10 Important Black Inventors in U.S. History

These 10 innovators are just a few of the many Black Americans who have made important contributions to business, industry, medicine, and technology.

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Madame C.J. Walker (Dec. 23, 1867-May 25, 1919)

Madam C.J. Walker Driving a car

 Smith Collection/Gado / Getty Images

Born Sarah Breedlove, Madame C.J. Walker became the first Black female millionaire by inventing a line of cosmetics and hair products aimed at Black consumers in the first decades of the 20th century. Walker pioneered the use of female sales agents, who traveled door to door across the U.S. and Caribbean selling her products. An active philanthropist, Walker also was an early champion of employee development and offered business training and other educational opportunities to her workers as a means of helping her fellow Black women achieve financial independence.

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George Washington Carver (1861-Jan. 5, 1943)

Botanist George Washington Carver
George Washington Carver donated $33,000 in cash to the Tuskegee Institute to establish a fund to carry on the agricultural and chemical work he began. Bettmann / Contributor/Getty Images

George Washington Carver became one of the leading agronomists of his time, pioneering numerous uses for peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes. Enslaved from the time of his birth in Missouri in the midst of the Civil War, Carver was fascinated by plants from an early age. As the first Black undergraduate student at Iowa State, he studied soybean fungi and developed new means of crop rotation. After earning his master's degree, Carver accepted a job at Alabama's Tuskegee Institute, a leading historically Black university. It was at Tuskegee that Carver made his greatest contributions to science, developing more than 300 uses for the peanut alone, including soap, skin lotion, and paint.

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Lonnie Johnson (Born Oct. 6, 1949)

Dr. Lonnie Johnson, president and CEO at Excellatron, but probably best known as the inventor of the Super Soaker,
Dr. Lonnie Johnson, president and CEO at Excellatron, but probably best known as the inventor of the Super Soaker,. Office of Naval Research/Flickr/CC-BY-2.0

Inventor Lonnie Johnson holds more than 80 U.S. patents, but it's his invention of the Super Soaker toy that is perhaps his most endearing claim to fame. An engineer by training, Johnson has worked on both the stealth bomber project for the Air Force and the Galileo space probe for NASA, as well as developed means of harnessing solar and geothermal energy for power plants. But it's the Super Soaker toy, first patented in 1986, that is his most popular invention. It's racked up nearly $1 billion in sales since its release.

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George Edward Alcorn, Jr. (Born March 22, 1940)

George Edward Alcorn, Jr. at NASA
George Edward Alcorn, Jr. at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

George Edward Alcorn, Jr. is a physicist whose work in the aerospace industry helped revolutionize astrophysics and semiconductor manufacturing. He is credited with 20 inventions, eight of which he received patents for. Perhaps his best-known innovation is for an x-ray spectrometer used to analyze distant galaxies and other deep-space phenomena, which he patented in 1984. Alcorn's research into plasma etching, for which he received a patent in 1989, is still used in the production of computer chips, also known as semiconductors. 

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Benjamin Banneker (Nov. 9, 1731-Oct. 9, 1806)

Historical marker honoring Benjamin Banneker at Benjamin Banneker school, Oella, Maryland, 1979.
Historical marker honoring Benjamin Banneker at Benjamin Banneker School, Oella, Maryland, 1979.

Afro Newspaper / Gado / Getty Images

Benjamin Banneker was a self-educated astronomer, mathematician, and farmer. He was among a few hundred free African Americans living in Maryland, where enslavement was legal at the time. Despite having little knowledge of timepieces, among his many accomplishments, Banneker is perhaps best known for a series of almanacs he published between 1792 and 1797 that contained detailed astronomical calculations of his, as well as writings on topics of the day. Banneker also had a small role in helping to survey Washington D.C. in 1791. 

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Charles Drew (June 3, 1904-April 1, 1950)

Minnie Lenore Robbins with NIH Director, Donald Frederickson at unveiling of a bust and exhibit of her late husband, Charles Drew.
Minnie Lenore Robbins with NIH Director Donald Frederickson at unveiling of bust and exhibit honoring her late husband, Charles Drew, in 1981.

Unknown Author / U.S. National Library of Medicine / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain 

Charles Drew was a doctor and medical researcher whose pioneering research into blood helped save thousands of lives during World War II. As a postgraduate researcher at Columbia University in the late 1930s, Drew invented a means of separating plasma from whole blood, allowing it to be stored for up to a week, far longer than had been possible at the time. Drew also discovered that plasma could be transfused between persons regardless of blood type and helped the British government establish their first national blood bank. Drew worked briefly with the American Red Cross during World War II, but resigned to protest the organization's insistence on segregating blood from white and Black donors. He continued to research, teach, and advocate until his death in 1950 in a car accident.

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Thomas L. Jennings (1791 - Feb. 12, 1856)

Thomas Jennings holds the distinction of being the first African American to be granted a patent. A tailor by trade in New York City, Jennings applied for and received a patent in 1821 for a cleaning technique he'd pioneered called "dry scouring." It was a precursor to today's dry cleaning. His invention made Jennings a wealthy man and he used his earnings to support early abolition and civil rights organizations.

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Elijah McCoy (May 2, 1844-Oct. 10, 1929)

Elijah McCoy was born in Canada to parents who had been enslaved in the U.S. The family resettled in Michigan a few years after Elijah was born, and the boy showed a keen interest in mechanical objects growing up. After training as an engineer in Scotland as a teen, he returned to the States. Unable to find a job in engineering because of racial discrimination, McCoy found work as a railroad fireman. It was while working in that role that he developed a new means of keeping locomotive engines lubricated while running, allowing them to operate longer between maintenance. McCoy continued to refine this and other inventions during his lifetime, receiving some 60 patents.

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Garrett Morgan (March 4, 1877-July 27, 1963)

Garrett Morgan is best known for his invention in 1914 of the safety hood, a precursor to the gas masks of today. Morgan was so confident of his invention's potential that he frequently demonstrated it himself in sales pitches to fire departments across the country. In 1916, he earned widespread acclaim after donning his safety hood to rescue workers who were trapped by an explosion in a tunnel beneath Lake Erie near Cleveland. Morgan later would invent one of the first traffic signals and a new clutch for auto transmissions. Active in the early civil rights movement, he helped found one of the first African American newspapers in Ohio, the Cleveland Call.

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James Edward Maceo West (Born Feb. 10, 1931)

Johns Hopkins School of Engineering Professor Dr. James Edward Maceo West featured with a prototype of his research group's latest invention, a smart digital stethoscope with artificial intelligence algorithms.
Johns Hopkins School of Engineering Professor Dr. James Edward Maceo West featured with a prototype of his research group's latest invention, a smart digital stethoscope with artificial intelligence algorithms.

Own Work / Sonavi Labs / Wikimedia Commons /  CC-BY-SA-4.0 

If you've ever used a microphone, you have James West to thank for it. West was fascinated by radio and electronics from an early age, and he trained as a physicist. After college, he went to work at Bell Labs, where research on how humans hear led to his invention of the foil electret microphone in 1960. Such devices were more sensitive, yet used less power and were smaller than other microphones at the time, and they revolutionized the field of acoustics. Today, foil electret-style mics are used in everything from telephones to computers.