In honor of Black history month, I have compiled a list of what I think, are the top African-American inventors of all time. I have also included a representative patent along with each inventor. Since Thomas L. Jennings became the first African American to receive a patent in 1821, black inventors have made enormous contributions to our country. Given the thousands of African American inventors that have followed Jennings, it was quite difficult to settle on only ten. I have tried to include not only those who have contributed to mankind as a whole, but also those African-American inventors we know from other endeavors, or from the interesting inventions they have brought into our lives.
10. Thomas Mensah Born in Ghana, Dr. Mensah is the Chairman of Supercond Technology Inc. of Norcross, Georgia. Holder of over a dozen United States and International patents, Dr. Mensah’s inventions span the fields of fiber optics to guided vehicle systems. His work with SMART weapons, like the Patriot missile, were critical to the success in the Gulf War.
One of his Patents: Guided Vehicle System United States Letters Patent Number 5,035,169
9. Lonnie G. Johnson
President of Johnson Research Development Co. and formerly with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, Lonnie Johnson is a nuclear engineer with over 100 patents to his name. This Tuskegee alumnus has generated over one hundred million dollars in sales with his world-renown invention, the SuperSoaker squirt gun. He is currently working on a solar energy cell which promises to cut solar energy costs in half.
One of his Patents: Pinch trigger pump water gun United States Letters Patent Number 5,074,437
8. Lewis Latimer Everyone knows Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, but few know that it took African American inventor Lewis Latimer to come up with the carbon filament that made it practical. Edison’s original draftsman, Latimer drafted the plans for Alexander Graham Bel’s telephone. Working many late nights with Bell, Latimer worked tirelessly to file a patent on Bell’s telephone mere hours before the filing of a similar patent by a rival inventor.
One of his Patents:t Electric Lamp United States Letters Patent Number 247,097
7. Elijah McCoy Elijah McCoy patented dozens of ways to lubricate machinery. One advantage McCoy’s devices had over the competition, was that his inventions made it possible to lubricate machinery while it was running. This eliminated downtime maintenance and increased factory profits. One of his most famous inventions was an oil dripping cup. The oil dripping cup was so wildly successful that competitors worked diligently to copy it. Nothing however, worked as well as the original. That is why, even today, we ask for “The real McCoy.”
One of his Patents: Lubricator United States Letters Patent Number 472,066
6. Dr. Joycelyn Simpson As a research scientist for NASA’s Langley Research Center, Dr. Simpson invented a new type of power producing, high performance piezoelectric polymer. When pressure is applied to this polymer, it generates electricity. Utilizing these types of polymers in conjunction with wind and water power may lead to an unlimited, low-cost, environmentally friendly source of power.
One of her Patents: Thermally stable piezoelectric polymeric substrates United States Letters Patent Number 6,379,809
5. Dr. Patricia Bath Born in Harlem, Dr. Bath has become an internationally acclaimed ophthalmologist and surgeon. Not content to rest on her laurels, Dr. Bath has dedicated her life to the treatment and prevention of blindness in African-Americans. A pioneer in laser cataract surgery, her laser-powered Laserphaco Probe allows physicians to vaporize sight stealing cataracts in minutes.
One of her Patents: Method of removing cataracts United States Letters Patent Number 6,083,192
4. James Edward Maceo West While working at Bell Laboratories in 1964, James Edward West patented the electret microphone. His research led to the development of the foil-electret transducers used in 90% of today’s microphones. Today, Dr. West holds over 40 United States, and over 200 International, patents on microphones and microphone components. He is also a 1999 inductee into the National Inventors Hall of Fame,
One of his Patents: Electroacoustic transducer United States Letters Patent Number 3,118,022
3. Percy Julian Granted over 100 patents Percy Julian is best known for his innovative synthesis of cortisone from soy beans. His inventions significantly reduced the cost of manufacturing cortisone used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and inflammation. Julian is a 1990 inductee into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
One of his Patents: Preparation of cortisone United States Letters Patent Number 2,752,339
2. Mark Dean Holder of more than 20 patents, Mark Dean, along with Dennis Moeller, created a computer bus system for controlling the use of computer peripherals like disk drives, video monitors, printers, speakers, and scanners. Dean holds three of the original nine IBM patents on the personal computer. IBM granted Dean an IBM Fellowship in 1996 and, a year later, Dean received the Black Engineer of the Year President’s Award. Dean is a 1997 inductee into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
One of his Patents: Bus Controls system for computer peripherals United States Letters Patent Number 4,528,626
1. George Washington Carver
Best known as the inventor who could do anything with a peanut, George Washington Carver patented only a small handful of his hundreds of his novel products and methods for improving agriculture. Born a slave, Carver consistently shunned fortune. Interested only in the betterment of mankind, he took no money at all for the majority of his inventions. Granted a scholarship in Kansas, the college refused Carver withdrew his admission after discovering Carver was African American. Carver enrolled at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, before eventually landing at what is now Iowa State University the following year. Carver is a 1988 inductee into the Iowa Inventor’s Hall of Fame and a 1997 inductee into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
One of his Patents: Process for Producing Paints and Stains United States Letters Patent Number 1,632,365
It does not take a patent lawyer to appreciate the incredible gifts these extraordinary inventors have bestowed upon us. Without such great minds willing to share their knowledge with the world, future inventors would have no shoulders to stand upon, and the world would be poorer for it. If you have a favorite African-American inventor I have left out, be sure to let me know in a comment below.