Innovation has been embedded in the very DNA of Black people everywhere for centuries. From making light shine to creating more efficient processes and a variety of gadgets that have revolutionized how we live life, Black people have forged many inventions using the fortitude found throughout our history.
Often in our past, the deficit of representation, ongoing oppression, and sheer genius have conjured inspiration to make things that had not previously existed. There have also been times when our creations have gone uncredited or without proper recognition.
In recent years, the patent system in the US started tackling the striking underrepresentation of Black inventors in patent ownership. The racist roots of the system stem back to the 1850s when slave owners could receive patent ownership on behalf of the enslaved person who actually made the invention, building a pipeline of erasure. The racist practices of the system continued well into the 1900s when Jim Crow-era laws prevented Black inventors from obtaining patents from all-white attorneys’ offices.
The result of this institutionalized racism is the absence of Black inventors in patent ownership now. Barriers such as the cost of obtaining a patent, lack of access to the process of obtaining a patent, and a lack of representation among science, math, information, engineering, and technology fields have all contributed to the decline in Black patent ownership.
Despite the setbacks and erasure, history remembers some of the inventors who changed all of our lives.
These are 10 inventions created by Black investors we all use every day.
Carbon Filament for the Incandescent Light Bulb invented by Lewis Latimer
Lewis Latimer was born in 1848 in Massachusetts to parents who'd escaped slavery in Virginia. He taught himself mechanical drawing and landed a position at the Crosby and Gould patent law office, where his talent was recognized. As a result of his work, Latimer consulted on several major projects, including helping to draw the plans for the telephone. Latimer's invention, the carbon filament for an incandescent lightbulb, made electricity affordable and efficient for households.
Home Security System co-invented by Marie Van Brittan Brown
A resident of New York City, Marie Van Brittan Brown, was working as a nurse when she co-created the home security system with her husband. Her invention included a recording camera she rigged to project on a TV and a two-way communication system to speak with visitors without having to go to the door. In 1966, she filed for a patent for a closed-circuit TV security system, which was approved three years later.
Electrical Resistor System for Pacemakers, Computers, And More invented by Otis Boykin
Otis Boykin has over 20 patents to his name. One of his most famous is the electric resistor, which has been used to make pacemakers, computers, televisions, and other technologies operate more efficiently and affordably. A graduate of Fisk University, Boykin received his patent for the electric resistor in 1959.
Traffic Light invented by Garrett Morgan
Born in 1877, Garrett Morgan was the son of formerly enslaved parents. After moving to Cleveland in the late 1890s, Morgan saw the changing world and the increase in car traffic needed some direction. So, he invented the traffic light in 1923. Morgan is also credited with inventing the gas mask, which he put to the test following a pipeline explosion that left construction workers trapped. He saved several workers' lives and his own thanks to his invention.
Sanitary Belt, Toilet Tissue Holder, Carrying Pouch For a Walker invented by Mary Kenner
The multifaceted Mary Kenner was born into a family of creative minds in 1912. Her father, Sidney Nathaniel Davidson, received a patent in 1914 for a clothes presser that could fit into a traveler's suitcase. Her sister Mildred Davidson Smith, even patented the family's board game. In the 1920s, Mary invented the sanitary belt which was designed to help keep sanitary products in place since disposable pads hadn't been invented just yet. Mary's idea sparked some interest in companies who turned her down when they found out she was a Black woman. Mary finally received the patent in 1957 after saving enough money. She went on to receive four other patents, holding more than any other Black woman. She and Mildred received the patent for the toilet roll holder in 1982. After Mildred was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Mary invented a carrying pouch to attach to Mildred's walker so she could carry items on her own. Mary was also a well-known florist and federal employee. She died in 2006.
Automatic Gear Shift, Beer Tap invented by Richard Spikes
Richard Spikes was born in 1878 in Texas. He has over a dozen patents to his name, including the beer tap, which he created while running a saloon. His patent, awarded in 1908, was purchased by the Milwaukee Brewing Company and is still in use today. Spikes also modified the automotive directional signals, which some drivers use on the roads today. He also created the automatic gear shift, among other timeless inventions, including the billiard cue rack and automatic braking systems used by buses and schools.
Laser Cataract Removal Surgery Probe, invented by Patricia Bath
In 1986, Dr. Patricia Bath created the Laserphaco Probe used to treat and remove cataracts in the eyes. Dr. Bath was also the first African American to complete an ophthalmology residency in 1973 and received a patent for medical innovation in 1988. Her invention helped restore sight to people who had been blind for decades. Dr. Path died in 2019.
Air Conditioning invented by David Crosthwait, And the Central Heating Furnace invented by Alice H. Parker
We have two Black inventors to thank for the comfort of air conditioning and heating throughout the year. David Crosthwait Jr. and Alice H. Parker innovated the technology we use to keep us warm and cool in the winter and summer months. Crosthwait has over 39 patents in the US, including one for thermostat control, which he developed throughout the 1920s and 30s.
Alice Parker attended the Howard University Academy, graduating in 1910. She was awarded the patent for her natural gas central heating furnace in 1919.
Dry Cleaning Method invented by Thomas Jennings
In 1821, Thomas Jennings became the first African American to receive a patent. His invention, dry scouring, was a predecessor to dry cleaning. He was working as a tailor in New York City when he applied for his patent, paving the way for African Americans to patent their creations.
Color Computer Monitor co-invented by Mark Dean
Computer scientist and innovator Mark Dean was on the team of 12 engineers who created IBM's first personal computer in the 1980s. He then developed a color monitor used in computers and screens that blazed the trail for the technology we know and use today. Dean also led the team that created the first gigahertz processor in 1999, leading to faster computer speeds. Dean went on to be a leader in the company's research and development strategy.