While you don’t necessarily need an excuse to learn about the contributions and importance of African-Americans, Black History Month is certainly the perfect time to start making this a yearlong habit. From trailblazing activists to civil rights leaders to transcendent authors and the stars of our favorite TV shows and Netflix movies, Black culture permeates our everyday lives. Simply put, it’s as American as apple pie.
So in the spirit of learning—and giving people their flowers, whether they’re alive or no longer with us—we’ve gone as far back as the 1800s to highlight a handful of both famous and little-known African American inventors whose creations changed our world. After all, for every name you recognize on this list, there’s probably another you may not have heard of yet, making going out of your way to learn about these greats even more critical.
Can you imagine a world without the Super Soaker? How about jelly's favorite companion, peanut butter? Or household staples like the security system and caller ID? You guessed it: A few of the faces on this list were responsible for their creation. There are so many fascinating inventions to learn about in February and beyond, and we’ve provided the perfect way for you to kick things off. So join us in showing a little gratitude to those who worked hard to create products and systems that would benefit us for decades to come, often against staggering odds.
George Crum (1824-1914)
Crum, a chef and restaurateur, is said to have unintentionally created the potato chip during the summer of 1853. They were made in response to a customer who sent back their fried potatoes after complaining they were too thick. The crisps were an instant hit, and though Crum never patented the creations, chips are arguably now one of the world’s favorite snacks.
Frederick McKinley Jones (1893-1961)
Frederick McKinley Jones left his mark with the development of refrigeration equipment, receiving over 40 patents for it. In the 1930s, he began inventing automatic refrigerated air-cooling units for trucks, trains, ships, and planes, which helped the preservation of food. His creation, the Thermo King, allowed people to eat fresh food year-round. His work also contributed to the preservation of blood and medicine, proving to be particularly useful during WWII. In 1991, he became the first African American to receive the National Medal of Technology.
Granville T. Woods (1856-1910)
Woods accumulated almost 60 patents during his lifetime, many of which improved the functioning of railroads. One of his most notable was the induction telegraph system, which allowed traveling trains to communicate with one another while also allowing workers to locate them.
George Washington Carver (1864-1943)
So many of us know George Washington Carver as the man famous for giving us peanut butter (bless him), but he’s responsible for much more. As an agricultural chemist, in an effort to increase the profitability of sweet potatoes and peanuts (which thrived in the South as opposed to dwindling cotton supply), Carver began conducting experiments in 1896 and created 518 new products from the crops. They include ink, dye, soap, cosmetics, flour, vinegar, and synthetic rubber. He publicly revealed his experiments in 1914.
Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919)
Madam C.J. Walker was the first African American woman to become a self-made millionaire after creating a line of hair products geared toward Black hair. (She created the first, Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, in 1905.) A Netflix series based upon her life, Self Made, premiered in March 2020.
Garrett Morgan (1877-1963)
It’s safe to say that Garrett Morgan’s most prominent original designs have saved thousands of lives since their invention. Take his traffic signal, which he patented in 1922. It was the first to offer a third “caution” signal, which we now know as the yellow light. And in 1912, Morgan received a patent for his “Breathing Device,” which was one of the earliest versions of a gas mask.
Alexander Miles (1838-1918)
Another innovation that contributed to saving lives was Alexander Miles’s elevator design. Before him, elevators were operated manually; people had to physically open and close the doors of both the elevator and the shaft every time. Miles realized the constant hazard this posed when riding on an elevator with the shaft door open with his daughter. In 1887, he obtained the patent for his invention, including a flexible belt attached to the elevator cage, allowing the doors to function automatically. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007.
Percy Lavon Julian (1899-1975)
American chemist Percy Lavon Julian made various vital contributions to modern medicine as a result of experimenting with soybeans. He synthesized a drug called physostigmine, which is used to treat glaucoma. Julian also discovered how to mass produce cortisone and the steroid progesterone, which was used to produce sex hormones.
Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner (1912-2006)
Though she filed a total of five patents, Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner is thought to be one of the most “forgotten” Black inventors, despite her contributions to society. She patented the sanitary belt in 1957, which was adjustable and had a moisture-proof napkin pocket in a time where women were still using cloth pads for their periods. She also created a serving tray that could be attached to a walking frame, a toilet tissue holder, and back washer that could be mounted on the wall of the shower.
Marie Van Brittan Brown (1922-1999)
Brown filed a patent in 1966 for the first-ever home security system after wanting to increase her own house’s security in her Queens, New York, neighborhood. Her original design contained a camera, a two-way microphone, peepholes, and monitors, all serving as the foundations for today’s modern systems.
Shirley Jackson (born 1946)
Jackson, the first African American woman to earn a doctorate at MIT, is responsible for monumental telecommunications research that led to the invention of products such as the touch-tone phone, portable fax, fiber optic cables, and caller ID. In 2014, President Barack Obama named her the co-chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory.
Mark Dean (born 1957)
Dean, who earned his doctorate at Stanford University and his master's at Florida Atlantic University, is a co-inventor of IBM's original personal computer and the color PC monitor, literally changing how we all interact with the internet. As for the technology that allows keyboards, printers, and more to communicate with your computer? He is also one of the people behind it.
Lonnie Johnson (born 1949)
The engineer developed this mega water gun in his free time while working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. And once the toy, dubbed the Super Soaker, hit shelves in 1990, its popularity skyrocketed. In 2017, Forbes reported that it had earned over $1 billion in retail sales.
Lisa Gelobter (born 1971)
Gelobter was closely involved with the 1995 creation of Shockwave as a software engineer, the technology that helped to develop web animation. (Think all those GIFs we know and love.) She also helped launch Hulu and served on the senior management team.
Dr. Patricia E. Bath (1942-2019)
Bath was a prolific ophthalmologist, research scientist, and laser scientist who studied both domestically and globally, and is known for her significant contributions to the medical field—including fighting against blindness. We also have her to thank for a new area of focus called "community opthalmology," which helps provide marginalized groups around the world with the eye care they need.
She was also an inventor: "I am most proud of my invention of a new technique and concept for cataract surgery, known as laserphaco, which is defined by my publications as well as patents," she told The National Library of Medicine.
In 1974, Bath became the first female ophthalmologist on staff at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Medicine Jules Stein Eye Institute. She also made national history in 1983, when she became the first female chair of an ophthalmology residency program.