Colors of Innovation

History of African American Inventors

Henry Blair - Seed Planter
By Henry Blair [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Jennings, born in 1791, is believed to have been the first African-American inventor to receive a patent for an invention. He was 30 years old when he was granted a patent for a dry-cleaning process. Jennings was a free tradesman and operated a dry-cleaning business in New York City. His income went mostly to his abolitionist activities. In 1831, he became assistant secretary for the First Annual Convention of the People of Color in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Slaves were prohibited from receiving patents on their inventions. Although free African-American inventors were legally able to receive patents, most did not. Some feared that recognition and most likely the prejudice that would come with it would destroy their livelihoods.

African-American Inventors

George Washington Murray was a teacher, farmer and U.S. congressman from South Carolina from 1893 to 1897. From his seat in the House of Representatives, Murray was in a unique position to bring into focus the achievements of a people recently emancipated. Speaking on behalf of proposed legislation for a Cotton States Exhibition to publicize the South’s technological process since the Civil War, Murray urged that a separate space be reserved to display some of the achievements of Southern African-Americans. He explained the reasons why they should participate in regional and national expositions, saying:

"Mr. Speaker, the colored people of this country want an opportunity to show that the progress, that the civilization which is now admired the world over, that the civilization which is now leading the world, that the civilization which all nations of the world look up to and imitate--the colored people, I say, want an opportunity to show that they, too, are part and parcel of that great civilization." He proceeded to read the names and inventions of 92 African-American inventors into the Congressional Record.

Henry Baker

What we know about early African-American innovators comes mostly from the work of Henry Baker. He was an assistant patent examiner at the U.S. Patent Office who was dedicated to uncovering and publicizing the contributions of African-American inventors.

Around 1900, the Patent Office conducted a survey to gather information about these inventors and their inventions. Letters were sent to patent attorneys, company presidents, newspaper editors and prominent African-Americans. Henry Baker recorded the replies and followed up on leads. Baker’s research also provided the information used to select those inventions exhibited at the Cotton Centennial in New Orleans, the World’s Fair in Chicago and the Southern Exposition in Atlanta.

By the time of his death, Henry Baker had compiled four massive volumes.

First African American Woman to Patent

Judy W. Reed may not have been able to write her name, but she patented a hand-operated machine for kneading and rolling dough. She is probably the first African-American woman to obtain a patent. Sarah E. Goode is believed to have been the second African-American woman to receive a patent.

Race Identification

Henry Blair was the only person to be identified in the Patent Office records as "a colored man." Blair was the second African-American inventor issued a patent.

Blair was born in Montgomery County, Maryland, around 1807. He received a patent on October 14, 1834, for a seed planter, and a patent in 1836 for a cotton planter.

Lewis Latimer

Lewis Howard Latimer was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, in 1848. He enlisted in the Union Navy at the age of 15, and upon completion of his military service he returned to Massachusetts and was employed by a patent solicitor where he began the study of drafting. His talent for drafting and his creative genius led him to invent a method of making carbon filaments for the Maxim electric incandescent lamp. In 1881, he supervised the installation of electric lights in New York, Philadelphia, Montreal, and London. Latimer was the original draftsman for Thomas Edison and as such was the star witness in Edison’s infringement suits.

Latimer had many interests. He was a draftsman, engineer, author, poet, musician and, at the same time, a devoted family man and philanthropist.

Granville T. Woods

Born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1856, Granville T. Woods dedicated his life to developing a variety of inventions relating to the railroad industry. To some, he was known as the "Black Edison." Woods invented more than a dozen devices to improve electric railway cars and much more for controlling the flow of electricity. His most noted invention was a system for letting the engineer of a train know how close his train was to others. This device helped cut down accidents and collisions between trains. Alexander Graham Bell’s company purchased the rights to Woods’ telegraphony, enabling him to become a full-time inventor. Among his other top inventions were a steam boiler furnace and an automatic air brake used to slow or stop trains. Wood’s electric car was powered by overhead wires. It was the third rail system to keep cars running on the right track.

Success led to lawsuits filed by Thomas Edison. Woods eventually won, but Edison didn’t give up easily when he wanted something. Trying to win Woods over, and his inventions, Edison offered Woods a prominent position in the engineering department of Edison Electric Light Company in New York. Woods, preferring his independence, declined.

