Article

Lewis Latimer, who invented this device in 1882, helped pave the way for contemporary black inventors.

Draft of patent courtesy the United States Patent and Trademark Office

By Mary Schons

Friday, January 21, 2011

African American inventors continued to make life easier and work more profitable for individuals, businesses, and communities well into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

William Harry Barnes
William Harry Barnes (1887–1945) was an ear, nose, and throat doctor at the Frederick Douglass Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He invented a medical instrument that allowed doctors to reach the pituitary gland more easily. Found on the underside of the brain, the pea-sized pituitary gland secretes hormones directly into the blood. He called his invention a hypophyscope.

Dr. Barnes also perfected a way to remove a patient's tonsils in just ten minutes, with no bleeding.

Leonidas Berry
Leonidas Berry (1902–1995) was also a doctor. He invented the Eder-Berry biopsy gastroscope in 1955. His invention made it easier for doctors to collect tissue from the inside of the stomach without surgery.

Five years after inventing his gastroscope, Dr. Berry studied the stomachs of alcoholics. He discovered that it was the liver, and not the stomach, that became diseased because of too much alcohol. This changed the diagnosis and treatment of alcoholism forever.

Billy Blanks
Billy Blanks (b.1955) is famous for inventing Tae Bo, a fitness program that combines martial arts, boxing, and aerobics. Tae Bo is a combination of the words for tae kwon do, a Japanese martial art form, and boxing.

Bessie Blount Griffin
Bessie Blount Griffin (b. 1914) was a physical therapist who worked with veterans coming back from World War II. Many of the soldiers at the veterans’ hospital in Chicago where she worked were amputees or had lost the use of their limbs.

Griffin's first invention was called the portable receptacle support. The device consisted of a tube attached to a bowl, which was connected to a brace attached to the patient's neck. It allowed the wearer to eat an entire meal without assistance. This allowed amputees to have more freedom and independence.

In 1977, Griffin became the first black woman to train and work at Scotland Yard. (Scotland Yard is the famous agency responsible for law enforcement in London, England.)

Otis Boykin
Otis Boykin (1920–1982) had an incredibly diverse career. He invented a machine used to control heart pacemakers, parts for guided missiles and computers, an electronic air filter, and a cash register that thieves couldn't break into. Boykin worked in Chicago, Illinois, and in Paris, France.

George Carruthers
George Carruthers (b.1939) invented the far ultraviolet camera/spectrograph in 1969. It was plated in gold and carried aboard the Apollo 16 mission, where it was placed on the moon's surface. The camera used ultraviolet light, invisible to the naked eye, to capture high-quality images of Earth.

Carruthers's invention helped scientists see how air pollution forms. This allowed them to develop new ways to control air pollution. The camera also found hydrogen in deep space, which led to new ideas about the birth of stars in the universe.

Michael Croslin
Michael Croslin (b.1933) invented computerized blood pressure and pulse monitoring devices called the Medtek 410 and 420. The Medtek 410 took the guesswork out of monitoring a patient’s vital signs, allowing medical professionals to diagnose and treat patients. A later invention, the Medtek 420, adjusts for air pressure and surrounding noise. The Medtek 420 is approved for use in emergency medical evacuation helicopters.

Meredith Charles Gourdine
Meredith Charles Gourdine (1929–1998) was the first inventor to use electrogasdynamics (EGD) to make useful inventions. Electrogasdynamics is the generation of electricity through the energy in highly pressurized gases.

Some of Gourdine’s inventions included the Electradyne Spray Gun, which made it easier to paint unusual surfaces, like bicycle frames, and the Incineraid, a device to reduce air pollution created by incinerators. Other Gourdine inventions include an electric car battery, a system for clearing fog on airport runways, a method for getting oil out of shale rock, and repairing potholes using rubber from old car tires.

Walter Lincoln Hawkins
Walter Lincoln Hawkins (1911–1992) held eighteen U.S. and 129 foreign patents, but his most famous one was for a weather-resistant plastic coating for telephone wires. Before Hawkins’s invention, telephone cables were coated with lead, making them too heavy, expensive, and toxic for general use. Hawkins’s invention increased the life of telephone wires by seventy years.

