African-American Inventors II | National Geographic Society (2023)

African Americans established a strong history of inventing products and tools in the 18th century. During the 19th century, before and after slavery was abolished, Black inventors continued to have a great influence on the United States.

Andrew J. Beard
Andrew Jackson Beard (1849–1921) was born into slavery in Alabama and gained his freedom when he was fifteen. He invented his own flour mill, a rotary steam engine, and two kinds of plows before he went to work for the railroad in the 1890s.

Railroads connected the busy east coast of the United States with the frontier states in the west. They transformed communication and travel. Working for various rail companies, Beard created his most famous invention, the Jenny coupler. The Jenny coupler automatically locked train cars together when they bumped into each other. This made connecting long trains for travel and trade much easier. Before the invention of the Jenny coupler, workers had to insert a metal pin to link the cars as they came together. It was very dangerous work, and Beard saw and heard about many gruesome accidents. The Jenny coupler was an invention that saved the lives of countless railroad workers.

Henry Blair
Henry Blair (1804–1860) is the first Black man to be identified on a U.S. patent application. The identification of Blair as Black was an accident, as the U.S. Patent Office usually didn't identify patent holders by race.

Very little is known about Henry Blair, other than he must have been a free Black man. Enslaved peoples weren't allowed to hold patents. Blair was awarded the patent in 1834 for a corn planter. The corn planter combined plowing, placing the seeds, and covering the seeds with soil. Blair was awarded a second patent for a cotton seed planter in 1836.

Solomon Brown
Solomon Brown (1829–1906) worked with Samuel Morse on the telegraph machine, which revolutionized communication in the 19th century. Brown installed the wires and made sure the telegraph worked properly.

Brown was also the first African American to be hired by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. Using his own drawings, Brown gave talks on entomology, geology, philosophy, and religion to packed houses for several decades.

Hugh M. Browne
Hugh Mason Browne (1851–1923) was an educator who worked with such prominent African Americans as Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, and Charles Chesnutt. Browne was especially concerned with education, and traveled to Liberia to compare the education system there to the one in the United States.

Browne was also a practical man, interested in improving the lives of everyday people. He invented a machine that trapped sewer water and stopped it from flowing back into a house. This helped residents live healthier lives. Browne was granted the patent on April 29, 1890.

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George Washington Carver
George Washington Carver (1864?–1943) was an agricultural chemist famous for improving the lives of poor farmers through new farming methods.

During much of the 19th century, Southern farmers planted cotton year after year, which depleted the soil of vital nutrients. Carver’s experiments found the peanut plant restored nitrogen to the topsoil and made it healthy again. Planting peanuts one year and cotton the next increased the life of the soil. This planting process is called crop rotation.

Carver’s cotton-peanut crop rotation created peanut surpluses—more peanuts than people had need for them. Carver found new uses for peanuts and peanut products, including soap, face powder, mayonnaise, shampoo, metal polish, and glue.

Later, Carver discovered that sweet potatoes and peas had the same nitrogen-fixing abilities as peanuts. This profitable crop rotation allowed farmers to maintain soil fertility. Carver was awarded two peanut-related patents: one for pomade or cream (Patent no. 1,522,176 January 6, 1925) and one for a paint or stain (Patent no. 1,541,478 June 9, 1925).

Shelby Davidson
Shelby Davidson (1868–1931) worked for the United States Postal Service. He did not deliver mail, however. He worked in the auditing department, keeping track of numbers and schedules. Davidson invented a rewind device for adding machines in 1908. The rewind device reduced the amount of paper and time clerical workers spent on paperwork. Davidson also invented an automatic fee device in 1911 that allowed postal workers to work more efficiently.

Lewis Latimer
Lewis Latimer (1848–1928) was a member of Thomas Edison’s research team and became the head draftsman for General Electric.

A draftsman is a person who draws pictures of buildings, machinery, or inventions. These drawings can determine the success or failure of the patent application. Latimer did the draft work for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone; Bell received his patent in 1876.

