African American inventions have played a significant role in shaping the world as we know it today. While the following list is somewhat confined to technological and mechanical African American inventions many other popular inventions stem from the inventiveness of this community. Make sure to also read our page about another prolific African American inventor: George Washington Carver.
Lewis Latimer is most known for his improved invention of the Carbon filament. He was working as a draftsman in a patent office, where he was tasked with creating drawings for new patents. Through this work he developed a technological ability and came up with several improvements and patents, such as an improved toilet system for train cars (1874) and an early prototype of air conditioning.
However, Latimer is most known for his invention of the Carbon filament, a replacement for Edison’s paper filament, first used in his original prototype of the light bulb. Edison’s original prototype of the light bulb contained a filament made of electrified paper and it burned down quite quickly. Latimer invention which constituted of replacing the paper filament with a carbon one, made it more durable and allowed light bulbs to become the useful widespread product they have become around the world. He licensed the patent to the Electric company of the united states in 1881, and also developed an efficient process for its manufacturing.
Fast forward to the 21st century, the first African American gastroenterologist, Leonidas Berry (born 1924) was instrumental in the development of the gastroscope. He was a pioneer of the said technology, when he invented the Gastroscopy scope – an apparatus which allowed doctors to look inside the intestinal track and remove any diseased stomach tissues from a patient.
Gastroenterology is the medical science focused on the digestive system and its disorders. The gastroscope, which is currently being used today for a non-invasive procedure exploring the gastrointestinal tract, right down to the duodenum is a modern development of the same concept Berry came up with. It’s one of the most important procedures used today by doctors to easily track bodily problems and fix them before they become serious.
A well-known research engineer, David Crosthwait Junior, is responsible for several inventions in the area of air conditioning, refrigeration and heating systems. He’s credited for some of the heating and ventilation systems we enjoy today.
During his lifetime, Crosthwait managed to receive around 39 US patents, and 80 international patents most of them related to HVAC systems.
James West from Prince Edward Country, Virginia contributed to many of the developments in audio technology we use to this day. His most well-known invention is the electrical microphone. He was the one who created the foil electret microphones which became the mainstream standard microphones used from 1962 onwards. Most of the microphones today—and all inventions utilizing sound—rely on West’s original concept. Without West’s innovation, items like hearing aids, baby monitors and camcorders may have taken longer to be developed.
Aside from his development of the microphone, West was also the holder of more than 200 patents and 60 scientific publications.
Granville T. Woods , born 1856, revolutionized technology when it comes to communication between a stationary place and a moving object—specifically a train. Although communication during those days was fairly common, the idea of talking while in transit wasn’t as common or popular.
Woods studied electrical and mechanical engineering and invented telegraphony. It allowed the movement of voice signals through telegraph lines, facilitating message exchange from stations to and from trains currently traveling.
Woods dedicated his professional life to the railroad industry and his responsible to many inventions pertaining to trains. Another well know innovation of his, helped train engineers measure how close they were to another train in transit, thus reducing accidents and collisions between trains.
During the 1880’s, shoes were typically handcrafted and the different pieces of a shoe were attached by hand. Specifically, the sole and upper part of the shoes needed to be sewn together by hand, severely limiting the ability of factories to produce large scale orders. The process of attaching the different pieces together was called “shoe lasting”. It was Jan Ernst Matzeliger who finally developed a shoe lasting machine that efficiently sews the soles of the shoes to the upper portion.
Prior to this machine, shoe companies could accommodate about 50 shoes a day for every employee working at the company. With the machine, however, the amount increased three times, forging a significant boom in the shoe industry with the cost of creating a shoe becoming significantly lower and prices dropping as a consequence. It isn’t surprising that Matzeliger’s invention became the foundation of most shoe manufacturing systems today. He received a patent for his shoe lasting machine in 1883.
The personal computer you’re using today wouldn’t look or act the same without the inventiveness of Mark Dean (born 1957). Dean was the chief engineer at IBM during the 80s and holds three of IBM’s original patents for the personal computer. His contribution and inventiveness was crucial in the production and development of the computer we all know it today. Probably one of his most outstanding inventions is the 1-Gigahertz chip which is capable of containing up to one million transistors – an important step in making computers smaller and faster.
The traffic signal we all use today to regulate traffic and prevent accidents stemmed from the mind of Garrett Augustus Morgan. He was the first one who was granted a patent for the product, one of many other inventions attributed to him.
Morgan was also granted a patent for a gas mask used to rescue miners trapped underground. The product was so effective that the United States Army asked him to create gas masks for the troops. With World War I just breaking out during that time, Morgan’s invention managed to save thousands of people from poisonous gases. Even the police and fire departments placed orders for the product in droves.