Top 10 African American Inventors

10. Elijah McCoy     

Elijah J. McCoy (May 2, 1844 – October 10, 1929) was an African Canadian inventor and engineer, known for his many U.S. patents.

After studying engineering in Edinburgh, Scotland, and returning home to Canada, he found work as a fireman and oiler at the Michigan Central Railroad. In a home-based machine shop in Ypsilanti, McCoy invented an automatic lubricator for oiling the steam engines of locomotives and boats. For this he obtained his first patent, “Improvement in Lubricators for Steam-Engines” (U.S. Patent 129,843), on July 12, 1872.  

Similar automatic oilers had been patented previously; one is the displacement lubricator which had already attained widespread use and whose technological descendants continued to be widely used into the 20th century. Lubricators were a boon for railroads, allowing trains to run faster and more profitably with less need to stop for lubrication and maintenance.

The saying the real McCoy, meaning the real thing, has in some cases been erroneously accredited to Elijah’s invention. The theory is that railroad engineers looking to avoid inferior copies would inquire if a locomotive was fitted with “the real McCoy”. The original publication of this claim can be traced to a 1985 pamphlet printed by the Empak Publishing Company, who could not explain how they developed the theory. Other earlier origins to the phrase are unanimously accepted by the writing community and by lexicographers. -Wikipedia.org

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9. Lewis Latimer  

Lewis Howard Latimer (September 4, 1848 – December 11, 1928) was an African American inventor and draftsman.

Lewis Howard Latimer was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts on September 4 1848 as the youngest of the four children of Rebecca (1826-1848) and George Latimer (July 4, 1818 -c.1880). George Latimer had been the slave of James B. Gray of Virginia. George Latimer ran away to freedom in Trenton, New Jersey  in October, 1842, along with his wife Rebecca, who had been the high slave of another man. When Gray, the owner, appeared in Boston to take them back to Virginia, it became a noted case in the movement for abolition of slavery, gaining the involvement of such abolitionists as William Lloyd Garrison. Eventually funds were raised to pay Gray $400 for the freedom of George Latimer.

Lewis Latimer joined the U.S. Navy  at the age of 15 on September 16, 1863. After receiving an honorable discharge from the Navy on July 3, 1865, he gained employment as an office boy with a patent law firm, Crosby Halstead and Gould, with a $3.00 per week salary. He learned how to use an L square, ruler, and other tools. Later, after his boss recognized his talent for sketching patent drawings, Latimer was promoted to the position of head draftsman earning $20.00 a week by 1878. In 1874, he co patented (with Charles W. Brown) an improved toilet system for railroad cars called the Water Closet for Railroad Cars (U.S. Patent 147,363).

In 1874, he copatented (with Charles W. Brown) an improved toilet system for railroad cars called the Water Closet for Railroad Cars (U.S. Patent 147,363).  Latimer received a patent in January 1881 for the “Process of Manufacturing Carbons”, an improved method for the production of carbon filaments used in lightbulbs. -Wikipedia.org

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8. Jan Ernst Matzeliger     

Jan Ernst Matzeliger (September 15, 1852 – August 24, 1889) was an African-American inventor in the shoe industry.  Matzeliger was born in Paramaribo (then Dutch Guyana, now Suriname). His father was a Dutch engineer and his mother a black Surinamese slave.

He had some interest in mechanics in his native country, but his efforts at inventing a shoe-lasting machine began in the United States after a life of working in a machinery shop. He settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at 19 after working as a sailor. By 1877, he spoke adequate English and had moved to Massachusetts.  

After a while, he went to work in a shoe factory. At the time, no machine could attach the upper part of a shoe to the sole. This had to be done manually by a “hand laster”; a skilled one could produce 50 pairs in a ten-hour day.

After five years of work, Matzeliger obtained a patent for his invention in 1883. His machine could produce between 150 to 700 pairs of shoes a day, cutting shoe prices across the nation in half. However, his early death in Lynn, Massachusetts from tuberculosis meant he never saw the full profit of his invention. -Wikipedia.org

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7. Granville T. Woods     

Granville T. Woods (April 23, 1856 – January 30, 1910), was of Indigenous Australian and Malaysian ancestry who is famous as an American inventor who holds more than 60 patents for inventions. He is often regarded as one of the greatest African American inventors. Most of his work was on trains and street cars. Woods also invented the Multiplex Telegraph, a device that sent messages between moving trains and train stations. He was born in Melbourne, Australia with Australian Aborigine and Malaysian heritage and died in New York after a life time in the United States of America.