Elmer Samuel Imes
Elmer Samuel Imes (1883–1941) was an astrophysicist who made improvements on infrared spectrometers. Infrared spectrometers measure the amount of infrared light, invisible to the naked eye, in the atmosphere or outer space. Imes’ improved infrared spectrometers improved rocket engines and chemical lasers.

Dr. Imes was married to Nella Larsen, a writer in the Harlem Renaissance.

Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie Johnson (b.1949) used to build robots and cook up batches of rocket fuel in his kitchen when he was a boy. As an adult, he worked on NASA’s Mars Observer project and on the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn.

Dr. Johnson used his training in astrophysics to invent more down-to-earth tools and toys. He experimented with a heat pump that used water instead of Freon, a toxic gas important to astrophysics. Dr. Johnson hooked up the invention to the bathroom sink and saw a powerful stream of water squirt across the room. He called his invention the Power Drencher, but later changed it to the Super Soaker.

Johnson holds approximately 80 patents, including rechargeable batteries, a dart gun, a spacecraft cooling system, and a hair curler.

Frederick McKinley Jones
Frederick McKinley Jones (1893–1961) was granted his first patent in 1939 when he invented a machine that gave out tickets and the correct change.

After fighting in World War I, he returned to Hallock, Minnesota, to work as a mechanic and as the town’s movie projectionist. Movies were silent back then, but the first movies with sound, called “talkies,” were replacing the old silent pictures. They required expensive equipment the movie theater couldn’t afford, so Jones built a sound synchronization machine for less than $100.

Jones is most famous for inventing the refrigerated truck. It allowed frozen food to be shipped across the country without spoiling.

Marjorie Stewart Joyner
Marjorie Stewart Joyner (1896–1994) was a Chicago activist, community leader, philanthropist, hair salon executive, and the supervisor of over 200 of Madame C. J. Walker’s beauty schools. Joyner holds a patent for a permanent hair wave machine. She did the hair of such notable women as Billie Holiday, Ethel Waters, and Marian Anderson.

Percy Lavon Julian
Percy Lavon Julian (1899–1975) was known as “the soybean chemist.” Julian’s first invention was for coating paper with a soy protein instead of a more expensive milk protein. That technique was used in a product called Aero-Foam. Aero-Foam smothered oil and gasoline fires by blanketing them in the soy-based foam. Aero-foam was adopted by the U.S. Navy and saved the lives of thousands of sailors and naval airmen during World War II.

However, Julian is most famous for using the soybean plant to create the synthetic hormones cortisone and physostigmine. Cortisone is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and physostigmine to treat glaucoma.

Julian was active in the U.S. civil rights movement, raising money for the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund.

John King
John King (1925–2000) worked with the aerospace and safety industries. He invented an early warning sonic transducer in 1972. A sonic transducer analyzes sound waves to determine distances, speeds, and other units of measurement. King also invented a NASA-approved alarm system in 1999.

Garrett Morgan
Garrett Morgan (1877–1963) invented the first hair straightening cream by accident in his workshop, but his other two inventions, the gas mask and the traffic signal, were no accident.

In 1912, Morgan was awarded patent number 1,113,675 for a “breathing device,” also known as a Morgan helmet or safety hood. It allowed firemen to safely fight fires without breathing in poisonous gases. Morgan’s gas mask was used in World War I and by fire departments in New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

After seeing a bad accident involving an automobile and a horse-drawn carriage, Morgan came up with a traffic signal device. A woman’s hat fastener, a round belt fastener, and a friction drive clutch are some more of Morgan’s inventions.

James Parsons
James Parsons, Jr. (1900–1989) did research on how to stop metals from rusting. He held several patents which led to the development of stainless steel.

Edwin Roberts Russell
Edwin Roberts Russell (1913–1996) worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II. The Manhattan Project was a secret program to develop the atomic bomb. Russell holds eleven patents related to nuclear energy and its processes.

Earl Shaw
Earl Shaw (b.1937) is sometimes called the Henry Ford of laser research. He invented the spin-flip tunable laser. This device made it easier for scientists to adjust the strength of the laser beam to perform delicate operations.

