The story of Black inventors stretches back centuries and has been a driving force for modernization. With this list, we honor them all: 10 influential Black men and women who changed our world irrevocably with brilliance beyond measure.
African American inventors have been at the forefront of modernization in the United States since the 1700s. In celebration of Black life and Black culture, we have created this timeline to highlight 10 pioneering Black inventors and their wonderful inventions.
1812: Thomas L. Jennings Invents Dry Cleaning
Thomas L. Jennings was an African American inventor, tradesman, entrepreneur and abolitionist in New York. He was born in the city in 1791. In his early 20s, he became a tailor before opening his own dry cleaning business in the city.
He was the first African American to be granted a patent, after he debuted his “dry-scouring” invention in 1821, which we refer to in modern times as dry-cleaning. During this time, most African Americans could not claim intellectual property because all property of slaves was seen as the property of their masters. Jennings, however, was born a free man which gave him the opportunity to profit from his invention. Jennings was a dedicated abolitionist who used the income from his invention to free the rest of his family from slavery and fund many abolitionist causes.
1872: Elijah J. McCoy Invents the Automatic Lubricator
Elijah J. McCoy was born in Canada in 1844. His parents were fugitive slaves who escaped to give their children and themselves a better life. His parents always stressed the importance of education. McCoy attended Black schools in Colchester Township before leaving to study mechanical engineering in Scotland at age 15. McCoy later arrived in Detroit, Michigan, where he found work as a fireman and oiler at the Michigan Central Railroad. McCoy also worked at a home-based machine shop in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where he did more skilled work, such as developing improvements and inventions.
In 1872, McCoy received patenting for an automatic lubricator for oiling of steam engines in locomotives and ships. The automatic lubricator improved steam engines. McCoy continued to refine his devices and designed new ones, most of which dealt with lubricating systems. McCoy continued to invent until late in life. He obtainedas many as 57 patents, including a folding ironing board in 1874, and a lawn sprinkler in 1899. In 1909, Booker T. Washington Recognized McCoy as the most prolific African American inventor to date.
1885: Sarah E. Goode Invents Folding Bed
Sarah E. Goode was born in 1855 in Toledo, Ohio. Following the Civil War in 1865, Goode moved with her family to Chicago, Illinois, where she married a stair builder named Archie. Together, they opened a furniture store in Chicago.
In 1885, New York City passed a law that restricted buildings to be under 80 feetto combat commercial buildings becoming too tall, so tenement buildings usually had a footprint of 25 feet by 100 feet. After hearing about this shirking living space from her furniture store customers in Chicago, Goode set out to create a folding cabinet bed which helped people living in tight housing to efficiently use their limited space. She patented this invention, known as the folding bed, in 1885. The invention was used not only in New York, but by thousands of people who needed to better use their living spaces around the country. In 2012, a math-focused high school in Chicago, named Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy, was opened in honor of Goode’s pioneering work.
1886: John P. Parker Invents Tobacco Press
John P. Parker was an inventor, abolitionist, and industrialist. He was born in 1827 in Norfolk, Virginia as the son of an enslaved mother and white father. At eight years old, Parker was forced by his father to walk to Richmond, Virgina, where he was sold at the slave market to a physician from Mobile, Alabama.While working as a domestic servant, Parker was taught to read and write by the doctor’s family.
During his apprenticeship in a foundry, Parker attempted to escape to New Orleans by riverboat, but he ran into problems with officials. He had to ask one of the doctor’s patients, a widow, to purchase him. The widow allowed Parker to be hired out and earn money until he was able to purchase his freedom for $1,800 in 1845. Parker left the South, first settling in Jeffersonville, Indiana, then Cincinnati, Ohio, where there were larger free Black communities and jobs in the bustling port. In 1848, Parker married Miranda Boulden, born in the city. They moved to Ripley, Ohio, a growing center of abolitionist activity, and had six children together.
Throughout his life, Parker is said to have developed a number of mechanical and industrial inventions. Most notably, he invented the pulverizer in the 1840s and he patented the tobacco press in 1884, which helped develop Parker’s fortune. In 1965, Parker opened his own company to manufacture engines which would grow to include a blacksmith and mechanical shop. The company was soon renamed as the Phoenix Foundry.
1891: Phillip Downing Invents the Street Letter Box
Phillip Downing was a skilled inventor inthe late 19th and early 20th century. He was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1857 to George T. Downing and Serena L. deGrasse. Both his parents were well established. His father George was a well-known abolitionist and business owner, and his mother Serena had powerful family roots in New York City. Phillip Downing was one of six children. He grew up in Providence, Newport, and in Washington, D.C.