Woods developed several improvements to the railroad system, and was referred to by some as the “Black Edison.”  In 1885, Woods patented an apparatus which was a combination of a telephone and a telegraph. The device, which he called “telegraphony”, would allow a telegraph station to send voice and telegraph messages over a single wire. He sold the rights to this device to the American Bell Telephone Company.

In 1887, he patented the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph, which allowed communications between train stations from moving trains. Thomas Edison later filled a claim to the ownership of this patent. In 1888, Woods manufactured a system of overhead electric conducting lines for railroads modeled after the system pioneered by Charles van Depoele, a famed inventor who had by then installed his electric railway system in thirteen U.S. cities. In 1889, he filed a patent for an improvement to the steam-boiler furnace.  

Woods is sometimes credited with the invention of the electric third rail, however, many third rail systems were in place in both Europe and North America at the time Woods filed for his patent in 1901. Thomas Edison had been awarded a patent for the third rail almost a decade earlier, in 1882. -Wikipedia.org

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6. George Washington Carver     

George Washington Carver (January 1864 – January 5, 1943), was an American scientist, botanist, educator, and inventor. The exact day and year of his birth are unknown; he is believed to have been born before slavery was abolished in Missouri in January 1864. Much of Carver’s fame is based on his research into and promotion of crops as alternatives to cotton, such as peanuts and sweet potatoes. He wanted poor farmers to grow alternative crops both as a source of their own food and as a source of other products to improve their quality of life. The most popular of his 44 practical bulletins for farmers contained 105 food recipes that used peanuts. He also created or disseminated about 100 products made from peanuts that were useful for the house and farm, including cosmetics, dyes, paints, plastics, gasoline, and nitroglycerin.

During the last two decades of his life, Carver seemed to enjoy his celebrity status. He was often to be found on the road promoting Tuskegee, peanuts, and racial harmony. Although he only published six agricultural bulletins after 1922, he published articles in peanut industry journals and wrote a syndicated newspaper column, “Professor Carver’s Advice”. Business leaders came to seek his help, and he often responded with free advice. Three American presidents—Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge and Franklin Roosevelt—met with him, and the Crown Prince of Sweden studied with him for three weeks. -Wikipedia.org

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5. Madam C. J. Walker       

Madam C.J. Walker (December 23, 1867 – May 25, 1919) was an African-American businesswoman, hair care entrepreneur and philanthropist. She made her fortune by developing and marketing a hugely successful line of beauty and hair products for black women under the company she founded, Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. Like many women of her era, Sarah experienced hair loss. Because most Americans lacked indoor plumbing, central heating and electricity, they bathed and washed their hair infrequently.

The result was scalp disease. Sarah experimented with home remedies and products already on the market until she finally developed her own shampoo and an ointment that contained sulfur to make her scalp healthier for hair growth.  Soon Sarah—now known as Madam C. J. Walker—was selling her products throughout the United States. While her daughter Lelia ran a mail order business from Denver, Madam Walker and her husband traveled throughout the southern and eastern states. They settled in Pittsburgh in 1908 and opened Lelia College to train “hair culturists.” In 1910 Walker moved to Indianapolis, Indiana where she established her headquarters and built a factory. -Wikipedia.org

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4. Garrett Morgan       

Garrett Augustus Morgan, Sr. (March 4, 1877 – August 27, 1963) was an African American inventor who originated a respiratory protective hood (similar to the modern gas masks), credited with being the inventor of a type of traffic signal, and invented a hair-straightening  preparation. He is renowned for a heroic rescue in which he used his hood to save workers trapped in a tunnel system filled with fumes. He is credited as the first African-American in Cleveland to own an automobile.

