University in 1924. He then moved to Chicago, received a second bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1925 and an M.D. degree from the Rush Medical College of the University in 1929. He received an M.S. degree in pathology from the University of Illinois Medical School in 1933.
After his impressive medical education, Berry briefly interned at the Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., before moving to Provident Hospital, an all-black hospital in Chicago, in 1933 to work as a gastroenterologist. The year before, a new type of gastroscope — an instrument used to view the upper digestive system — had been developed in Germany by Dr. Schnidler. This new version used a more flexible design that allowed for safer procedures and a decreased risk of perforations.
Berry trained with Dr. Schindler on the use of the instrument. In 1937, Dr. Berry began his own gastroscopy clinic at Provident Hospital, using the Wolf-Schindler scope. In 1936, he joined Cook County Hospital as the first African American attending staff physician in fifty years, specializing in gastroenterology.
In 1946, Berry joined the staff of Michael Reese Hospital, and the following year he became the first medical director of the AME Health Commission, where he served for thirty years.
In 1955, Dr. Berry invented the Eder-Berry biopsy attachment for the Eder-Palmer gastroscope. This attachment allowed the gastroscope to be used for taking tissue samples during the gastroscopic examination. The suction-type instrument was useful for biopsying stomach lesions from conditions such as gastritis and sarcoidosis.
During his career, Dr. Berry developed a number of innovative techniques for gastric procedures, including procedures used for the early detection of gastric cancer. He was also one of the first black doctors to be admitted to the American Medical Association.
Berry was also active in civil rights, especially on the problems of public health. In the early 1950s, he developed the “Berry Plan," a program providing medical counseling and treatment clinics for drug users.
In the 1960's he was active in the United Front, a black civil rights group, and organized the Flying Black Medics, which flew medical supplies and medical professionals to treat people in Cairo, Illinois from Chicago.
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.
He wrote an authoritative textbook, "Gastrointestinal Pan-Endoscopy" and wrote or contributed to more than 80 articles in medical journals and 12 other books and monographs.
Dr. Berry was the first African-American physician 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 Turner Bharucha-Reid was born Albert Turner Reid on November 13, 1927, in Hampton, Virginia. After he married mathematician Dr. Rodab Phiroze Bharucha, he adopted her surname.
Bharucha-Reid graduated from Iowa State University in 1949 with a bachelor’s degree.
From 1950 to 1953, he studied probability and statistics at the University of Chicago but did not complete his doctorate. In spite of not having completed a graduate degree in his chosen field, Bharucha-Reid soon found work working as a research associate in mathematical statistics at Columbia University in New York and as an assistant research statistician at the University of California at Berkeley.
He authored his first scientific paper at age 18 and by age 26 had published eight academic papers, mainly pertaining to mathematical biology.
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 Wayne State University as an associate professor of mathematics where he was also head of the Center for Research in Probability.
He also was worked as a visiting researcher and professor at the Mathematical Institute at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, Poland, the Institute Mathematical Sciences in Madras, India (where he met his wife), and the University of Wisconsin.
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 University. In 1981, Bharucha-Reid became Professor of Mathematics at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
In 1983, Bharucha-Reid was a distinguished mathematics professor at Atlanta University and in 1984, he 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 Augusta Ball was an African-American pharmaceutical chemist who developed the first successful treatment for Hansen’s disease (leprosy). She was also the first African-American and the first woman to graduate with a Master of Science degree in chemistry from the College of Hawaii (now the University of Hawaii).
She was born in Seattle, Washington in 1892. Her grandfather James Presley Ball was a well-known daguerreotypist, and her father was a promising lawyer.
Ball's grandfather had lived in Hawaii in the past, where he had opened a photographic studio. In 1903, Ball’s family moved from Seattle to Hawaii due to her grandfather’s health. Sadly, he died shortly after that in 1904, and the family returned to Seattle in 1905.
Ball graduated from Seattle High School in 1910, and enrolled in the University of Washington, graduating with a degree in pharmaceutical chemistry in 1912 and a degree in pharmacy in 1914. Later, she moved to Hawaii to pursue his graduate degree 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 was offered a teaching and research position at the university and became the institution’s very first woman chemistry instructor at the age of 23.
Afterward, she began working on a research project involving the effect of chaulmoogra oil on patients suffering from Hansen's disease (leprosy). Her research led to the creation of the first injectable leprosy treatment. Ball was able to isolate the oil into fatty acid components of different molecular weights, allowing her to create a water-soluble injectable form of the oil.
The injectable oil was successfully used to alleviate leprosy symptoms and was later known as the “Ball Method.” The method was used for more than thirty years until the introduction of sulfone drugs.
