A Biography of Henry T. Sampson

rocket blasting off into space

It's all rocket science for Black American inventor Henry T. Sampson Jr., a brilliant and accomplished nuclear engineer and aerospace engineering pioneer. He co-invented the gamma-electrical cell, which directly converts nuclear energy into electricity and helps power satellites and space exploration missions. He also holds patents on solid rocket motors.


Henry Sampson was born in Jackson, Mississippi. He attended Morehouse College and then transferred to Purdue University, where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in 1956. He graduated with an MS degree in engineering from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1961. Sampson continued his post-graduate education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and received his MS in Nuclear Engineering in 1965. When he received his Ph.D. at that university in 1967, he was the first Black American to receive one in Nuclear Engineering in the United States.

Navy and Professional Career

Sampson was employed as a research chemical engineer at the U.S. Naval Weapons Center at China Lake in California. He specialized in the area of high energy solid propellants and case bonding materials for solid rocket motors. He has said in interviews that this was one of the few places that would hire a Black engineer at that time.

Sampson also served as the Director of Mission Development and Operations of the Space Test Program at the Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, California. The gamma-electrical cell he co-invented with George H. Miley directly converts high-energy gamma rays into electricity, providing a long-lasting power source for satellites and long-range space exploration missions.

He won the 2012 Entrepreneur of the Year Award from the Friends of Engineering, Computer Science and Technology, California State University Los Angeles. In 2009, he received the Outstanding Chemical Engineer Award from Purdue University.

As an interesting side note, Henry Sampson is also a writer and film historian who wrote a book entitled, Blacks in Black and White: A SourceBook on Black Films.


Here is the patent abstract for US patent #3,591,860 for a Gamma-Electrical Cell issued to Henry Thomas Sampson and George H Miley on 7/6/1971. This patent can be viewed in its entirety online or in person at the United States Patent and Trademark Office. A patent abstract is written by the inventor to briefly describe what his or her invention is and what it does.

Abstract: The present invention relates to a gamma-electric cell for producing a high-output voltage from a source of radiation wherein the gamma-electric cell includes a central collector constructed of a dense metal with the central collector encapsulated within an outer layer of dielectric material. A further conductive layer is then disposed on or within the dielectric material so as to provide for a high voltage output between the conductive layer and the central collector upon the reception of radiation by the gamma-electric cell. The invention also includes the use of a plurality of collectors radiating from the central collector throughout the dielectric material so as to increase the collection area and thereby increase the current and/or output voltage.

Henry Sampson also received patents for a "binder system for propellants and explosives" and a "case bonding system for cast composite propellants." Both inventions are related to solid rocket motors. He used high-speed photography to study the internal ballistics of solid rocket motors.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Bellis, Mary. "A Biography of Henry T. Sampson." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/henry-t-sampson-inventor-4072091. Bellis, Mary. (2021, February 16). A Biography of Henry T. Sampson. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/henry-t-sampson-inventor-4072091 Bellis, Mary. "A Biography of Henry T. Sampson." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/henry-t-sampson-inventor-4072091 (accessed March 24, 2023).