George Washington Carver

"When you can do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world." -- George Washington Carver.

"He could have added fortune to fame, but, caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world." George Washington Carver’s epitaph sums up a lifetime of innovative discovery. Born into slavery, freed as a child and curious throughout life, Carver profoundly affected the lives of people throughout the nation. He successfully shifted Southern farming away from risky cotton, which depletes the soil of its nutrients, to nitrate-producing crops such as peanuts, peas, sweet potatoes, pecans, and soybeans. Farmers began rotating crops of cotton one year with peanuts the next.

Carver spent his early childhood with a German couple who encouraged his education and early interest in plants. He received his early education in Missouri and Kansas. He was accepted into Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, in 1877, and in 1891 he transferred to Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) where he earned a bachelor of science in 1894 and a master's in science in 1897. Later that year, Booker T. Washington--founder of the Tuskegee Institute--convinced Carver to serve as the school’s director of agriculture. From his laboratory at Tuskegee, Carver developed 325 different uses for peanuts--until then considered lowly food fit for hogs--and 118 products from the sweet potato. Other Carver innovations include synthetic marble from sawdust, plastics from woodshavings and writing paper from wisteria vines.

Carver only patented three of his many discoveries. "God gave them to me," he said, "How can I sell them to someone else?" Upon his death, Carver contributed his life savings to establish a research institute at Tuskegee.

His birthplace was declared a national monument in 1953, and he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1990.

Elijah McCoy

So you want the "real McCoy?" That means you want the "real thing"--what you know to be of the highest quality, not an inferior imitation. The saying may refer to a famous African-American inventor named Elijah McCoy. He earned more than 50 patents, but the most famous one was for a metal or glass cup that fed oil to bearings through a smallbore tube. Machinists and engineers who wanted genuine McCoy lubricators may have originated the term "the real McCoy."

McCoy was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1843--the son of slaves who had fled Kentucky. Educated in Scotland, he returned to the United States to pursue a position in his field of mechanical engineering. The only job available to him was that of a locomotive fireman/oilman for the Michigan Central Railroad. Because of his training, he was able to identify and solve the problems of engine lubrication and overheating. Railroad and shipping lines began using McCoy’s new lubricators, and Michigan Central promoted him to an instructor in the use of his new inventions.

Later, McCoy moved to Detroit where he became a consultant to the railroad industry on patent matters. Unfortunately, success slipped away from McCoy, and he died in an infirmary after suffering a financial, mental and physical breakdown.

Jan Matzeliger

Jan Matzeliger was born in Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana, in 1852. He immigrated to the United States at age 18 and went to work in a shoe factory in Philadelphia. Shoes then were handmade, a slow tedious process. Matzeliger helped revolutionize the shoe industry by developing a machine that would attach the sole to the shoe in one minute.

Matzeliger's "shoe lasting" machine adjusts the shoe leather upper snugly over the mold, arranges the leather under the sole and pins it in place with nails, while the sole is stitched to the leather upper.

Matzeliger died poor, but his stock in the machine was quite valuable. He left it to his friends and to the First Church of Christ in Lynn, Massachusetts.

Garrett Morgan

Garrett Morgan was born in Paris, Kentucky, in 1877. As a self-educated man, he went on to make an explosive entry into the field of technology. He invented a gas inhalator when he, his brother and some volunteers were rescuing a group of men caught by an explosion in a smoke-filled tunnel under Lake Erie. Although this rescue earned Morgan a gold medal from the City of Cleveland and the Second International Exposition of Safety and Sanitation in New York, he was unable to market his gas inhalator because of racial prejudice. However, the U.S. Army used his device as gas masks for combat troops during World War I. Today, firefighters can save lives because by wearing a similar breathing device they are able to enter burning buildings without harm from smoke or fumes.

Morgan used his gas inhalator fame to sell his patented traffic signal with a flag-type signal to the General Electric Company for use at street intersections to control the flow of traffic.

Madame Walker

Sarah Breedlove McWilliams Walker, better known as Madame Walker, together with Marjorie Joyner improved the hair-care and cosmetics industry early in the 20th century.