Ball became ill after inhaling chlorine gas in a lab teaching accident. She never recovered and died from complications resulting from the exposure, on December 31, 1916, at the age of 24.
After her death, 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, he was the mass-producer of the injectable leprosy treatment, shipping it to doctors, professors, and government agencies across the world. It was common for men to take credit for women's discoveries. Alice Ball was just one more victim of this malpractice.
In 1922, Dr. Harry T. Hollmann, who was a mentor of Ball 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's disease patients in remote areas.
Despite Alice Ball’s extraordinary accomplishment and contribution to medicine at such a young age, it took decades for her to receive acknowledgment for her groundbreaking work in the treatment of Hansen's disease.
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 on giving Alice Ball the recognition she deserved.
Finally, in 2000, the University of Hawaii-Mānoa placed a bronze plaque in front of a chaulmoogra tree on campus to honor Ball’s life and her important discovery. At the same time, February 29 was declared “Alice Ball Day.” In 2007, the University of Hawaii posthumously awarded her with the Regents’ Medal of Distinction.
29 - George Edward Alcorn, Jr.: inventor
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 bachelor's degree 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 during 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, and 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 he is best known for inventing an imagining of an imaging X-ray spectrometer, George Alcorn is also responsible for a number of inventions widely used in the semiconductor industry today. He has more than 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.
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 Systems (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 the 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.
In 1984, Alcorn was awarded a NASA-EEO medal for his contributions in recruiting minority and women scientists and engineers. He also works with the Meyerhoff Foundation to encourage and support African-Americans to pursue doctorates in science and engineering. In 1994, he was honored by Howard University in its Heritage of Greatness awards ceremony.
30 - Marjorie Stewart-Joyner: hairdresser, psychologist, inventor
Marjorie Stewart-Joyner was an African-American woman who invented the permanent wave machine, a hairdressing implement with a double function: it could be used to both curl and straighten the 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
Stewart-Joyner also became a national supervisor for over 200 beauty colleges owned by Madam C.J. Walker, eventually joining the board of directors.
Marjorie Stewart was born on October 24, 1896, in Monterey, Virginia to parents who were both descended from African slaves. She was the granddaughter of a slave and a slave owner.
When Stewart 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.
In Chicago, Stewart enrolled at the A. B. Molar Beauty School that was founded by A. B. Molar, who had also founded the first barber school in the United States in 1893.
Stewart became the first African-American to graduate from this Beauty School in 1916 and opened a beauty salon on South State Street in Chicago. She also married Robert E. Joyner, and the couple eventually had two daughters.
Stewart-Joyner was introduced to Madam C. J. Walker, a successful and well-known African-American businesswoman and owner of over 200 beauty salon shops across the United States. Stewart-Joyner went to work for Walker and eventually became the national adviser to Walker’s company.
After Madam C. J. Walker died in 1919, Marjorie was hired as a national supervisor to oversee the Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Colleges.
In the 1920s, in order to straighten tightly-curled hair, the only method was to use a stove-heated curling iron. This was very time-consuming since only one iron could be used at a time. In 1926, Stewart-Joyner was determined to make this process faster, easier, and more efficient.
Stewart-Joyner was apparently inspired by the pins used when making pot roast that heated the meat from the inside. She imagined that if a number of heated curling irons could be arranged above a women’s head, they could work at the same time to curl or straighten her hair all at once. Her solution and invention not only straighten but also provide a curl in a convenient manner.
Stewart-Joyner developed a device that consisted of 16 rods connected to a single electric cord inside of a drying hood. A client would wear the hood for a given period of time to set the curls.
After two years of work, Stewart-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.
Stewart-Joyner's device was successful not only among African-American women at Madam C. J. Walker's salons, but it was also popular in white salons as well. In addition, she later patented a scalp protector to use together with the Permanent Waving Machine.
Despite its success, Stewart-Joyner received none of the proceeds of her inventions. Her patented inventions were created within the scope of her employment with Madam C. J. Walker’s company, which therefore received all patent rights and royalties.
In 1945, Stewart-Joyner co-founded the United Beauty School Owners and Teachers Association, along with Mary Bethune McLeod. She 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.
Stewart-Joyner was awarded a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Florida in 1973.
Marjorie Joyner died on December 7, 1994, at the age of 98. Her legacy of creativity and selflessness has served to inspire many generations.
31 - Henry Blair: farmer, inventor
Henry Blair was a farmer and inventor who is 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.
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 seeds 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.
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. In 1871, after the Civil War, 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 his process for the "dry scouring of clothes."
Henry Blair died in 1860.
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