10 of the Greatest Black Inventors

If you've turned on your lights, navigated traffic, played video games, or had a great water gun fight in your lifetime, you have these black engineers and inventors to thank.
  • If you've turned on your lights, navigated traffic, played video games, or had a great water gun fight in your lifetime, you have these black engineers and inventors to thank. Design News is celebrating Black History Month with a look at some of history's great black inventors and the technologies they created and helped develop -- many that we use every day and take for granted. 

    If you'd like to read more about great black inventors and engineers check out: 10 of the Most Important Black Woman Engineers.

    Click through above to see some of the great black inventors that you may not have known were responsible for some of our most innovative technologies.

    (shown above: Light bulb with a carbon filament patented by Lewis Latimer, Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

  • Today are homes are made safer by home security systems and by smart home technologies from companies like Ring and Nest. But everyone would be sleeping a lot less soundly at night if it weren't for Marie Van Brittan Brown, a nurse who, in 1966, invented what would become the foundation for modern home and business security systems.

    Annoyed by the slow response times when police had to be called to homes in New York City, where she lived at the time, Brown set out to devise a system that would monitor her home and quickly alert authorities of suspicious activity.

    Working in her off hours, Brown developed a system that attached a camera and an array of four peepholes to a door (the holes were for people of varying heights). The camera would slide up and down to each hole and display what it saw on a monitor or TV that could be placed elsewhere in the home.

    The homeowner could see who was at the front door via the monitor, unlock the door remotely via radio control, and, if needed, sound an alarm that would go straight to the police. The system also included microphones to allow for two-way communication between the homeowner and whomever was at the door.

    Brown's system included many features that are now staples of security systems and her patent is still cited in security devices to this day.

    (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

  • 2.) Otis Boykin

    Cardiac patients, not to mention the massively profitable medical device industry, owe a debt of gratitude to an inventor named Otis Boykin (1920-1982). Though he had over 20 patents to his name by the time of his death, Boykin's most famous invention is a control unit for the artificial heart pacemaker, which he developed while living in Paris in the 1960s.

    Without Boykin's work it wouldn't be possible for pacemakers to be implanted in the human body and work for any extended period of time. The innovation was based on another patent of Boykin's, an inexpensive electrical resistor capable of withstanding accelerations, shocks, and temperature changes, that he invented in 1961. Boykin's resistor was a boon for consumer electronics and found an early home in guided missiles and IBM computers before a version of it ended up in the pacemaker control unit. Ironically, it was heart failure that took Boykin's' life when he passed away in 1982.

    (Image source: Wikipedia)

  • 3.) David Crosthwait

    If it was related to heating, ventilation, or air conditioning in the 1920s and '30s, David Crosthwait (1898-1976) was the man to know. During this period Crosthwait created a number of inventions related to temperature control including a new boiler design, a thermostat control, and a differential vacuum pump. His inventions proved to be especially effective in larger buildings and he was commissioned to design the heating system for New York City's famed Radio City Music Hall. Crosthwait received over 100 patents globally for systems relating to the design, installation, testing, and service of HVAC power plants, heating, and ventilating systems. He also literally wrote the book on heating and cooling, publishing a guide on standards and codes that dealt with heating, ventilation, and air conditioning.

    (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

  • 4.) Frederick M. Jones

    Frederick M. Jones (1892-1961) was a mechanic and self-taught inventor who in 1940 patented a portable air-cooling unit for use in trucks transporting perishables. By 1949, the cooling company Jones founded, Thermo King, was raking in $3 million in profits and his cooling units were in heavy rotation during World War II, where they were used for preserving blood, medicines, and foods for army hospitals. A holder of multiple patents, Jones is also credited with a device that combined motion pictures with sound. However, his most notable work was in cooling and 40 of the 61 patents he received in his lifetime were for refrigeration equipment.

    (Image source: Minnesota Historical Society)

  • 5.) Lonnie Johnson

    Lonnie Johnson (1949 – present) changed summertime forever when the Super Soaker hit toy stores in 1991. Leave it to a rocket scientist to invent the world's most effective water pistol. A former engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he stumbled on the concept for the Super Soaker (originally called the 'Power Drencher') while trying to create an water-based, eco-friendly heat pump. In 1980 Johnson formed his own company, Johnson Research and Development, and licensed the Super Soaker to Larami Corporation, which was eventually purchased by toy giant Hasbro. Following its debut, the Super Soaker was the no. 1 selling toy in the US for years. Though he was involved in a legal dispute with Hasbro over his share of profits, Johnson has taken his earnings and reinvested it into hi s own company, working to develop new energy technologies. He currently holds more than 80 patents.

    For more on Lonnie Johnson read our feature interview with him on Design News.

    (Image source: Johnson Research & Development)

  • 6.) Lewis Latimer

    Thomas Edison gets all the credit for inventing the light bulb...but he shouldn't. In reality there were many inventors working on the project. And the man who finally made the light bulb viable was an inventor named Lewis Latimer (1848 – 1928).

