10 Groundbreaking Black Inventors Who Changed the World

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The sheer genius behind many objects we use every day is remarkable despite our tendency to take them for granted. When we consider the brilliant minds responsible for many of the items that facilitate our work and improve our lives, we must remember these 10 Black inventors. 

1. Dr. Patricia Bath

In 1973 Dr. Bath became the first person of color to be awarded an ophthalmology residency, and in 1976 she co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness. She pioneered new opportunities for women as the first female to join the Ophthalmology Department at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Her work fighting blindness led her to invent the Laserphaco Probe, an instrument used by ophthalmologists every day to perform cataract surgery. This invention led to an additional distinction in 1988 when she became the first Black female doctor to receive a medical patent.

2. Otis Boykin

As the inventor of the electronic resistor, a component for impeding an electrical current’s flow, Boykin is responsible for much of the technology we use in our lives.

Electronic resistors have various applications, including regulating cardiac patients’ pacemakers, guiding military missiles, and adjusting the voltage within a computer’s circuit to enable multiple processing functions.

3. Marie Van Brittan Brown

In the mid-1960s, Marie Van Brittan Brown found herself alone at her Queens, NY, home with her small children while her husband traveled to work as an electronics technician.

Marie was concerned about the delayed response to crime in her neighborhood by local police. To protect herself and her children when they were home alone, she added three peepholes, corresponding to her family members’ heights, to her front door.

With her husband’s technical assistance, she connected the holes to a camera system that displayed wireless images from outside her house on the television screens inside. To ensure speedier police response to unwanted intruders, she developed a panic button to alert the local police station to send assistance.

Marie eventually got a patent for a security system that serves as the model for protecting homes and businesses today.

4. Phillip Downing

Individuals needing to mail a letter before 1891 would need to find post offices where they could bring their mail. Depending on the area, people might need to travel a long distance to perform this activity which we consider mundane today.

Phillip Downing brought convenience to snail mail with the invention of the street letterbox. This metal box was equipped with a hinged door that a person could open to drop a letter inside.

These early mailboxes were conveniently dispersed throughout the streets and protected mail from the elements until a mail carrier could retrieve it.

5. Louis Latimer

As a gifted inventor and draftsman, Latimer became the U.S. Electric Lighting Company’s assistant manager in 1879. While there, Latimer figured out how to replace the bamboo and wood filaments of Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulbs with an encased carbon filament.

This design adaptation extended the light bulb’s life and efficiency, making it more widely affordable and available for use in homes everywhere. 

6. Anna Mangin

Amateur and professional chefs who love to cook or need some extra help in the kitchen can thank Anna Mangin for the myriad of helpful kitchen gadgets at their disposal. Mangin’s pastry fork, for which she received a patent in 1892, was the beginning of a long line of tools that make food prep and cooking more practical and less laborious.

Mangin’s invention features tines and cutters to facilitate mixing, blending, mashing and other functions that chefs performed with their hands.

7. Jan Ernst Matzeliger

Matzeliger was dedicated to earning his living in Massachusetts’s booming shoe industry, moving there from Philadelphia, where he learned the shoe trade.

Like most shoe-making companies, the one for which Matzeliger worked relied heavily upon the workers who were responsible for hand-sewing the soles to the upper portions of the shoes. This painstaking process left the shoe companies at the mercy of these valuable members of their workforce and kept shoe prices high.

Matzeliger invented a machine to automate the sewing of shoes and increase production from 50 to up to 700 pairs of shoes per day. This invention made shoes more affordable and available to more people throughout the country.

8. Garret Morgan

As a prosperous business owner in Ohio, Garret Morgan could afford a car that he drove on downtown Cleveland’s busy streets. His firsthand experience with manually changing traffic signals telling drivers when to stop and go gave Morgan insight into the reason for the high traffic accident frequency.

The existing system would force drivers to stop abruptly, often leaving them no time to avoid collisions with other vehicles. Morgan developed a system warning drivers to anticipate an impending stop signal and give them time to slow down before coming to a full stop.

Later versions of Morgan’s traffic signaling system used the now-standard red, yellow, and green lights and the versions counting down seconds before a start or stop signal.

9. Alice H. Parker 

Though Alice H. Parker may not be among the most famous inventors, many people who use central heat to warm their homes during the bitter cold of a harsh winter can thank her.

At the turn of the 19th century, homeowners heated their homes by chopping wood to use in fireplaces or burning coal.

Parker recognized that these options were costly and posed a dangerous risk for accidental fires. She set out to improve home heating options and eventually received a natural gas central heating furnace patent in 1919.

10. Valerie L. Thomas

Valerie Thomas began her career at NASA in 1964 before advancing to lead the Landsat aerospace program in 1970. This program aimed to help scientists study the earth’s resources through satellite images taken from space.

A random observation at a scientific conference led her to apply her Landsat image processing expertise to invent the illusion transmitter. This technology displays three-dimensional images in the air using multiple concave mirrors and makes them visible without special glasses.

Illusion transmitters have multiple contemporary applications, including use in television manufacturing and surgery.

Black inventors make tremendous contributions that improve our daily lives. To read more about how people of color contribute to our society, explore our website.

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