Black history month is just around the corner. Once again I have compiled a list of my top ten African-American inventors of all time. While no blog post could do these ten great inventors justice, I have included a brief synopsis of each inventor’s accomplishments along with a representative patent.
Back in 1821, Thomas L. Jennings became the first African American to receive a patent. Since that time, black inventors have helped our country make great technological strides. Every year it becomes increasingly difficult to select only ten inventors from the thousands of choices. This year I focused on the practical as well as the profound. While some of the inventions may seem pedestrian by today’s standards, it is these great men and women who are responsible for so many of the things we take for granted. It is not until you actually stop to consider the scope of their inventiveness, that you comprehend the impact they have made on all of our lives
10. Lonnie G. Johnson – Super Soaker squirt gun
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.
Representative Patent: Pinch trigger pump water gun United States Letters Patent Number 5,074,437
9. Michael Jackson – Gravity defying shoes In 1993, singer and entertainer Michael Jackson received a patent on a novel shoe, The shoe includes a cut-out in the heel, which an entertainer slides on and off a nail head in the stage. The nail head grabs the heel and allows the entertainer to perform apparently gravity defying leans.
Representative Patent: Method and means for creating anti-gravity illusion United States Letters Patent Number 5,255,452
8. Thomas Mensah – Patriot missile guidance system 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.
Representative Patent: Guided Vehicle System United States Letters Patent Number 5,035,169
7. Lewis Latimer – Electric light filament 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 Bell’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.
Representative Patent: Electric Lamp United States Letters Patent Number 247,097
6. Elijah McCoy – Automatic railcar lubrication 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.”
Representative Patent: Lubricator United States Letters Patent Number 472,066
5. Dr. Patricia Bath – Surgical cataract laser 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.
Representative Patent: Method of removing cataracts United States Letters Patent Number 6,083,192
4. James Edward Maceo West – Electret microphone 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,
Representative Patent: Electroacoustic transducer United States Letters Patent Number 3,118,022
3. Percy Julian – Cortisone synthesis 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.
Representative Patent: Preparation of cortisone United States Letters Patent Number 2,752,339
2. George Crum – Potato chips Part Native American and part African American, George Crum never received a patent. He is credited however, with inventing one of this country’s most ubiquitous snack foods, the potato chip. Known for his irascible nature, George Crum earned his living as a cook. One day, the story goes, a businessman entered Moon Lake Lodge, in Saratoga Springs, New York. Not happy with the thickness of the potato slices Crum was serving on that particular day, the businessman sent them back. While customers at the Moon Lake Lodge sometimes sent food back once, they rarely sent them back twice, especially if George Crum was working. Crum took it upon himself to make the meal so unpalatable, patrons would dare not try their luck a second time. In this particular case, Crum sliced the potatoes as thin as possible, fried them in oil until they were hard. Crum then doused the potatoes in enough salt to make them what he believed would be inedible. To his chagrin, the customer loved the new “potato crunches.” Crum began serving the snack at his own restaurant. Since Crum had no patent, Crum did not share in the profits from what others have turned into a multi-billion dollar industry.
1. George Washington Carver – New uses for peanuts
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.
Representative Patent: Process for Producing Paints and Stains United States Letters Patent Number 1,632,365
The foregoing are but a tiny sampling of the great inventions African Americans have given our country. It does not take a patent lawyer to appreciate the incredible gifts these extraordinary inventors have bestowed upon us. If you know of any other great African American inventors, or you are one yourself, be sure to leave me a comment below. I would love to hear from you.