In 1882, Latimer invented a carbon filament to use in light bulbs. It lasted longer and was cheaper than Edison’s first design. Edison’s company hired Latimer soon after.

Latimer also designed a bathroom for railroad cars, a disinfecting and cooling device, a hat and coat rack, locking umbrellas, and a device for supporting books.

Jan Ernst Matzeliger
Jan Ernst Matzeliger (1852–1889) invented a machine to connect the upper part of the shoe with its sole. This process is called lasting. Matzeliger’s shoe lasting machine could make 150 to 700 pairs of shoes in one day, compared to 50 pairs a day lasted by hand.

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George Washington Murray
George Washington Murray (1853–1926) held eight patents relating to farming. Born an enslaved person, Murray was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from South Carolina in 1892.

George Washington Murray is an ancestor of Rep. Jim Clyburn, a current member of the U.S. House of Representatives from South Carolina.

John Parker
John Parker (1827–1900) owned three of the seventy-seven patents issued to African Americans by 1886. He was only one out of fifty-five African Americans to be granted more than one patent in the U.S. by 1900. He is best known for patenting a portable tobacco screw press. This was used for cutting tobacco.

Parker was also a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. From his home in Ripley, Ohio, Parker helped more than one thousand enslaved people receive their freedom.

Norbert Rillieux
Norbert Rillieux (1806–1894) was a Creole inventor from New Orleans. He studied in Paris, France, before returning to the U.S.

Rillieux’s father was the owner of a large plantation, where sugar was often grown. Rillieux invented the multiple-effect vacuum evaporator for refining sugar. His invention produced a whiter, more refined sugar with less labor. Rillieux’s refining process was eventually extended to all evaporating processes—including condensed milk, gelatin, soap, glue, and whiskey.

Samuel Scottron
Samuel Scottron (1843–1905) invented an adjustable mirror so that barbershop clients could examine their haircuts from every angle.

From the barbershop, Scottron branched out into inventions for the home. He invented the adjustable window cornice, a pole tip, a curtain rod, and a supporting bracket. (A cornice is an attractive window overhang that's used to hide the curtain rod.) Scottron was the first African American to be a member of the Brooklyn, New York, Board of Education and was a co-founder of the Cuban Anti-Slavery Society.

Lewis Temple
Lewis Temple (1800–1854) redesigned a harpoon, a device for hunting whales, in 1845. Called "Temple's Iron," his invention hooked the whale onto the line much like a fish on a hook. His invention led to more whales being caught and killed. During the 19th century, New England was the center of the whaling industry. “Temple’s Iron” helped create a thriving economic community in places like New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Sarah Breedlove Walker
Sarah Breedlove Walker (1867–1919), also known as Madame C. J. Walker, is probably the most famous African American woman inventor.

(Video) Black Inventors of the 20th and 21st Century

Walker invented the hot comb and a pomade to make hair soft and shiny. Before the hot comb, African Americans straightened their hair on ironing boards. Many people had burns on the face and scalp, as well as damaged hair, because of this. Walker revolutionized the African American cosmetics industry.

To increase business for her beauty products, Madame C. J. Walker organized saleswomen into "Walker Clubs," a system copied later by Mary Kay Cosmetics. In 1908, she founded Lelia College in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to train women to sell her products.

This marketing system worked very well. Walker became the first African American woman millionaire. She employed 3,000 people in her Indianapolis, Indiana, factory. Madam C. J. Walker gave generously to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP) and other nonprofit groups or charities. She also funded scholarships for women to go to college.

Granville T. Woods
Granville T. Woods (1856–1910) was nicknamed "The Black Edison" for the number of inventions he built and patented. Like Edison, Woods’ inventions were not focused on one industry.

Woods earned his first patent in 1884 for a steam boiler. He also invented a system for railroad braking, electric railroad systems, and devices to improve the telephone and telegraph. The telephone and telegraph patents were bought by Alexander Graham Bell's company.

