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Famous African American Inventors: Inventions & Names

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

This lesson explores the work of African American inventors since the nation's founding. We will learn about the first African Americans to receive patents in the eighteenth century. Then, we will discover the work of notable figures who made important contributions to medicine, industry, and space science.

Contributions of African Americans to Modern Life

Modern life would not be what it is today without inventions like dry cleaning (Thomas L. Jennings), blood banks (Dr. Charles Richard Drew) and the Super Soaker water pistol (Lonnie Johnson), all of which were made possible by African Americans.

Dr. Charles Richard Drew, sitting on the table at the right, is pictured here with medical residents at the Howard University Hospital in 1945
charles richard drew

Even though the United States is a relatively young nation compared to others, it fosters a culture that values intellectual freedom and ingenuity. In spite of centuries of oppression and struggle, African Americans have contributed immensely to advancements in medicine, industry, engineering, and technology. Our modern way of life wouldn't be what it is without these contributions. The richness and prosperity of American life today is due in no small way to the country's diverse cultures and ethnic heritage.

This lesson examines the contributions of African American inventors since the formation of the United States in the late eighteenth century.

Unsung Heroes of America's Antebellum Period

The earliest contributions of African Americans to modern American life dates back to the Antebellum period. While the term refers specifically to the period before the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, it can also be used more generally to refer to a period before any war.

During the Antebellum period, many rules were in place to restrict African American contributions and advancement in society. The greatest struggle came in the form of slavery, social oppression, and racial prejudice. Restrictions were also written into the law. While those who lived in slavery did not have the right to take out patents for their inventions, freed black men and women living in United States could apply.

In 1821, Thomas L. Jennings (1791-1859) became the first African American to receive a patent. He invented dry cleaning, then known as 'dry scouring.' In 1885, Sarah E. Goode (1850-1905) invented the cabinet bed, a nineteenth century precursor to the Murphy Bed, a folding hideaway bed, becoming the first African American women to receive a patent. Other African American contributions during the Antebellum period include James Forten's design for a faster ship's sail (1798), Norbert Rillieux's process for refining sugar (1830s), and Edmond Berger's invention of the spark plug (1839).

Contributions to Medicine

Modern medicine has advanced by leaps and bounds thanks to the contributions made by African Americans. Some notable examples include Dr. Charles Richard Drew's (1904-1950) research into blood types and the establishment of blood banks in the early twentieth century, Ernest E. Just's (1883-1941) research into fertility, and Charles W. Buggs' (1906-1991) work on antibiotics.

African Americans made important advancements to disease prevention, including Louis T. Wright's (1891-1952) vaccination against smallpox, Percy Julian's remedy for arthritis (1899-1975), and William A. Hinton's (1883-1959) test to detect syphilis. Furthermore, dermatologist Theodore K. Lawless (1892-1971) contributed to finding a cure for leprosy, as well as devising treatments for syphilis.

Advancements in the area of medicine also extend into technological developments as well. Dr. Patricia Bath (1942-) invented a laser tool used in optometry. Among Frederick M. Jones' (1893-1961) 60 patents was the first portable X-Ray machine. Otis Boykin (1920-1982) also invented improvements to the pacemaker and artificial heart simulators.

African American Contributions to Engineering, Industry and Technology

George Washington Carver (1864-1943) is perhaps the most famous African American inventor, remembered for his contributions to agriculture. Carver was committed to finding alternatives to cotton, like peanuts and sweet potatoes, that African Americans and low income families could plant that would enable them to live sustainably. Even though he only patented three of his inventions, he made many important contributions to nutrition, agriculture, and industry including 300 products made from peanuts and over 70 dyes.

George Washington Carver (front row, center) poses with fellow staff members at the Tuskegee Institute (now known as Tuskegee University)
George Washington Carver

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