8 World-Changing Black Inventors That Every Kid Should Know About
From street lights and video games to blood plasma and cataract surgery, these brilliant innovators rose to the top of their fields despite segregation and racial discrimination. In honor of Black History Month, here are eight Black inventors who made the world a better place.
School history lessons may typically praise the contributions of white men like Thomas Edison and Benjamin Franklin, but Black inventors have also heavily shaped the world we live in today. With contributions in food, medicine, and safety, these eight Black inventors have helped make our lives healthier, safer, and easier—and are worth every kid knowing.
George Washington Carver: The Agricultural Scientist (1864-1943)
Born into slavery in Diamond, Missouri, the year before it was outlawed, George Washington Carver was a prominent scientist of the early 20th century. In 1894, he became the first African American ever to earn a Bachelor of Science degree. He also earned a Master of Agriculture degree in 1896. Carver taught and conducted research at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). He invented hundreds of products using sweet potatoes and soybeans, but it was his work with peanuts that really made him famous. He yielded more than 300 food, industrial, and commercial products from peanuts. Carver, who was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame after his death, also has a monument standing in Newton County, Missouri.
Garrett Morgan: The Traffic King (1877-1963)
Garrett Morgan, born in Paris, Kentucky in 1877, witnessed many accidents at traffic lights that only had "stop" and "go" signals. He saw a way to improve on it by adding a warning light—and the the three-way signal, which greatly improved vehicle safety, was born. Morgan sold the rights to his invention to General Electric for $40,000. Before that, in 1914, Morgan also secured a patent for a canvas hood that helped firefighters breathe when in the line of duty. He sold the "safety hoods" to the U.S. Navy, and the Army used them in World War I.
Marie Van Brittan Brown: The Security Pro (1922-1999)
Marie Van Brittan Brown was born in Queens, New York, and made her life there working as a full-time nurse. Her husband, Albert, was an electronic technician. They both kept irregular work hours, and the timing of their schedules meant Brown was often left home alone. When crime rates began to affect her community, Brown grew fearful of answering the door. With the help of her husband, she devised the first home security system. It was equipped with four peepholes, a sliding camera, television monitors, two-way microphones, and a panic button to notify police of any emergency. In 1966, Brown filed to patent her invention and received approval in 1969.
Frederick McKinley Jones: The Cooling Expert (1893-1961)
Frederick McKinley Jones was awarded 61 patents during his lifetime—40 for refrigeration equipment. In the late 1930s, the Cincinnati native's invention of refrigerated air-cooling units for trucks, railroad cars, ships, and planes revolutionized the distribution of food and other perishables by making fresh produce available anywhere in the country, regardless of the season. It also changed American eating habits. Jones's cooling units additionally played an important role in preserving blood, medicine, and food at army hospitals and on battlefields during World War II. In 1991, he was posthumously awarded the National Medal of Technology, the first African American to receive the award.
Alexander Miles: The Elevator Expert (1838-1918)
Alexander Miles lived in a time when elevator doors were operated manually by human conductors. If the shaft was not properly closed, people could fall through leading to horrific accidents. In 1887, Miles was granted a patent for his invention of a flexible belt that attached to the elevator cage, and drums positioned to indicate if the elevator had reached a floor. The belt allowed the doors to automatically open and close. Miles not only became wealthy, he was also inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Charles R. Drew: The Blood Bank Equalizer (1904-1950)
Born in Washington D.C., Charles Drew, M.D., was a prominent surgeon, medical researcher, and trailblazer in the field of blood transfusion and the storage of blood in large-scale blood banks. Dr. Drew's renowned research led to an appointment as medical director of the Blood for Britain project where he oversaw the collection of 14,500 pints of vital plasma. He also became director of the first American Red Cross Blood Bank in 1941. There he worked with the U.S. Army and Navy and helped medics save thousands of lives during World War II.
Dr. Drew fought against racial segregation in American blood banks that excluded the blood of African Americans from plasma-supply networks. He resigned in 1942 after the armed forces declared the blood of African Americans would be accepted but stored separately. He still continued to fight for the inclusion of Black physicians in medical societies, specialty organizations, and the American Medical Association.
Patricia Era Bath: The Eye Doctor (1942-2019)
Patricia Bath, M.D., was a brilliant ophthalmologist, inventor, humanitarian, and an early pioneer of laser cataract surgery. A graduate of Hunter College and Howard University College of Medicine, Dr. Bath became the first African American resident in ophthalmology at New York University. She was also the first African American woman to work as a surgeon at the Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA Medical Center. In 1981, Dr. Bath developed the Laserphaco Probe, which uses laser to remove cataracts, making the procedure less painful. Dr. Bath, who co-founded the nonprofit American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness in Washington D.C., says her "personal best moment" came on a humanitarian mission when she restored the vision of a woman who couldn't see for three decades.
Gerald A. Lawson: The Ultimate Gamer (1940-2011)
Your kids may not know his name, but they should because Brooklyn-born pioneering scientist and video game developer, Gerald "Jerry" Lawson, made it possible for people to play video games from the comfort of home. In the early '70s, Lawson moved to the Bay Area's Silicon Valley where he was one of the only Black engineers in the tech industry. In 1976, he joined the computer firm, Fairchild Semiconductor, where he became director of engineering and marketing for the company's video game division. Under Lawson's direction, the Fairchild Channel F—a console that allowed people to play a variety of games at home—was developed, allowing for the creation of popular systems of today, including the Atari 2600, Nintendo, Xbox, and PlayStation.