In 1887, Woods invented the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph. It allowed railroad workers to know where the trains were on the railway. Before this no one knew precisely when a train was coming down the tracks. Woods's invention prevented many collisions and deaths. He registered twenty patents between 1900 and 1907 for electronic train control devices.

Fast Fact

Inca to Carver
to Kellogg
Although George Washington Carver came up with many uses for peanuts, he was not the one to invent peanut butter. The ancient Incas of Peru were known to grind peanuts into a paste-like spread. Dr. Ambrose Straub patented a machine to make peanut butter in 1903. John Harvey Kellogg sold a nut butter spread in 1890. Mr. Kellogg is better known for another food inventionKellogg's Corn Flakes.

(Video) Virtual Field Trip | Black History Month

Fast Fact

The Real McCoy
Elijah McCoy (1844 -1929) invented a lubricating cup for trains. Before McCoy, trains had to stop in order for workers to grease the gears by hand. If they didnt, the expensive machinery would break. McCoys inventions made it possible for locomotives to automatically lubricate instead of the old manual method, improving efficiency. He is the man behind the phrase The Real McCoy.


Who were the 5 black inventors? ›

Alexander Miles, Charles Richard Drew, Marie Van Brittan Brown, Shirley Ann Jackson, and Mark E. Dean. Our world would be very different if not for these 5 African-American inventors and their inventions.

Who is the most famous African American inventor? ›

A botanist, environmentalist, inventor, teacher, celebrity -- George Washington Carver is one of the most well-known African-American inventors of his time.

Who is the youngest black inventor? ›

Lewis Howard Latimer (September 4, 1848 – December 11, 1928) was an African-American inventor and patent draftsman.
Lewis Howard Latimer
BornSeptember 4, 1848 Chelsea, Massachusetts, U.S.
DiedDecember 11, 1928 (aged 80) Flushing, Queens, New York City, U.S.
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Did a black man invent the rotary engine? ›

Andrew Jackson Beard (1849–1921) was born into slavery in Alabama and gained his freedom when he was fifteen. He invented his own flour mill, a rotary steam engine, and two kinds of plows before he went to work for the railroad in the 1890s.

Who was the 1st black inventor? ›

Most historians agree that Thomas L. Jennings is the first African American patent holder in the United States. Jennings invented a way to dry-clean clothes in 1821.

What did black slaves invent? ›

The folding chair, gas mask, traffic signal, automatic elevator doors, potato chips and the Super Soaker childrens's water gun toy were all invented by Black innovators.

What black man invented the potato chip? ›

A worldwide favorite snack is the potato chip, which was invented by an African American chef, named George Crum, born George Speck on 1824. He was born in Saratoga Lake, New York. He was the son of an African American father, who was a jockey, and Native American mother, of the Huron Tribe.

Who is the father of African-American? ›

Woodson, frequently touted as the “Father of Black History,” with a Google Doodle. Carter Godwin Woodson was born in 1875 to former slaves and, as the second African-American to earn a doctorate from Harvard, become one of the first scholars of African-American history. Woodson died in 1950.

Did a black man invent the cotton gin? ›

Eli Whitney, the man who invented the cotton gin, was white.

Who was the first black Billion? ›

BALTIMORE — Reginald F. Lewis was a visionary entrepreneur, philanthropist, and most notably - the first African American to build a billion-dollar company, TLC Beatrice International Holdings Inc.

Who was the first black man to become a millionaire? ›

William Leidesdorff

William Alexander Leidesdorff (1810-1848) was likely America's first Black millionaire. Leidesdorff became a naturalized U.S. citizen in Louisiana in 1834 where he became a ship captain, according to historical accounts. He landed in California around 1841.

Did a black man invent the air conditioner? ›

Although Willis Carrier is largely credited with inventing the modern air conditioner, Frederick Jones, an African-American, invented the first portable air conditioning unit.