Madame Walker was born in 1867 in poverty-stricken rural Louisiana. Walker was the daughter of former slaves, orphaned at the age of 7 and widowed by 20. After her husband’s death, the young widow migrated to St. Louis, Missouri, seeking a better way of life for herself and her child. She supplemented her income as a wash woman by selling her homemade beauty products door-to-door. Eventually, Walker’s products formed the basis of a thriving national corporation employing at one point over 3,000 people. Her Walker System, which included a broad offering of cosmetics, licensed Walker Agents, and Walker Schools offered meaningful employment and personal growth to thousands of African-American women. Madame Walker’s aggressive marketing strategy combined with relentless ambition led her to be labeled as the first known African-American woman to become a self-made millionaire.

An employee of Madame Walker’s empire, Marjorie Joyner, invented a permanent wave machine. This device, patented in 1928, curled or "permed" women’s hair for a relatively lengthy period of time. The wave machine was popular among women white and black allowing for longer-lasting wavy hairstyles. Joyner went on to become a prominent figure in Madame Walker’s industry, though she never profited directly from her invention, for it was the assigned property of the Walker Company.

Patricia Bath

Dr. Patricia Bath’s passionate dedication to the treatment and prevention of blindness led her to develop the Cataract Laserphaco Probe. The probe, patented in 1988, is designed to use the power of a laser to quickly and painlessly vaporize cataracts from patients’ eyes, replacing the more common method of using a grinding, drill-like device to remove the afflictions. With another invention, Bath was able to restore sight to people who had been blind for over 30 years. Bath also holds patents for her invention in Japan, Canada, and Europe.

Patricia Bath graduated from the Howard University School of Medicine in 1968 and completed specialty training in ophthalmology and corneal transplant at both New York University and Columbia University. In 1975, Bath became the first African-American woman surgeon at the UCLA Medical Center and the first woman to be on the faculty of the UCLA Jules Stein Eye Institute. She is the founder and first president of the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness. Patricia Bath was elected to Hunter College Hall of Fame in 1988 and elected as Howard University Pioneer in Academic Medicine in 1993.

Charles Drew - The Blood Bank

Charles Drew--a Washington, D.C., native--excelled in academics and sports during his graduate studies at Amherst College in Massachusetts. He was also an honor student at McGill University Medical School in Montreal, where he specialized in physiological anatomy. It was during his work at Columbia University in New York City where he made his discoveries relating to the preservation of blood. By separating the liquid red blood cells from the near solid plasma and freezing the two separately, he found that blood could be preserved and reconstituted at a later date. The British military used his process extensively during World War II, establishing mobile blood banks to aid in the treatment of wounded soldiers at the front lines. After the war, Drew was appointed the first director of the American Red Cross Blood Bank. He received the Spingarn Medal in 1944 for his contributions. He died at the early age of 46 from injuries suffered in a car accident in North Carolina.

Percy Julian - Synthesis of Cortisone & Physostigmine

Percy Julian synthesized physostigmine for treatment of glaucoma and cortisone for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. He is also noted for a fire-extinguishing foam for gasoline and oil fires. Born in Montgomery, Alabama, Julian had little schooling because Montgomery provided limited public education for African-Americans. However, he entered DePauw University as a "sub-freshman" and graduated in 1920 as class valedictorian. He then taught chemistry at Fisk University, and in 1923 he earned a master’s degree from Harvard University. In 1931, Julian received his Ph.D. from the University of Vienna.

Julian returned to DePauw University, where his reputation was established in 1935 by synthesizing physostigmine from the calabar bean. Julian went on to become director of research at the Glidden Company, a paint and varnish manufacturer. He developed a process for isolating and preparing soybean protein, which could be used to coat and size paper, create cold water paints and size textiles. During World War II, Julian used a soy protein to produce AeroFoam, which suffocates gasoline and oil fires.

Julian was noted most for his synthesis of cortisone from soybeans, used in treating rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory conditions. His synthesis reduced the price of cortisone. Percy Julian was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1990.

Meredith Groudine

Dr. Meredith Groudine was born in New Jersey in 1929 and grew up in the streets of Harlem and Brooklyn. He attended Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and received a Ph.D. in engineering science from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Groudine built a multimillion dollar corporation that is based on his ideas in the field of electrogasdynamics (EGD). Using the principles of EGD, Groudine successfully converted natural gas to electricity for everyday use. Applications of EGD include refrigeration, desalination of seawater and reducing the pollutants in smoke. He holds more than 40 patents for various inventions. In 1964, he served on the President’s Panel on Energy.

