For Black History Month, we're honoring some of the brilliant African American men and women who changed the world with their inventions. Many of the things that make our lives easy and convenient today were first created by these forward-thinking Black inventors. From traffic lights to elevators and feeding tubes, here are 10 things we wouldn't have today were it not for these African American inventors.
Hate taking the stairs? Then you should probably be thanking Alexander Miles. The inventor from Minnesota patented the electric elevator in 1887. While Miles didn’t invent the first elevator, he certainly improved it. Until his invention came along, elevators were operated manually. Passengers had to open and close doors on their own which led to plenty of accidents. Miles’ patent crafted a way for the doors of the elevator car to open and close on their own and for shaft doors to close when the elevator wasn’t on that floor, making it safer and easier to navigate tall buildings.
If you’ve ever been to a concert or enjoyed live music, you have James Edward West to thank for being able to hear the artist sing. A Temple University graduate, West developed the foil electret microphone in 1961. An inexpensive, compact device, West’s microphone is now used in 90 percent of all contemporary microphones – including ones found in telephones, tape recorders, camcorders, baby monitors and hearing aids.
Dr. Shirley Jackson became the first woman to receive a Ph.D from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) but that’s not why she’s on this list. The theoretical physicist and inventor used her knowledge of physics to foster advances in telecommunications research while working at Bell Laboratories. Her scientific breakthroughs and work there made it possible for others to invent things like the portable fax, touch tone telephone, solar cells, fiber optic cables, and the technology behind caller ID and call waiting.
Garrett Morgan only had an elementary school-level education and began his career working as a sewing machine mechanic but that didn’t stop him from creating his own business and improving countless lives with his inventions. Morgan is responsible for creating his own line of hair refining products and crafting a breathing device that served as a prototype for gas masks worn by soldiers during World War I. But his greatest invention may be the traffic signal he created in 1923, the first of its kind that paved the way for our modern, three-way traffic light. After witnessing a carriage accident at a particularly problematic intersection in Cleveland, Morgan came up with a warning light that would help drivers know when to stop.
Madam CJ Walker was an activist, philanthropist and the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire thanks to her creation of a line of beauty care products for African American women. After suffering from a condition that caused her to begin losing her hair, Walker invented her own hair care treatment for African American women. Not only did her business provide a needed service to the Black community, but Walker also made a point of hiring Black women, giving them the means to support themselves.
Your closet full of shoes wouldn’t exist without Jan Matzeliger. Settled in the United States in 1873 and trained as a shoemaker, Matzeliger wanted to find a way to speed up the process of shoemaking, which, during that time, was done entirely by hand. The most tedious and time consuming stage of crafting footwear came when the body of the shoe was fused to the sole using “hand lasters.” Matzeliger patented a machine that could do the job in 1883, that had the capacity to produce 700 pairs of shoes a day—more than 10 times the amount typically produced by human hands.
Thomas L. Jennings became the first Black man to receive a patent in 1821 for his discovery of a process called dry-scouring which would later become our modern dry-cleaning. Born a free man in New York City, Jennings’ patent created quite a bit of controversy. Because it was illegal for enslaved people to patent their own inventions as their work, both physical and intellectual work was legally the property of their enslaver. Since Jennings was a free man, he was able to lay claim to his invention and start his own dry cleaning business in the city.
If you’ve lived in any kind of small apartment in a big city, you’ve probably seen or used Sarah E. Goode’s invention. Born into slavery in 1850, Goode became a free woman after the Civil War and moved to Chicago with her husband where the two started their own furniture company. Many of their customers were working-class citizens who lived in cramped apartments in the city. Goode, who would become the first African American woman to receive a patent, created a folding bed – what we now call a “Murphy bed” – that could be stowed away or used for multiple purposes.
Sarah Boone was another female African American inventor ahead of her time. In 1892, she received a patent for her invention of the ironing board. Up until that point, people ironed clothes using a board of wood rested across chairs. Boone’s invention made it cheap and convenient for women to iron their clothes.
Daniel Hale Williams was an apprentice shoemaker and a barbershop owner before he discovered his passion for medicine and trained to be a surgeon at Northwestern University Medical School. He opened up his own teaching hospital that sought to train Black nurses and doctors of all races -- something revolutionary at the time. But he's best remembered for being the first doctor to perform open heart surgery in 1893. Until that point, internal surgeries weren't performed because of the high risk of infection. Williams, who got his start performing surgeries in patients' homes, had developed and perfected his own sterlization techniques and was able to successfully operate on his patient and send him home healed just 51 days later.
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