Did a black man invent the street sweeper? ›

But, did you know the street sweeper was invented by an African American man in Newark? Charles B. Brooks came up with the first self-propelled street sweeper in 1896. It is technology we still use 125 years later.

Did a black man invent the lawn mower? ›

On this date, 1899, John Albert Burr invented one of the first rotary-blade lawnmowers. This Black inventor's Patent number is #624,749.

What car did a black man invent? ›

Frederick Douglas Patterson was the first African American car manufacturer. In 1915, he created the Patterson-Greenfield automobile.

What food did black people invent? ›

"Dishes like gumbo, jambalaya, pepper pot, the method of cooking greens — Hoppin' John (a dish made with greens and pork)," Kelley Deetz, director of programming at Stratford Hall, told VOA via email.

Who was the second black inventor? ›

Henry Blair (1807–1860) was the second African American inventor to receive a US patent. The drawing of the Seed-Planter by Blair used on the patent application in 1836. He was born in Glen Ross, Maryland, United States in 1807.

Which black inventor has the most patents? ›

One of the most prolific inventors of the golden age was Granville T. Woods, a black man who received more than 60 patents in the fields of electricity and telegraphic communications.

Who enslaved the first African? ›

First enslaved Africans arrive in Jamestown, setting the stage for slavery in North America. On August 20, 1619, “20 and odd” Angolans, kidnapped by the Portuguese, arrive in the British colony of Virginia and are then bought by English colonists.

Why are black inventors not recognized? ›

Among these triumphs are the inventions black inventors have contributed, many of which were not recognized with a patent because the Patent Acts of 1793 and 1836 barred slaves from obtaining patents because they were not considered citizens.

How many things did blacks invent? ›

With 50,000 total patents, Black people accounted for more inventions during this period than immigrants from every country except England and Germany.

Who created Voodoo chips? ›

Zapp's most popular flavor is "Voodoo" which was created in 2008 by Kevin Holden, General Manager and a shareholder of the company. In 1993 Zapp's acquired the Dirty Chip Company in Memphis, TN which manufactures Dirty Chips brand kettle chips.

Who invented BBQ chips? ›

Joe “Spud” Murphy developed the technology to add seasonings during manufacturing. In 1958, Barbecue flavored chips became the first flavored chips in the United States.

Who created the Hot Chip? ›

Richard Montañez walked into the Frito-Lay factory in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., one day and filled a trash bag with unseasoned, cheeseless, Cheetos. He was a janitor and machine operator at the plant. But he and his wife had an idea. To create a spicy chip inspired by their Mexican roots: Hot ...

Who was the first Black US? ›

Augustine, Florida, thirteen years before more enslaved Africans were brought to the English colony at Jamestown in 1619. William Tucker, the first Black child born (recorded) in the American colonies, was baptized in Jamestown, Virginia, on January 3, 1624.

Who was the first African American child born? ›

Antony and Isabella became servants for a Captain William Tucker, gained their freedom around 1635 and started a homestead in Kent County, Virginia, Pearson said. Around 1623, they had a son named William Tucker who “became the first documented African child born in English-occupied North America.”

What state did the first slaves come from? ›

In late August, 1619, 20-30 enslaved Africans landed at Point Comfort, today's Fort Monroe in Hampton, Va., aboard the English privateer ship White Lion. In Virginia, these Africans were traded in exchange for supplies.

What are the top 10 black inventions? ›

Top 10 Inventions by Black Inventors
  • Clothes Dryer (1892) – George T. ...
  • Automatic Elevator Doors (1887) – Alexander Miles. ...
  • Folding Chairs (1889) – John Purdy. ...
  • Gas Heating Furnace (1919) – Alice H. ...
  • Golf Tee (1899) – George Grant. ...
  • Modern Toilet (1872) – Thomas Elkins. ...
  • Home Security Systems (1966) – Mary Van Brittan Brown.
Jan 30, 2023

Who are some little known black inventors? ›

Sarah Boone was a dressmaker who made her name by inventing the modern-day ironing board. With its approval in 1892, Boone became one of the first Black women to be awarded a patent. Garrett Morgan invented a life-saving device, mechanical traffic signals, and more.