Henry Green Parks Jr.

The aroma of sausage and scrapple cooking in kitchens along the east coast of America has made it a little easier for kids to get up in the morning. With quickened steps to the breakfast table, families enjoy the fruits of the diligence and hard work of Henry Green Parks Jr. He started the Parks Sausage Company in 1951 using distinctive, tasty Southern recipes he developed for sausage and other products.

Parks registered several trademarks, but the radio and television commercial featuring a child’s voice demanding "More Parks Sausages, mom" is probably the most famous. After consumer complaints about the youngster’s perceived disrespect, Parks added the word "please" to his slogan.

The company, with meager beginnings in an abandoned dairy plant in Baltimore, Maryland, and two employees, grew into a multimillion-dollar operation with more than 240 employees and annual sales exceeding $14 million. Black Enterprise continually cited H.G. Parks, Inc., as one of the top 100 African-American firms in the country.

Parks sold his interest in the company for $1.58 million in 1977, but he remained on the board of directors until 1980. He also served on the corporate boards of Magnavox, First Penn Corp., Warner Lambert Co. and W.R. Grace Co., and was a trustee of Goucher College of Baltimore. He died on April 14, 1989, at the age of 72.

Mark Dean

Mark Dean and his co-inventor, Dennis Moeller, created a microcomputer system with bus control means for peripheral processing devices. Their invention paved the way for the growth in the information technology industry, allowing us to plug into our computers peripherals like disk drives, video gear, speakers, and scanners. Dean was born in Jefferson City, Tennessee, on March 2, 1957. He received his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from the University of Tennessee, his MSEE from Florida Atlantic University and his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford University. Early in his career at IBM, Dean was a chief engineer working with IBM personal computers. The IBM PS/2 Models 70 and 80 and the Color Graphics Adapter are among his early work. He holds three of IBM’s original nine PC patents.

Serving as vice president of performance for the RS/6000 Division, Dean was named an IBM fellow in 1996, and in 1997 he received the Black Engineer of the Year President’s Award. Dean holds more than 20 patents and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1997.

James West

Dr. James West is a Bell Laboratories Fellow at Lucent Technologies where he specializes in electro, physical and architectural acoustics. His research in the early 1960s led to the development of foil-electret transducers for sound recording and voice communication that is used in 90% of all microphones built today and at the heart of most new telephones being manufactured.

West holds 47 U.S. and more than 200 foreign patents on microphones and techniques for making polymer foil-electrets. He has authored more than 100 papers and contributed to books on acoustics, solid state physics, and material science. West has received numerous awards including the Golden Torch Award in 1998 sponsored by the National Society of Black Engineers, the Lewis Howard Latimer Light Switch and Socket Award in 1989, and was chosen New Jersey Inventor of the Year for 1995.

Dennis Weatherby

While employed by Procter & Gamble, Dennis Weatherby developed and received a patent for the automatic dishwasher detergent known by the trade name Cascade. He received his master’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Dayton in 1984. Cascade is a registered trademark of the Procter & Gamble Company.

Frank Crossley

Dr. Frank Crossley is a pioneer in the field of titanium metallurgy. He began his work in metals at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago after receiving his graduate degrees in metallurgical engineering. In the 1950s, few African-Americans were visible in the engineering fields, but Crossley excelled in his field. He received seven patents--five in titanium base alloys that greatly improved the aircraft and aerospace industry.

Michel Molaire

Originally from Haiti, Michel Molaire became a research associate at the Office Imaging Research and Development Group of Eastman Kodak. You can thank him for some of your most treasured Kodak moments.

Molaire received his bachelor of science degree in chemistry, a master's of science degree in chemical engineering and M.B.A. from the University of Rochester. He has been with Kodak since 1974. After receiving more than 20 patents, Molaire was inducted into Eastman Kodak’s Distinguished Inventor’s Gallery in 1994.

Valerie Thomas

In addition to a long, distinguished career at NASA, Valerie Thomas is also the inventor of and holds a patent for an illusion transmitter. Thomas’ invention transmits by cable or electromagnetic means a three-dimensional, real-time image--NASA adopted the technology. She received several NASA awards, including the Goddard Space Flight Center Award of Merit and the NASA Equal Opportunity Medal.