Garrett Morgan invented the safety hood and smoke protector after hearing about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. He was able to sell his invention around the country, although in many instances, he would have a white partner take credit as the inventor in order to further sell his product. When he displayed it himself, he became “Big Chief Mason”, a full-blooded Indian from the Walpole Island Indian Reservation in Canada.”

His invention became known nationally when he used it to save several men from a 1916 tunnel explosion under Lake Erie. Garrett was awarded a gold Medal of Bravery by prominent citizens of Cleveland, but his nomination for the Carnegie Medal  was denied, in large part because of his race. Efforts by Morgan and his supporters over the years to correct this injustice have not been successful. Nevertheless, Morgan’s invention won gold medals from the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the International Exposition of Sanitation and Safety. -Wikipedia.org

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3. Otis Boykin  

Otis Frank Boykin (August 29, 1920-1982) was an inventor and engineer. Otis Frank Boykin was born in 1920 in Dallas, Texas. His mother was a homemaker and his father was a carpenter. He worked as a laboratory assistant at the nearby University’s aerospace laboratory. Otis attended Fisk University and Illinois Institute of Technology, but dropped out after 2 years because his parents could not afford his tuition.  

Boykin, in his lifetime, ultimately invented more than 25 electronic devices. One of his early inventions was an improved electrical resistor for computers, radios, televisions and an assortment of other electronic devices. Other notable inventions include a variable resistor used in guided missiles and small component thick-film resistors for computers.  Boykin’s most famous invention was likely a control unit for the artificial heart pacemaker. The device essentially uses electrical impulses to maintain a regular heartbeat. Boykin died of a heart failure in Chicago. -Wikipedia.org

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2. Dr. Patricia E. Bath  

Patricia Era Bath (born November 4, 1942, Harlem, New York) is an ophthalmologist credited as the first African American woman doctor to receive a patent for a medical purpose.[citation needed] Bath received the patent in 1988 for an “Apparatus for ablating and removing cataract lenses”, a version of a device designed to help remove cataracts with a fiberoptic laser. It is sometimes falsely cited that Bath was the original inventor of this type of device, which became prominent during the mid 1970s.

In 1977, she and three other colleagues founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, an organization whose mission is to protect, preserve, and restore the sense of sight. The Institute supports global initiatives to provide newborn infants with protective anti-infection eye drops, to ensure that children who are malnourished receive vitamin A supplements essential for vision, and to vaccinate children against diseases (such as measles) that can lead to blindness.  As director of AIPB, Bath has traveled widely, performing surgery, teaching new medical techniques, and donating equipment in many industrialized and developing countries. -Wikipedia.org

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1. Lonnie G. Johnson

Lonnie George Johnson (born October 6, 1949 in Mobile, Alabama) is an African American engineer best known as the inventor of the Super Soaker water gun, which was the top selling toy in the United States in 1991 and 1992. Johnson is president and founder of Johnson Research and Development Co., Inc., a technology development company, and its spin off companies, Excellatron Solid State, LLC; Johnson Electro-Mechanical Systems, LLC; and Johnson Real Estate Investments, LLC.  

Articles on Lonnie Johnson have appeared in numerous publications including Time Magazine, the New York Times, and Inventor’s Digest. Johnson serves on the Board of Directors of the Georgia Alliance for Children, an organization which informed and influential voice to protect the rights and interests of Georgia’s less fortunate children. He is a Board member of the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation, and had served on the board of directors of the Commonwealth National Bank.  

In Marietta, Georgia, February 25, 1994 was declared “Lonnie Johnson G. Day” in his honor.  Upon his graduation from Tuskegee University, he worked as a research engineer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and then joined the U. S. Air Force, serving as Acting Chief of the Space Nuclear Power Safety Section at the Air Force Weapons Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

In 1989, Lonnie G. Johnson formed his own engineering firm and licensed his most famous invention, the Super Soaker  water gun, to Larami Corporation. Two years later, the Super Soaker generated over $200 million in retail sales, and became the number one selling toy in America. Larami Corporation was eventually purchased by Hasbro, the second largest toy manufacturer in the world. Over the years, Super Soaker sales have totaled close to one billion dollars. Currently, Lonnie Johnson holds over 80 patents, with over 20 more pending, and is the author of several publications on spacecraft power systems. -Wikipedia.org

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