How was slavery before the cotton gin? ›

Prior to the invention of the cotton gin, slavery was in decline. The profitably of crops grown with slave labor, such as rice, tobacco, indigo and cotton was steadily decreasing. Some slaveholders began freeing their slaves in response.

Who was the richest black man in the 80s? ›

Reginald F. Lewis

What is the oldest black bank in America? ›

(WKRN) — The oldest Black-owned bank in our country can be found in Nashville, Tennessee. Citizens Savings Bank and Trust was founded in 1904, known as Once Cent Savings Bank. Three African American men dreamed of helping others build wealth and economic security.

Who was the first black man to own land? ›

Held as an indentured servant in 1621, he earned his freedom after several years, and was granted land by the colony.
Anthony Johnson (colonist)
Anthony Johnson
Other namesAntonio
Known forThe most prominent early colonial black person to own a slave.
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Who was the first Black rich woman? ›

Celebrate Black History Month with the Scarsdale Library. Born in 19th century rural Louisiana to former slaves, Sarah Breedlove rose to become the first female African-American self-made millionaire in the United States. Known as Madam C.J. Walker, she developed a line of beauty care products for black women.

Who was the first female millionaire? ›

At the time of her death, she was considered the wealthiest African-American businesswoman and wealthiest self-made black woman in America. Her name was a version of "Mrs. Charles Joseph Walker", after her third husband.
Madam C.J. Walker
Known forFounder of Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company
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Who was the first Black person to earn a Phd? ›

Bouchet was the first African American to earn a doctoraal degree from an American university; he earned his doctorate in Physics from Yale University in 1876. Edward Bouchet was born in New Haven, Connecticut on September 15, 1852.

What black man invented the refrigerator? ›

Frederick McKinley Jones was a prolific early 20th century black inventor who helped to revolutionize both the cinema and refrigeration industries. Between 1919 and 1945 he patented more than sixty inventions in divergent fields with forty of those patents in refrigeration.

What black woman invented air conditioning? ›

Alice Parker, Mother of Modern Gas HVAC Systems

Alice received a patent for her invention in 1919. This was such a remarkable feat and an inspiration to millions of black women around the world.

What did black contribute to America? ›

Black labor has been foundational to the growth of America and our economy. Enslaved people built the country's early infrastructure and produced lucrative commodities such as cotton and tobacco. After emancipation, African American labor was crucial in industry, agriculture, and service.

Did a Black man invent the spark plug? ›

Edmond Berger was born in Bolivia, the city of CumGyauy (Birthdate: Unknown). Some historians have reported that Edmond Berger invented an early spark plug (sometimes in British English called the sparking plug) on February 2, 1839. However, Edmond Berger did not patent his invention in France where he created it.

What Black man invented the guitar? ›

Robert F. Flemming, Jr. is an African American businessman and inventor who invented a guitar he called the "Euphonica" that he believed would produce a louder and more resonant sound than the traditional guitar. He was granted a U. S. patent on March 30, 1886. He also received a Canadian patent on April 5, 1887.

What Black man invented the ice cream scoop? ›

Because of Alfred L. Cralle, nobody has to use a regular spoon to struggle to make scoops of ice cream. On this day in 1897, Cralle invented the ice cream scooper (U.S. Patent #576395), although he never profited from it.

Did a black man invent the sewing machine? ›

Garrett Morgan, Pioneering Black Inventor

Ohio's factories intrigued Morgan. He began working at one that produced sewing machines and soon pinpointed a way to improve them. Morgan patented his new sewing machine. And in 1907, he opened his own sewing machine repair business.

