Top African-American Inventors


African-Americans suffered seemingly insurmountable hardships due to slavery and discrimination. In spite of that, many of them managed to become great inventors and scientists. They thrived well from their inventions and mankind has benefited so much from them.

Madame CJ Walker – Invented hair products for black women

When you think of a wealthy and successful self-made African-American woman you’d automatically think of Oprah Winfrey. But Oprah is not the first, because there was already one who was like her in a way: Madame CJ Walker. A businesswoman, philanthropist and civil rights activist, Walker was the first self-made African-American woman millionaire.

Born Sarah Breedlove, Madame Walker was the daughter of Louisiana slaves. At age seven, she became an orphan; she married when she was 14 but became a widowed mother when she was only 20.

She did odd jobs and at the same time started her own business peddling hair care products and ointments. She eventually built an empire developing hair products for African-American women. Her products became extremely popular across the country and her success even stunned the white businessmen. Soon Madame Walker employed many saleswomen, dubbed as “Walker Agents,” who marketed her products door to door as well as to beauty salons.

Garret Augustus Morgan Invented the gas mask and a type of traffic light

The inventor and entrepreneur from Ohio made a lot of inventions, the most notable being the traffic light and the gas mask. Morgan was the first person in the United States to patent a traffic light. As for his gas mask, Morgan used it to rescue trapped miners in an underground tunnel 250 feet under Lake Erie.

George Crum Invented the potato chips

Crum was of a mixed ancestry: African, Native American, and possibly German. He was employed as a cook at the Cary Moon’s Lake House on Saratoga Lake in Saratoga Springs, New York. French fries were one of the restaurant’s popular items, and one day one of his customers complained that his fries were too thick and soggy.

Intending to teach his fussy customer a lesson, Crum sliced a new batch of potatoes more thinly and deep fried them until they became crunchy. He then topped them off with a heaping amount of salt. To Crum’s surprise, the customer loved the new dish. Thus, the potato chips were born and went on to become the classic American snack.

Norbert Rillieux Invented the sugar refining machinery

Inventor and engineer, the son of a wealthy Caucasian engineer father and a African-American slave mother. Rillieux invented and patented the multiple-effect vacuum sugar evaporator, which improved the processing of sugar. His invention revolutionized the sugar processing industry across the globe.

George Washington Carver – Made agricultural discoveries and inventions, promoted alternative crops to cotton

George Washington Carver was an inventor, botanist, scientist, humanitarian and educator. Like many African-Americans during his time, Carver was a former slave. Although he is known to have developed products from peanuts (but they do not include peanut butter contrary to popular belief), Carver is more than just the “Peanut Man.” His promotion of alternative crops to cotton improved the lives and health of Southern farmers and their families; before that, the only chief crop and source of income was cotton. Other products Carver invented include dyes, adhesives, foodstuffs, etc.

Otis Boykin Improved electrical resistor, and a control for pacemakers

Engineer and inventor who patented a total of 28 electronic devices. One of his early inventions include an improved wire resistor for a variety of electronic devices including computers, televisions and radios as well as guided missiles. Most of these inventions are used up to this day. But Boykin’s most important invention is the resistor used for pacemakers, which helps maintain the heart’s regular heartbeat through electric impulses. That particular invention has helped extend the lives of thousands and millions of patients across the globe. Ironically, Boykin himself died of a heart failure at the age of 61.

Dr. Patricia Bath Invented a form of eye surgery using lasers

Dr. Patricia Bath is an ophthalmologist and inventor who became the first African-American woman to receive a patent for a medical invention. Bath holds four patents, the most notable being the Laserphobe Probe, a method of removing cataract lenses using a laser. This method proved to be a less painful, faster and more effective procedure compared to the previous method involving a drilling device to remove cataracts. This new invention has helped restore the sight of thousands of people who have been blinded by cataracts.

Bath broke a whole new ground for both women and American blacks in many ways apart from her medical inventions, and she continues to serve as an inspiration to them up to this day.

Granville T. Woods Invented a variation of the induction telegraph

The first African-American mechanical and electrical engineer after the Civil War, Woods held over fifty patents. But the most notable of them all was the Multiplex Telegraph, which allowed relaying messages from moving trains and train stations. By enabling dispatchers the location of the trains, this invention helped improve better safety in railway transportation.

Lewis Howard Latimer Improved the light bulb

Latimer worked as a draftsman for U.S. Electric Lighting Company owned by Hiram Maxim, Thomas Edison’s rival. Maxim wanted to upgrade Edison’s new invention the incandescent light bulb, which was later found to have a short life span. Latimer sought to improve the light bulb inventing a carbon filament, which prevented the carbon from burning itself up quickly and thus provided a longer life for the light bulb.

Latimer received the patent for his invention in 1881. In 1884, he became part of Edison’s research team.

Jan Ernst Matzeliger Invented the shoe lasting machine

Matzeliger was born in Paramaribo, Dutch Guyana (present-day Suriname) to a German-Dutch engineer father and a black Surinamese slave mother. When he was 18, Matzeliger immigrated to the US.

Before Matzeliger invented the shoe lasting machinery, shoes were done mainly by hand. The customer’s feet had to be duplicated with a wood or stone called “last” which was used to mold the shape and size of the shoes. Sure, there had been machines that did the cutting and stitching the leather, but joining the upper part of the shoe and the sole together were mostly done by “hand lasters.” This last step in this procedure required a special skill and besides, it was also time consuming. As a result, these lasters would charge a steep price for their services which led to expensive shoes.

To address the issue, Matzeliger worked hard for five years until he arrived at the new apparatus, the shoe lasting machine which would make the job easier and quicker. As a result, it helped increase shoe production (150 to 700 per day compared to a 50 per ten-hour wokday a skilled hand laster could produce) making quality shoes more affordable.

Unfortunately, overworking caused Matzeliger’s health to deteriorate. He eventually died of tuberculosis, aged 37.


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