February is Black History Month and, although in a perfect world all history would be equally acknowledged, this is a perfect opportunity to talk about Black scientists and inventors. I told you about entrepreneurs Madame C.J. Walker and Annie Malone and their work in the hair care business a few months ago. (Note: I will link to several other websites in this post, so when you see green letters with a dotted underline, click to learn more!)
Along with Madame Walker, there are a few other Black inventors that most people are familiar with such as George Washington Carter (who developed many creative uses for the peanut and the soy bean) and Benjamin Banneker who developed a popular Almanac in 1792 (nearly 100 years before slavery was abolished!). While we learn about Alexander Graham Bell inventing the telephone in 1876, we don’t hear that it was Lewis Latimer who drafted the drawings for Bell’s patent application. We learn about Thomas Edison inventing the light bulb, but we don’t hear about the revolutionary modification also made by Latimer, who was the only Black scientist in Edison’s lab. Latimer developed and patented the carbon filament for an electric lamp in 1881 as well as a process for manufacturing these filaments the following year.
To be fair, some of the lack of fame is just the way of the harsh world of science. Initially inventions, patents, publications and discoveries will get plenty of attention, but the general public does not hear about or appreciate improvements on the technology. Two researchers could publish similar experimental results nearly simultaneously in two different journals, for example one in Science and one in Journal of Applied Physics. Because Science is read by a wider audience, the scientist who published in that journal will often receive the public credit. However, given our country’s history in race relations, it is important to highlight the amazing accomplishments of Black inventors and scientists.
Mary Bellis is an author at About.com who writes about inventors. She has done a great job with highlighting Black inventors. In this article Ms. Bellis describes the history and contributions of Black inventors going back to Thomas Jennings, who developed a dry cleaning process in 1821 (nearly half a century before slavery was abolished) and who is believed to be the first Black inventor to receive a patent. You can check out this fairly comprehensive and detailed list to learn about Black inventors. If you have never read a patent application, you can Google the patent numbers listed next the Inventors’ names in this list. I encourage you to check some of them out to appreciate how complicated the language is!
Finally, it is important to recognize all the amazing contribution Black scientists are making today even though they are painfully underrepresented in the sciences. For example, Dr. Patricia Bath developed an improvement on using a laser to remove cataracts in the 1980s and a method using ultrasound technology for cataract treatment in 2000. Another interesting example is Jerry Lawson who developed the first cartridge-based video game console in the mid-1970s. I will leave you with one of many contributions of Lonnie Johnson, a Mechanical Engineer for NASA and his own company called Johnson Research and Development. While studying thermo and fluid dynamics, Johnson accidentally invented the Super Soaker (patent granted in 1991).
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