Who created water guns? ›

He invented the Super Soaker water gun in 1989, which has been among the world's bestselling toys ever since.
Lonnie Johnson (inventor)
Lonnie Johnson
Alma materTuskegee University (BS, MS)
Occupation(s)Inventor, Engineer
Years active1978–Present
Known forSuper Soaker, Nerf gun
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Who invented the fold away bed? ›

In 1884, a Chicago furniture store owner named Sarah E. Goode invented a folding cabinet bed to fit in small homes. Goode wanted to make it possible for people living in small homes to have furniture that fit in restricted space.

What black man invented the Ford? ›

Frederick Douglas Patterson, the first African American to build automobiles, died January 18, 1932 at the age of 60.

What car only came in black? ›

One of Henry Ford's famous quotes about the Model T was, "Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants, so long as it is black." The Model T only came in black because the production line required compromise so that efficiency and improved quality could be achieved.

Who was the black inventor at Ford? ›

McKinley Thompson Jr., a Ford designer who helped pen the first-generation Bronco, was the first African American designer hired at Ford Motor Company after graduating from ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California with a degree in transportation design in 1956.

Who were some famous black scientists? ›

Ten Black Scientists that Science Teachers Should Know About
  • George Washington Carver.
  • Percy Julian.
  • Mae Carol Jemison.
  • Katherine Johnson.
  • Gladys West.
  • Marie M. Daly.
  • Edward Bouchet.
  • Annie Easley.
Feb 21, 2018

Who are some unknown black inventors? ›

This week, I want to share what I learned with you.
  • Elijah McCoy (1844-1929)
  • Garret Morgan (1877 – 1963)
  • Alice Parker (1895- ?)
  • Marie Van Brittan Brown (1922 – 1999)
  • Dr. Charles Drew (1904 -1950)
  • Otis Boykin (1922-1981)
Feb 15, 2019

What food did African American invent? ›

"Dishes like gumbo, jambalaya, pepper pot, the method of cooking greens — Hoppin' John (a dish made with greens and pork)," Kelley Deetz, director of programming at Stratford Hall, told VOA via email.

Did a black man invent the helicopter? ›

African American inventor Paul E. Williams patented the “first useful helicopter” the Lockheed Model 186 (XH-51) on the 26th of November 1962. According to report, the first piloted helicopter is recognised to have been invented by Paul Cornu in 1907.

Who was the first black scientist in America? ›

George Washington Carver (1864-1943)

Later on, Carver enrolled in the botany program at Iowa State University, becoming the first African American to earn a bachelor's and master's degree in science.

What black man invented the lawn mower? ›

On this date, 1899, John Albert Burr invented one of the first rotary-blade lawnmowers. This Black inventor's Patent number is #624,749.

Who are the great black inventors? ›

Look for information about African-American inventors and you'll quickly find that American innovation is rich with the contributions of famous black inventors like Elijah McCoy, Lewis Howard Latimer, George Washington Carver and Madame C.J. Walker (Sarah Breedlove).

Who are the seven groundbreaking black scientists? ›

From left to right: Gladys West, Charles Henry Turner, Alice Ball, Percy L. Julian, Sophia B. Jones, Elijah McCoy, Charles Lightfoot Roman.

Who is the most famous black scientists today? ›

This blog, originally published in 2020, has been updated for 2023.
Famous Black Scientists
  • Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, physicist.
  • Dr. Ayanna Howard, robot engineer.
  • Dr. Beth A. Brown, astrophysicist.
  • Dr. Christine Darden, aerospace engineer.
Jan 19, 2023

Who invented the toilet black? ›

In 1872, a U.S. patent was issued to Thomas Elkins for a a new article of chamber furniture which he designated a "Chamber Commode" (Patent No. 122,518).

What black woman invented the cell phone? ›

Shirley Ann Jackson
BornAugust 5, 1946 Washington, D.C.
SpouseMorris Washington
EducationMassachusetts Institute of Technology (BS, MS, PhD)
WebsiteOfficial website
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