Dox Thrash
Dox Thrash (1893–1965) joined the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the height of the Great Depression, in 1937. Working as a printmaker, Thrash discovered a new technique for etching copper. Thrash's new technique became common practice for printmakers and printers. Thrash wanted to call the new technique the "Opheliagraph" after his mother, Ophelia.

Moses Fleetwood ("Fleet") Walker
Moses Fleetwood ("Fleet") Walker (1856–1924) was the first and last African American to play Major League Baseball until Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. He was also an inventor.

Walker’s first patent was for an artillery shell in 1891. He registered three more patents in 1920 that would make it easier to load and change movie reels.

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

aerobics

Noun

exercises that encourage the health of the heart and lungs.

aerospace

Noun

business concerned with the manufacturing and operation of vehicles that fly in and above Earth's atmosphere.

air filter

Noun

screen that removes dust or other particles from the surrounding air.

air pollution

Noun

harmful chemicals in the atmosphere.

Encyclopedic Entry: air pollution

alcoholic

Noun

person who is addicted to alcohol.

amputee

Noun

person who has lost one or more limbs.

Apollo Program

Noun

(1960-1975) NASA program of space flights with a goal of humans going to the moon and back.

artillery shell

Noun

projectile filled with explosives launched by a large weapon.

astrophysicist

Noun

person who studies the relationship between matter, energy, motion, and force outside the Earth's atmosphere.

Billie Holiday

Noun

(Eleanora Fagan) (1915-1959) American jazz singer.

biopsy

Noun

removal of a small piece of tissue from a living organism for study.

blood pressure

Noun

pressure of the flow of blood against arteries and veins.

boxing

Noun

sport of fighting with closed fists.

Cassini-Huygens

Noun

mission to study the planet Saturn and its moons.

civil rights movement

Noun

(~1954-1968) process to establish equal rights for all people in the United States, focusing on the rights of African-Americans.

copper

Noun

chemical element with the symbol Cu.

cortisone

Noun

hormone with many medical uses.

diagnose

Verb

to identify a disease or problem.

diagnosis

Noun

identification of a disease or cause of a medical condition.

disease

Noun

a harmful condition of a body part or organ.

electrogasdynamics (EGD)

Noun

generation of electricity through the energy in highly pressurized gases.

etching

Noun

design produced by cutting into, but not through, a surface, such as rock, metal, or glass.

Ethel Waters

Noun

(1896-1977) American actress and singer.

Frederick Douglass

Noun

(1818-1895) American civil rights pioneer and a leader in the fight to end slavery.

Freon

Noun

brand of chlorofluorocarbon mostly used as refrigerant.

gas mask

Noun

device for safely breathing in poisonous air.

gastroscope

Noun

tube that passes through the mouth and throat to examine the stomach and digestive system.

glaucoma

Noun

disease of the eye.

Great Depression

Noun

(1929-1941) period of very low economic activity in the U.S. and throughout the world.

Harlem Renaissance

Noun

(1919-mid-1930s) cultural movement of African-American culture, art, and lifestyle.

hormone

Noun

chemical that helps regulate some human processes, including growth and reproduction.

hypophyscope

Noun

medical device of the 1920s that gave surgeons easier access to the pituitary gland.

infrared radiation

Noun

part of the electromagnetic spectrum with wavelengths longer than visible light but shorter than microwaves.

Jack Roosevelt "Jackie" Robinson

Noun

(1919-1972) First African-American baseball player to join the Major League after it was segregated.

laser

Noun

(acronym for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) an instrument that emits a thin beam of light that does not fade over long distances.

limb

Noun

part of an animal's body that extends from the head or torso.

liver

Noun

organ that removes toxins from the blood, converts sugar to glycogen, and produces bile needed for digestion.

Madame C. J. Walker

Noun

(1867-1919) (Sarah Breedlove Walker) American businesswoman and inventor.

Major League Baseball

Noun

organization that regulates the sport of baseball in the United States and Canada.

Manhattan Project

Noun

(1942-1945) American program to develop a nuclear weapon.

Marian Anderson

Noun

(1897-1993) American opera singer.