    While working in a law office specializing in patent law, Latimer taught himself mechanical drawing. In 1876 he was hired by Alexander Graham Bell to work to work on the patent drawings for Bell's telephone. His draftsman work brought him into the electrical industry and in 1881 he patented a method for producing carbon filaments and carried this knowledge over to the Edison Electric Light Company, where he was hired in 1884.

    While working for Edison, Latimer created a carbon filament to replace the paper filament that had been used in Edison's light bulb up to that point. Latimer's innovation led to light bulbs that could work for extended periods of time, finally making them useful in homes and businesses. After Edison Electric Light Company merged with Thomson-House Electric to form General Electric, Latimer continued to work in the legal department until his retirement and eventually transitioned into becoming a patent consultant.

    (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

  • 7.) Gerald A. Lawson

    Many of us have memories of cartridge-based video games, most notably the Atari 2600 and Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). The interchangeable game cartridge was an innovation that finally brought video gaming out of the arcades and into consumers' homes. And anyone with a modern gaming console has a man named Gerald “Jerry” A. Lawson (1940-2011) to thank.

    In the 1970s, Lawson, while working for a company called Fairchild Semiconductor, created the Fairchild Channel F – the first programmable ROM cartridge-based video game console. It was also the first to use a microprocessor. The system faired moderately well, moving 250,000 units when it debuted in 1976, but it was eventually overshadowed by the much more powerful Atari systems, which would later fold to the likes of Nintendo and Sega.

    The Channel F was discontinued in 1983 (two years before the release of the NES in America), and while it has become a footnote in video game history it will always be the console that convinced the other guys that cartridges were the way to go.

    (Image source: Biography.com and Wikipedia)

  • 8.) Alexander Miles

    Alexander Miles (1838-1918) wasn't the inventor of the elevator. However, he is responsible for making them what they are today. Before Miles came along elevators had operators who had to manually shut doors to cut off access to the elevator shaft (or the riders had to do it themselves). Needless to say this wasn't the safest method. People would forgot to close the shaft door and anyone who happened by the opening would find out the hard way that they should have taken the stairs. In 1887 Miles created and patented a system for automatically opening elevator doors. He also developed a mechanism for closing the elevator shaft when the elevator was not positioned on a floor. His patents are still used in most modern elevators that still operate with automatic doors.

    (Image source: MyBlackHistory.Net and Google Patents)

  • 9.) Garret Morgan

    Garrett Morgan (1877-1963) was a newspaper publisher turned inventor, and son of former slaves, who holds the first US patent on a traffic signal, which he patented in 1923. Though he was a prolific inventor in his own right, Morgan was not the original inventor of the traffic signal – similar devices had been used in Europe prior to his invention. However, Morgan's invention laid the foundation for the modern American traffic system.

    If you've seen pictures of those old-school traffic lights that are a T-shaped pole with the swinging arms you're looking at Morgan's invention. Morgan's original design used a green sign for “go”, red for “stop” and a second red for “stop in all directions” - to let pedestrians cross intersections. He eventually sold his device to General Electric for $40,000 (which was a boatload of money back then) and it was heavily used in the US until it was eventually replaced by the three-light traffic signal we know today.

    (Image source: Wikipedia).

  • 9.) Garret Morgan

    Garret Morgan (1877-1963) was so busy he deserves a second slide. In addition to the traffic signal, Morgan is also credited with developing the first gas mask. In 1914 he created what he called a “safety hood” that could help its wearers breath in the presence of smoke, gas, and other pollutants. Morgan pushed hard to get his invention to market – often personally demonstrating the device to fire departments. But racial tensions, particularly in the American South, made Morgan and his mask a hard sell.

    In 1916, Ohio workers drilling a tunnel beneath Lake Erie hit a pocket of gas and were trapped underground after the resulting explosion. When Morgan heard about the disaster (later known as The Cleveland Tunnel Explosion) he and his brother sprung into action, donning his gas masks and managed to save two lives and recover four bodies before rescue efforts were shut down.

    It was reported that 32 men were rescued from the tunnel, but it is not clear if all these are credited to Morgan or not. In a sad twist, Morgan's heroic deeds actually hurt sales of his invention because the public became fully aware that he was an African-American. Still, no one can completely deny a great idea, and Morgan's gas mask became the precursor to those used in World War I.

    (Image source: City of Cleveland, Division of Water / WKYC.com)

  • 10.)  Kunle Olukotun

    Kunle Olukotun is currently a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Stanford University, where he has taught since 1991. In the mid-90s, believing that multi-core processors would provide superior computing than the superscalar designs popular at the time, Olukotun headed up the Stanford Hydra Project which developed one of the world's first multiprocessor chips.

    In 2000 he founded his own company, Afara Websystems, to develop multiprocessor-based server systems. The company was eventually purchased by Sun Microsystems (the creators of Java) and and its technology became the basis behind many of Sun's key products. Olukotun is still actively conducting work and research into computer engineering and in the areas of parallel programming.

    (Image source: Stanford University)

Chris Wiltz is a Senior Editor at   Design News  covering emerging technologies including AI, VR/AR, blockchain, and robotics.


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