February 5, 2015 4:14 pm

February is Black History Month and the time to celebrate the many prolific Black inventors throughout history. American innovation is rich with the contributions of famous Black inventors that have made history in many different areas, including medicine, technology, and food.

George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver is likely the most famous Black inventor. He is renowned for the discovery of over 300 different uses for peanuts, including cooking oil, axle grease, and printer’s ink. Most notably, however, George Washington Carver was not interested in fame or fortune; he wanted to help his fellow man. He started caring for neighbors ailing plants at a young age and developed his botany and horticultural interests as the first African American student at the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts. After accepting a position at Tuskegee Institute, Carver started experimenting with crop rotation with peanuts. He ended up with a large surplus of peanuts, so he started developing alternative uses for the plant. Inscribed on his tombstone is the epitaph: “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”

Benjamin Banneker

As the Stevie Wonder song “Black Man” tells us, Benjamin Banneker was the inventor of the first clock to be made in America. Banneker held many roles – a farmer, mathematician, astronomer, author, and land surveyor, and was taught himself by reading books. In the early 1750s, he borrowed a pocket watch, took it apart, and studied its components. From there he created a fully functional and incredibly precise clock out of carved wooden pieces. In his lifetime, Benjamin Banneker also predicted a solar eclipse, wrote an almanac, and helped to create Washington, DC.

Dr. Patricia Bath

As a noted Opthamologist and famous black inventor, Dr. Patricia Bath has dedicated her life to the treatment and prevention of visual impairments. Her personal belief that everyone has the “Right to Sight” led to her invention in 1985 of a specialized tool and procedure for the removal of cataracts. With the Laserphaco Probe and procedure, Dr. Bath increased the accuracy and results of cataract surgery, which had previously been performed manually with a mechanical grinder. With the Laserphaco Probe invention and the development of the procedure for its use, Dr. Bath helped restore the sight of several people who had been blinded by cataracts for up to 30 years.

Marie Van Brittan Brown

While home security systems today are more advanced than ever, back in 1966 the idea for a home surveillance device seemed almost unthinkable. That was the year famous Black inventor Marie Van Brittan Brown, and her partner Albert Brown, applied for an invention patent for a closed-circuit television security system – the forerunner to the modern home security system. A female black inventor far ahead of her time, Marie Van Brittan Brown created an invention that was the first in a long string of home-security inventions that continue to flood the market today.

George Crum

The son of an African-American father and a Native American mother, Crum was working as a chef in the summer of 1853 when he incidentally invented the chip. A customer ordered a plate of French fries but returned them to the kitchen because he thought they were too thick and soft. Annoyed with the patron, Crum got a new batch of potatoes, sliced them as thin as possible, and fried them until they were very crispy. Served with a generous heaping of salt, the chips delighted the customer and a new snack was born. Though Crum never attempted to patent his invention, the snack was eventually mass-produced and sold in bags – providing thousands of jobs nationwide.

Dr. Charles Drew

Even after his death in 1950, Charles Drew has saved hundreds of thousands of lives because of his invention. The physician, researcher, and surgeon invented blood banks while earning his Ph. D. at Colombia University. His techniques were put into practice during the onset of World War II as he emerged as the leading authority on mass transfusion and processing methods. He went onto create the American Red Cross blood bank.

Lonnie G. Johnson

A friend to fun-lovers and pranksters everywhere, Lonnie G. Johnson invented the Super Soaker in 1989 when he conducted an experiment on a heat pump that used water instead of Freon. When he shot a stream of water across his bathroom into the bathtub, Johnson knew he discovered something great. The Super Soaker has ranked among the world’s top 20 best-selling toys since its release and Lonnie G. Johnson holds more than 80 patents for various inventions.

Frederick McKinley Jones

Anytime you see a truck on the highway transporting refrigerated or frozen food, you’re seeing the work of Frederick McKinley Jones. One of the most prolific Black inventors ever, Jones patented more than 60 inventions in his lifetime, most famously an automatic refrigeration system for trucks and railroad cars. Before Jones’ invention, the only way to keep food cool in trucks was to load them with ice. Jones was inspired to invent the system after talking with a truck driver who lost his whole cargo of chicken because he couldn’t reach his destination before the ice melted. As a solution, the African-American inventor developed a roof-mounted cooling system to make sure food stayed fresh. Jones was later awarded the National Medal of Technology in 1991 – the first Black inventor to ever receive such an honor.

From colonial times through today, African Americans have contributed to the advancement of medicine, physics, industrialization and plain old fun. The innovations of Black inventors could be celebrated year-round, not just during Black History Month. For more information on African American inventors, click here.

Categorized in: