6 Black/African American Inventors You Didn’t Learn in History Class

Written on by Mindy Haas

For Black History Month, I’ve been cultivating content for the Voice and Vision Facebook page.  I was familiar with the most famous individuals, like Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, etc.  However, I wanted to learn something new in the process, so I dug a little deeper.  In doing so, I came across some fantastic black individuals who were significant contributors to things that are commonplace today.    This week, I want to share what I learned with you. 

Elijah McCoy (1844-1929)

Invention: automatic lubricator, the phrase “the Real McCoy”

Ever wonder where the term “the real McCoy” came from? Well, I have the story for you.

In 1872, Elijah invented an automatic lubricator that helped spread lubrication over a train engine while it was moving. Before, the train had to stop so the lube could be applied manually, which meant travel delays.   His invention was so popular that many inferior copycat products flooded the market. 

Train companies started asking for “the Real McCoy” so that they would not be given a knock-off version. The phrase stuck, and we still use it today!

Garret Morgan (1877 – 1963)

Inventions: the safety hood, the three colored traffic light

Garret is credited with the invention of the safety hood, which allowed the wearer to breathe polluted air more easily.  In 1916, he and the local fire company used his masks to perform a successful rescue mission of workers in a collapsed tunnel.  His invention was the precursor to the gas mask.

He also patented the traffic signal with three lights that we’re all familiar with  – red, yellow, and green.  Previously, the traffic lights only flashed green and red, which caused abrupt stopping and traffic accidents.   His invention made the roads much safer than before. 

Alice Parker (1895- ?)

Invention: natural gas heating system

In 1919, Alice Parker received a patent for a central home heating system that paved the way for the heating systems we use today.  The cold winters of her New Jersey hometown motivated her to find a more efficient way of warming her house.   What she designed was progressive at the time because it used natural gas rather than wood or coal.  It pulled cold air into a furnace and conveyed it through ducts to other rooms of the house.  

Alice is indeed a pioneer because she was a female inventor well before the Civil Rights or Women’s Right’s Movements.    Unfortunately, there’s not much information available about her, and I wasn’t able to locate a date of death. 

Marie Van Brittan Brown (1922 – 1999)

Invention: home security system  

Marie was a nurse living in 1960’s Queens, New York City, which was notorious for high crime rates.  She worked odd hours, so she was naturally concerned for personal safety.  This prompted her to devise an intricate & advanced home security system.  It had peepholes at three height levels on the front door so anyone could look out.   Outside, there was also a camera that shot footage to a TV monitor in the house to see who was knocking.   The system had a speaker and microphone component for two-way conversations for persons inside and outside the home. If the person outside was a welcome visitor, the user could push a button to unlatch the door.  Conversely, the user could press a button to notify the police of unwelcome visitors.  Pretty cutting edge for the 1960s!

Dr. Charles Drew (1904 -1950)

Invention: the blood bank

Dr. Charles Drew was a surgeon and medical researcher who discovered how to dry plasma and then reconstitute it so it could be kept for more extended periods.  The stores of blood plasma became known as “blood banks.”  During WWII, Dr. Drew organized a blood drive to collect an estimated 15,000 pints of blood and ship it overseas for injured British soldiers.  He also assisted the American Red Cross in establishing their blood bank for the U.S. military.  However, his tenure was short-lived.  He objected to their refusal to accept blood from black donors to use on white soldiers.   They finally agreed to allow it, but only for black soldiers.  Aggrieved with the racist policy, Dr. Drew resigned. 

He was also the first African American to graduate from Columbia University and the first to serve on the American Board of Surgery.

Otis Boykin (1922-1981)

Invention:  resistors, electronic control panel for the Pacemaker

Otis was an inventor who held patents for 28 different electronic devices.  He took a particular interest in resistors (which stem the flow of electricity within other devices) and developed several improved versions.  Electronics were more reliable with his resistors and could be made more cheaply than before.   They were used in everything from TVs to computers and military missiles.  Today, most resistors are adaptations of his original designs. 

Otis is most famous for developing the control unit in the Pacemaker, which helped provide more accurate regulation.  To grasp the significance of Otis’s contribution to humanity, consider this:  in 2016, about 1 million people worldwide had Pacemakers implanted!   It’s estimated to increase to 1.5million by 2023.

Just the Surface

These individuals just touch the surface of black/African American influencers.  There are so many writers, doctors, politicians, artists, musicians, and civil rights activists who have had a considerable impact on our culture. The more I learn, the more I genuinely appreciate the resiliency and perseverance of the black community in the face of oppression over the years. 

Learn More

If you are interested in learning more, here are some additional Black History facts.

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