Downing also wanted to establish himself in the professional world as his father did. Downing would go on to patent at least five inventions with the U.S. Patent Office. In 1890, The U.S. Patent Office approved Downing’s application for “new and useful Improvements in Street-Railway Switches.” His invention allowed the switches to be opened or closed by using a brass arm located next to the brake handle on the platform of the car. It also allowed the switches to be changed automatically.
The following year Downing received approval for two patents for street letter boxes. he designed street letter boxes that resemble the ones we use today:a tall metal box with a secure, hinged door to drop letters. Until this point, everyone who wanted to ship mail had to travel to the post office. Downing’s invention allowed for mail to be dropped off near one’s home and be easily picked-up by a carrier. His idea for the hinged opening prevented rain or snow from damaging the mail. In addition to his work as an inventor, Downing also enjoyed a long career as a clerk with the Custom House in Boston, Massachusetts, retiring in 1927 after more than 30 years of service.
1923: Garrett Morgan Invents the Traffic Light
Garrett Morgan was an African American social activist, businessman and inventor known for creating a straightening product, a breathing device, a revamped sewing machine and an improved traffic signal.
Morgan was born in Kentucky 1877 as one of eleven children. When Morgan was a teenager, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he received work as a handyman for a wealthy landowner. Morgan only finished elementary school before relocating to Cincinnati, but he used the money from his handyman jobs to pay for tutors and further his education. While in Cincinnati, Morgan worked several jobs serving machine factories. Morgan learned the inner workings of the machines and how to fix them. He later obtained a patent for an improved sewing machine and opened his own repair business.
In 1914, Morgan patented a breathing device that protected wearers from inhaling particulates. Morgan’s device was especially useful to firefighters. In 1916, the city of Cleveland was drilling a new tunnel under Lake Erie for a fresh water supply when workers hit a pocket of natural gas, which resulted in an explosion that trapped workers underground amidst suffocating, noxious fumes and dust. When Morgan heard about the explosion, he and his brother put on his breathing devices, made their way to the tunnel and entered as quickly as possible. The brothers managed to save two lives and recover four bodies before the rescue effort was shut down.
Then, in 1923, he created a new kind of traffic signal, one with a warning light to alert drivers that they would need to stop, after witnessing a carriage accident at a problematic intersection. Morgan quickly acquired patents for his traffic signal—a rudimentary version of the modern three-way traffic light—in the United States, Britain and Canada. He eventually sold the rights to General Electric for $40,000, just more than half a million dollars in today’s money.
1928: Marjorie Joyner Invents the Wave Machine
During the 1920s, a group of African American women began to revolutionize the beauty industry by inventing products and processes specifically catered to treating Black hair. Marjorie Joyner was one of these powerful women who would create an empire that helped Black women feel good about their hair and looks.
Joyner was born in 1896 in Monterey, Virginia. She moved to Chicago in 1912 where she started studying cosmetology. In 1916, she became the first African American graduate of Chicago’s A.B. Moler Beauty School at the age of 20. While in Chicago, Joyner met another influential beautician and entrepreneur, Madam C.J. Walker. After Walker died in 1919, Joyner joined Walker’s Beauty Colleges as the national supervisor, during which time she oversaw more than 200 beauty schools.
A few years later, Joyner invented a groundbreaking device which she called the wave machine. She envisioned a system that would use several rods hung above a client’s head to roll several sections of their hair at once. Then, it could be heated up to “cook” a permanent wave or curl into the hair. As a bonus, the curls lasted for a few days. In 1926, Joyner began experimenting with her idea. She tried working with pot roast rods and old-fashioned hair dryer hoods until she developed a prototype. In 1928, Joyner received a patent for her wave machine. Her easy-to-use product was soon adopted by salons all over the United States.
Joyner continued to pioneer in the beauty industry throughout her long life. She co-founded the United Beauty School Owners and Teachers Association in 1945. That same year, she also founded the Alpha Chi Pi Omega Sorority and Fraternity to help raise professional standards for beauticians. At the age of 77, Joyner decided to go to college. In 1973, she was awarded a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Florida.
1919: Alice H. Parker Improves Central Heating Systems
Alice H. Parker was born in 1895. She grew up enduring chilly winters in her New Jersey home, which later propelled her to attempt to create a heating system. Parker was always an intellectual woman. She attended Howard University Academy, where she received a certificate of honors for her exemplary class work while in school.
In the early 1900s, Parker began working on a central heating system that used natural gas to heat homes. Parker’s design drew cool air into a furnace, then conveyed through a heat exchanger that delivered warm air, through ducts, to individual rooms of a house. In 1919, Parker received a patent for her invention. The concept of central heating was around before Parker was born, but her design stood out because it used natural gas as fuel instead of using coal or wood.
