Written by Dr. Dennis Jackson and Emily Austin, Diversity and Inclusion Committee
We often think of our country as being the place where innovation and entrepreneurship began to thrive in the late 1700s. In 1790 the first patent was assigned in America, but only white males and free blacks were able to obtain patents. Enslaved Black inventors were excluded from the patent system.
Many people have heard of famous Black inventors like George Washington Carver, who developed more than 300 products from peanuts and 118 from sweet potatoes, or Madam C.J. Walker, who in 1905 created an innovative line of African American hair care products. Based on her entrepreneurial skills, Walker became one of America’s first self-made millionaires.
Here are 15 items created by Black inventors that have probably made your daily life easier and more enjoyable:
1. Potato Chips (Patented in 1853 by George Speck a.k.a. George Crum) – When an unhappy customer returned their potatoes to the kitchen saying they were too thick, Chef Speck sliced a potato thin, deep fried them and returned them to the customer who was then pleased.
2. Modern Toilet (Patented in 1872 by Thomas Elkins) – Elkins invented the “Chamber Commode,” which is essentially a toilet that featured a mirror, bookrack, washstand, table and easy chair.
3. Automatic Elevator Doors (Patented in 1887 by Alexander Miles) – It is believed that Miles was inspired to invent automatic elevator doors after watching his daughter suffer a life-threatening injury when she fell down an elevator shaft. Prior to this, riders had to manually open and close two sets of doors when entering and exiting elevator cars.
4. Folding Chairs (Patented in 1889 by John Purdy) – Classified as a camp, traveling or sports stool, Purdy and Daniel Sadgwar made significant improvements to the folding chair making it extremely portable.
5. Mailbox (Patented in 1891 by Phillip Downing) – As a solution to visiting the post office every time he wanted to mail a letter, Downing invented the first outdoor mailbox that featured a hinged door that kept the letter secure but also kept out rain and snow.
6. Clothes Dryer (Patented in 1892 by George T. Sampson) – Sampson developed the first automatic clothes dryer that used a series of suspension rods over a specifically designed stove to dry clothes. His design was used up until the late 1930s when the use of gas and electric dryers began.
7. Gas Heating Furnace (Patented in 1919 by Alice H. Parker) – Inspired by the ineffectiveness of her fireplace during cold New Jersey winters, Parker invented a heating system that drew in cold air and conveyed the heat through a heat exchanger. While her invention was not the first gas patent, it was the first to feature individually controlled air ducts that transferred heat to different parts of the building.
8. Gas Mask (Patented in 1912) and Traffic light (Patented in 1922 by Garrett Morgan) – After watching a firefighter struggle in smoke, Morgan designed a device that used a wet sponge to filter out smoke and cool the air. It also featured a breathing tube that dangled near the floor which took advantage of the “clean air” near the ground as the smoke would rise. Morgan witnessed a serious traffic accident that inspired him to update the way traffic lights alerted drivers that the light was going to turn red because the two-light system only featured a red and green light. Morgan filed a patent for the yellow “warning “ light in 1922. His inventions are still used to this day and have helped save lives.
9. Thermostat/Temperature Control (Patented in 1935 by Frederick Jones) – Jones invented the first automatic refrigeration system for long-haul trucks and railroad cars. This roof-mounted cooling system allowed for better transportation of food and blood.
10. Pacemaker (Patented in 1964 by Otis Boykin) – Boykin patented 26 devices, but he is best known for his electronic control devices used in guided missiles, IBM computers and the pacemaker.
11. Home Security Systems (Patented in 1966 by Mary Van Britten Brown) – Brown’s invention used three peepholes to help her see through the door, a camera that could adjust from each peephole, a microphone system that allowed her to communicate with visitors, a remote control that allowed her to unlatch the door and a button that would contact the police if necessary. Her invention paved the way for modern video monitoring , remote-controlled locks, push-button alarms, instant messaging to security providers and two-way voice communication.
12. Touch-Tone Telephone (Patented in 1987 by Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson) – Jackson was the first African American to earn a doctorate in nuclear physics at MIT and her experiments paved the way for the fiber-optic cable, caller I.D., portable fax and touch-tone phone.
13. Super Soaker (Patented in 1990 by Lonnie G. Johnson) – An aerospace engineer, entrepreneur and inventor whose career includes a 12-year stint at NASA, Johnson developed his mega water gun, the toy dubbed the Super Soaker. He received nearly $73 million in royalties from Hasbro Inc. and it has become one of the world’s best-selling toys.