Leading The Way: African-American Inventors

“Making Something Out of Nothing”   Some would call that phrase a cliché. Not me. I think it’s a fairly accurate description of who are as African-Americans.    If there is something that I resent about that phrase, it’s the superficial way we choose to apply it.  We mostly use it to describe our sense […]

“Making Something Out of Nothing”


Some would call that phrase a

cliché. Not me. I think it’s a fairly accurate description of who are as African-Americans. 


If there is something that I resent about that phrase, it’s the superficial

way we choose to apply it.  We mostly use

it to describe our sense of style – our ability to “shine” and stand out.


What a shame, since the phrase

itself actually implies something much more substantial. It describes our very

way of life that encompasses much more than clothing styles, and slang.


Everywhere you look, you can see

our mark. Our contributions to the modern world touch just about every aspect

of daily life, often in ways that we take for granted.  Here are a few examples:

Patricia Bath

Life: 1942-Present


Ophthalmologist Patricia Era Bath is recognized as the

first African-American female doctor to have a medical invention patented. The

invention in question is the Cataract Laser Probe. Patented when New York

native Dr. Bath was in her mid-40’s, the probe uses a fiberoptic laser to

remove cataracts from the eyes. It proved to be a painless and efficient method

for doing so, especially in comparison to what it replaced: the then common

practice of “drilling” to get rid of cataracts. 



Otis Boykin

Life: 1920-1982


Dallas-born Otis Boykin was a research engineer, chemist and entrepreneur who invented an improved

Electrical Resistor. This is used in a variety of electronic devices including

televisions, radios and computers, and helped to reduce the cost of

such products. Guided Missiles could not function without Boykin’s variable resistor. Among his many creations – and probably most importantly – he invented the Pacemaker, which has saved and extended many peoples’ lives. Sadly, and ironically, he died of heart failure himself.


Garrett Morgan

Life: 1877-1963


Garrett Morgan was born in Kentucky and moved to Ohio to find work when he was only 14-years-old. He is responsible

for two particular inventions that helped to save lives. In 1914, Morgan

invented a type of gas mask, The Morgan Safety Hood and Smoke Protector.  On July 25, 1916 Morgan and a team of

volunteers used this invention to rescue 32 men who were trapped in a tunnel

beneath Lake Erie after an explosion. After this act of heroism, fire

departments around the country lined up to purchase his masks. Of course he is also known as the inventor of the traffic light, which can save lives as long as we pay attention to them! He actually sold the rights to the traffic signal to General Electric for $50,000.00.


Frederick Jones

Life: 1893-1961

Frederick Jones, another Kentucky-born trailblazer, patented more

than 60 inventions in his lifetime – a staggering number by any account.  Most of his innovations were in the field of

refrigeration, including a portable air conditioner. Jones invented a refrigeration system for trucks and railroad

cars that kept food fresh during long trips. This refrigeration system changed the

food transportation industry by virtually eliminating food spoilage.


Mark Dean

Life: 1957-Present


Mark Dean was a computer

scientist and inventor that headed a team that developed the ISA Systems Bus. This

allows peripheral devices such as scanners, printers and modems to be connected

to personal computers. Mark Dean also led a design team that created the first

one gigahertz computer chip.


Lonnie Johnson

Life: 1949-Present


Lonnie Johnson, an Aerospace

engineer from Los Angeles, achieved the unthinkable by making summertime that much more fun with his brainchild. He

happens to be the inventor of the greatest water gun of all time, the Super

Soaker. Johnson first invented the Super Soaker in 1988 under the name The

Power Drencher. The Super Soaker revolutionized

the squirt gun industry by using air pressure to deliver longer and more

powerful blasts of water. This innovation made the Super Soaker the most

popular toy in the U.S. in 1991 and 1992, and to date has generated over $200 million dollars in sales. In January 2008, Mr. Johnson announced his idea for a heat engine that will turn heat into power.


Valerie Thomas

Life: 1943-Present


Valerie Thomas is the inventor

of the Illusion Transmitter, a device that sounds like an early precursor to

virtual reality. It projects three-dimensional images into your living room

instead of having them appear on a flat screen. Ms. Thomas also did extensive work with NASA, both as a data

analyst and as a project manager for NASA’s image processing system on Landsat. She retired from NASA in 1995.


James Edward Maceo West

Life: 1931-Present


What would a rapper be without

his best friend and greatest weaon? Virgina-born James West is an acoustician and research

professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Johns

Hopkins University. He was also a Bell Laboratories Fellow at Lucient



Mr. West’s research in the early

1960’s revolutionized both sound recording and voice communication technology

through the development of Foil Electret Transducers. They are used in most

microphones and telephones manufactured today. 

In 1962, he and Gerhard Sessler patented the Foil Electret Microphone.


Granville T. Woods

Life: 1856-1910


The modern railroad probably

wouldn’t be a physical reality without this Ohio native, who is considered by many to

be the African-American equivalent of Thomas Edison. Throughout his life, Mr. Woods he

patented a number of inventions pertaining to the railroad industry, including the automatic air brake. In 1887,

he developed the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph. This device helped to

make railway travel considerably safer by allowing moving trains to communicate

with each other between train stations.


Philip Emeagwali

Life: 1954-Present


Born In Nigeria, Dr. Philip

Emeagwali won the Gordon Bell prize in 1989 for programming the Connection

Machine Supercomputer to compute a world record 3.1 billion calculations per

second using 65,536 processors to simulate oil reservoirs. Dr. Emeagwali has

submitted over 41 inventions to U.S. Patent and Trademark office. He is one of

the most prolific and brilliant minds in the field of Supercomputers.