1928: Augustus Jackson Becomes the “Father of Ice Cream”
Augustus Jackson, a candy maker and ice cream ethusiast, was born in 1808 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He moved to Washington, D.C in 1817, and began working in the White House when he was only nine years old. By the 1820s, Jackson became a top chef for the White House, where he would continue to cook until 1837. After leaving the White House, Jackson returned to Philadelphia and opened his own business.
Although Jackson did not invent ice cream, he introduced the method of using salt to make ice cream. He also pioneered modern manufacturing techniques of controlling custard while it was freezing so it could stay frozen for longer. Additionally, Jackson created dozens of new ice cream flavors, which he would store in tins and sold it to local Black-owned businesses in Philadelphia. During his career, Jackson was one of the richest men in Philadelphia, and his ice cream became known as “Philadelphia Style” ice cream. In 1928, an article in Capper’s Weekly named Jackson the “Father of Ice Cream.”
1966: Marie Van Brittan Brown Invents Home First Security System
Marie Van Brittan Brown was born in Queens, New York in 1922, where she resided until her death in 1999. In addition to being an inventor, Brown also worked as a nurse for decades. Her husband, Albert Brown, was an electronics technician who helped her develop the first home security system in 1966. The invention was inspired by Brown’s own need for a security system in her home due to the high crime rates in Queens at the time.
The invention placed three peepholes on the front door at different height levels. The top one was for tall persons, the bottom one was for children, and the middle one was for anyone of average height. At the opposite side of the door, a camera could be slid up and down to allow the person to see through each peephole. The camera picked up images that would reflect on a monitor via a wireless system. The monitor could be placed in any part of the house, allowing the homeowners to see who was at the door. A voice component also enabled Brown to speak to the person outside. In case of emergency, the police could also be notified with the push of a button. Similarly, the door could be unlocked by remote control.
Brown’s invention is still used today, and it laid the foundation for later security systems such as video monitoring, remote-controlled door locks, push-button alarm triggers, instant messaging to security providers and police, as well as two-way voice communication.
1969: George Carruthers Invents Ultraviolet Spectrograph
George Carruthers was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1939. His father was a civil engineer with the U.S. Army Air Corps who encouraged his son’s early interests in science. By the age of 10, Carruthers was already showing signs of entrepreneurship and inventorship. He constructed his own telescope with cardboard tubing and mail-order lenses he bought with money he earned as a delivery boy. Carruthers’s father died when he was 12, and he moved to Chicago with his mother.
In Chicago, Carruther’s was one of few African American students to participate in Chicago’s high school science fairs. He earned three awards and a first place award for designing and building a telescope. In 1957, Carruthers graduated from Chicago’s Englewood High School and entered the engineering program at the University of Illinois’ Champaign-Urbana campus.
While an undergraduate, Carruthers focused on aerospace engineering and astronomy. After earning his bachelor’s degree in physics in 1961, Carruthers stayed at the University of Illinois, earning his master’s in nuclear engineering in 1962, and his Ph.D. in aeronautical and astronautical engineering in 1964. In 1964, he went to work for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory as a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow. Two years later he became a full-time research physicist at the NRL’s E. O. Hurlburt Center for Space Research.
In 1969, Carruthers was awarded a patent for his “Image Converter for Detecting Electromagnetic Radiation Especially in Short Wavelengths,” which was used by NASA in the 1972 Apollo 16 flight to capture images that revealed the mysteries of space. Carruthers’ invention was also used to identify levels of pollution in the Earth’s atmosphere.
1986: Patricia Bath Invents Laserphaco Probe
Patricia Bath was born in Harlem, New York in 1942. Bath was encouraged by her family to pursue academic interests. Her father, Rupert Bath, who was a former merchant marine and an occasional newspaper columnist taught Bath about the wonders of travel and the value of exploring new cultures. Her mother introduced Bath to the wonders of science by buying her first chemistry set. Consequently, Bath always worked hard on her intellectual pursuits. At the age of 16, she became one of only a few students to attend a cancer research workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation, and her research led to national recognition, earning her the Mademoiselle magazine’s Merit Award in 1960.
After graduating from high school in only two years, Bath attended Hunter College, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in 1964, before going to Howard University to pursue a medical degree. Bath graduated with honors from Howard in 1968, and accepted an internship at Harlem Hospital shortly afterward. Later, she accepted a residency with Columbia University where she started studying blindness. She found that African Americans were twice as likely to suffer from blindness than other racial groups. In 1981, Bath began working on inventing the Laserphaco Probe, which uses laser technology to provide painless and precise treatment of cataracts. However, the technology was not yet available to Bath which delayed her invention. It would take her until 1986 to complete the probe. In 1988, Bath was awarded a patent for her development of the Laserphaco Probe, which has been used to help millions with cataracts.