Mars Observer project

Noun

(1992) NASA mission to study the planet Mars through an orbiting spacecraft.

martial arts

Plural Noun

forms of self-defense and combat that do not usually use weapons.

mechanic

Noun

person who builds or repairs machinery and vehicles.

missile

Noun

weapon that is guided toward a target.

monitor

Verb

to observe and record behavior or data.

movie reel

Noun

round device that can be turned to wind and unwind rolls of motion picture film.

NAACP

Noun

(National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) civil rights organization.

NASA

Noun

(acronym for National Aeronautics and Space Administration) U.S. agency responsible for space research and systems.

notable

Adjective

important or impressive.

nuclear energy

Noun

energy released by reactions among the nuclei of atoms.

Encyclopedic Entry: nuclear energy

pacemaker

Noun

electronic device implanted beneath the skin to regulate a person's heartbeat.

physostigmine

Noun

chemical used for various medical purposes. Also called eserine.

pituitary gland

Noun

organ that secretes hormones directly into the blood. Also called the hypophysis.

portable

Adjective

able to be easily transported from one place to another.

pressurize

Verb

to adjust and maintain the atmospheric pressure in a contained area.

printmaker

Noun

person who operates a printing press for paper, cloth, or other items.

receptacle

Noun

container.

refrigerated truck

Noun

vehicle able to maintain a cool temperature for transporting material.

rheumatoid arthritis

Noun

disease of the immune system.

sailor

Noun

person who works aboard a ship.

Saturn

Noun

sixth planet from the sun.

Scotland Yard

Noun

agency responsible for law enforcement in London, England.

secrete

Verb

to discharge a substance.

shale

Noun

type of sedimentary rock.

smother

Verb

to cover an object so completely that air cannot reach it.

soldier

Noun

person who serves in a military.

sonic transducer

Noun

device that analyzes sound waves to determine distances, speeds, and other units of measurement.

sound wave

Noun

wave of air pressure producing sound.

soybean

Noun

edible seed of the soy plant, with many commercial and agricultural uses.

spectrograph

Noun

machine that transcribes sound waves into visible lines.

spin-flip tunable laser

Noun

device to adjust the strength of a laser beam to perform delicate operations.

stainless steel

Noun

metal that is very resistant to rust.

stomach

Noun

organ in animals that helps digest food.

Super Soaker

Noun

brand of powerful water gun.

synchronization

Noun

situation of matching or working together in a complementary matter.

synthetic

Adjective

manufactured by people, not occurring naturally.

tae kwon do

Noun

Korean martial art.

talkies

Noun

early reference to motion pictures made with sound.

telephone cable

Noun

bundle of electric wires carrying signals from telephones.

tonsil

Noun

small organ at the back of the throat that may help the body fight infection, but is often removed due to inflammation.

toxic

Adjective

poisonous.

traffic signal

Noun

light, sound, or other indication that vehicle traffic is moving.

veteran

Noun

person who has served their country in a military capacity.

vital sign

Noun

signal or indication of life, such as a pulse or breathing.

Works Progress Administration (WPA)

Noun

(1935-1943) federal agency formed during the Great Depression to create public work for the unemployed. Also called the Works Projects Administration.

World War I

Noun

(1914-1918) armed conflict between the Allies (led by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France) and the Central Powers (led by Germany and Austria-Hungary). Also called the Great War.

World War II

Noun

(1939-1945) armed conflict between the Allies (represented by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union) and the Axis (represented by Germany, Italy, and Japan.)

Credits

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Writer

Mary Schons

Editors

Kara West
Jeannie Evers

Producer

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

User Permissions

For information on user permissions, please read our Terms of Service.

If you have questions about licensing content on this page, please contact natgeocreative@ngs.org for more information and to obtain a license.

If you have questions about how to cite anything on our website in your project or classroom presentation, please visit our FAQ page.

Media

Some media assets (videos, photos, audio recordings and PDFs) can be downloaded and used outside the National Geographic website according to the Terms of Service. If a media asset is downloadable, a download button appears in the lower right hand corner (download) of the media viewer. If no button appears, you cannot download or save the media.

Text

Text on this page is printable and can be used according to our Terms of Service.

Interactives

Any interactives on this page can only be played while you are visiting our website. You cannot download interactives.