Celebrating Black History Month – 10 Black Inventors Who Changed Your Life

During Black History Month, we would like to introduce you to 10 black inventors who changed your life from hair care products to the ironing board, the creations from these African Americans still impact your everyday life. Look for additional posts about black musicians and artists.

10 Black Inventors Who Changed Your Life

Dr. Patricia Bath (1942 – 2019)
Dr. Bath was an American ophthalmologist, inventor, humanitarian, and academic. She became the first female African American medical doctor to receive a medical patent when she was the inventor of laser cataract surgery. Her invention was called Laserphaco Probe in 1986. She was the first woman member of the Jules Stein Eye Institute, the first woman to lead a post-graduate training program in ophthalmology, and the first woman elected to the honorary staff of the UCLA Medical Center. A holder of five patents, she also founded the non-profit American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness in Washington, D.C.

Sarah Boone (1832 – 1904)
In 1892, Sarah Boone patented a design improvement to McCoy’s ironing board. She wrote in her application that the purpose of her invention was “to produce a cheap, simple, convenient, and highly effective device, particularly adapted to be used in ironing the sleeves and bodies of ladies’ garments.” The ironing board was very narrow, curved, and made of wood. The shape and structure allowed it to fit a sleeve and it was reversible, so one could iron both sides of the sleeve.

Charles B. Brooks (1865–????)
Brooks designed the self-propelled street sweeping truck equipped with trash-and-debris-pushing. His design had revolving brushes attached to the front fender, and the brushes were interchangeable so that when snow fell, scrapers could be attached for snow removal. His two other successful 1890s patents included dust-proof collection bags for his street sweeper, as well as a ticket punch that collected the tiny circular paper discards instead of letting them fall to the ground.

Marie Van Brittan Brown (1922 – 1999)
Marie Van Brittan Brown was a nurse and innovator.  She rigged a motorized camera to record her home entryway and project images onto a TV monitor, making a video home security system. A two-way microphone was added to communicate with visitors and a panic button to notify police of any emergency in progress. She filed for a patent in 1966 and received approval in 1969. Brown was recognized for her innovation and received an award from the National Science Committee, officially making her a part of “an elite group of African-American inventors and scientists.

Thomas L. Jennings (1791 – 1856)
Jennings was working as a tailor in New York City when he invented a process for dry-cleaning delicate clothing known as “dry-scouring.” He applied for a patent in 1820 and received approval the following year. He has the distinction of being the first African-American patent-holder in history; he was granted the patent in 1821 for his novel method of dry cleaning. With the money he earned from his invention, he donated to abolitionist causes and freed his still-enslaved family members.

Frederick McKinley Jones (1893 – 1961)
Frederick McKinley Jones developed the automatic refrigeration equipment used in long-haul trucks transporting perishables in the late 1940s. Thanks to his invention, grocery stores were able to buy and sell products from far distances without the risk of them spoiling during transport. Jones’ technology was also used to transport blood during World War II. He also developed a portable x-ray machine, a movie-ticket dispenser, an early radio service for local doctors, a “snow machine” that attached skis to a propeller-powered snowmobile, and a soundtrack synchronizer (later selling the patent to RCA).

Elijah McCoy (1844  – 1929)
Elijah McCoy was an inventor and engineer of African American descent who was notable for his 57 US patents, most having to do with the lubrication of steam engines. He also invented the portable ironing board and a patent in 1874. Having to iron on uneven surfaces frustrated his wife, so he created the ironing board to make her life a little easier. McCoy is also the man behind the lawn sprinkler. Canadian playwright Andrew Moodie’s The Real McCoy portrayed McCoy’s life, the challenges he faced as an African American, and the development of his inventions.

Garrett Morgan (1877 – 1963)
Garrett Morgan was an African-American inventor, businessman, and community leader. His most notable inventions were a three-position traffic signal, a smoke hood (a predecessor to the gas mask), the improved sewing machine, and the gas mask.  Morgan’s was one of the first three-light systems that were invented in the 1920s, resulting in widespread adoption of the traffic lights we take for granted today. Morgan also discovered and developed a chemical hair-processing and straightening solution.

Alice H. Parker (1885 – 1920)
Alice H. Parker was an African American inventor known for her patent for a gas furnace. The central heating furnace design that she patented in December 1919 made use of natural gas for the first time to keep homes warm and toasty. Many modern homes still employ a similar forced-air heating system for which her idea was a precursor. Parker was a highly educated woman who graduated with honors in 1910 from Howard University Academy, a historically African-American university that accepted both male and female students since its founding in November 1866, shortly after the Civil War.

Madam C.J. Walker (1867 – 1919)
Madam C.J. Walker (real name Sarah Breedlove) was an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and political and social activist who suffered hair loss from a scalp condition. Walker then invented an innovative line of African American hair care products in 1905 that led to her distinction as one of America’s first self-made millionaires. Her highly successful cosmetics company is still in business today. She is recorded as the first female self-made millionaire in America in the Guinness Book of World Records.


You can read more about these remarkable inventors at biography.com.  Our next post for Black History Month will feature 10 black musicians who changed your life.

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