African American Inventors
Invented an Early-version Torpedo.
Andre Reboucas was born in 1838 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He was trained at the Military School of Rio de Janeiro and became an engineer after studying in Europe. After returning to Brazil, Reboucas was named a lieutenant in the engineering corps in the 1864 Paraguayan War. During the war, as naval vessels became more and more integral, Reboucas designed an immersible device which could be projected underwater, causing an explosion with any ship it hit. The device became known as the torpedo.
Invented the "Permanent Waving Machine."
Marjorie Stewart Joyner was born in Monterey, Virginia on October 24, 1896, the granddaughter of a slave and a slave-owner. In 1912, an eager Marjorie moved to Chicago, Illinois to pursue a career in cosmetology. She enrolled in the A.B. Molar Beauty School and in 1916 became the first Black women to graduate from the school. Following graduation, the 20 year old married podiatrist Robert E. Joyner and opened a beauty salon.
Joyner developed her concept by connecting 16 rods to a single electric cord inside of a standard drying hood. A women would thus wear the hood for the prescribed period of time and her hair would be straightened or curled. After two years Joyner completed her invention and patented it in 1928, calling it the “Permanent Waving Machine.” She thus became the first Black woman to receive a patent and her device enjoyed enormous and immediate success. It performed even better than anticipated as the curl that it added would often stay in place for several days, whereas curls from standard curling iron would generally last only one day.
Created a Steam Engine for Warships.
Benjamin Bradley was born around 1830 as a slave in Maryland. He was able to read and write, although at the time it was illegal for a slave to do so (he likely learned from the Master’s children). He was put to work in a printing office and at the age of 16 began working with scrap he found, modeling it into a small ship. Eventually, with an intuitiveness that seemed far beyond him, he improved on his creation until he had built a working steam engine, made from a piece of a gun-barrel, pewter, pieces of round steel and some nearby junk. Those around him were so astounded by his high level of intelligence that he was placed in a new job, this time at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. In his new position he served as a classroom assistant in the science department. He helped to set up and conduct experiments, working with chemical gases. He was very good at his work, impressing the professors with his understanding of the subject matter and also with his preparedness in readying the experiments. In addition to the praise he received, he also received a salary, most of which went to his Master, but some of which (about $5.00 per month) he was able to keep. Despite enjoying his job with the Naval Academy, Bradley had not forgotten his steam engine creation. He used the money he had been able to save from his job as well as the proceeds of the sale of his original engine (to a Naval Academy student) to build a larger model. Eventually he was able to finish an engine large enough to drive the first steam-powered warship at 16 knots. At the time, because he was a slave, he was unable to secure a patent for his engine. His master did, however, allow him to sell the engine and he used that money to purchase his freedom.
Created a Laser Surgical Device.
When Patricia Era Bath was born on November 4, 1942, she could have succumbed to the pressures and stresses associated with growing up in Harlem, New York. With the uncertainty present because of World War II and the challenges for members of Black communities in the 1940′s, one might little expect that a top flight scientist would emerge from their midst. In 1981 she began work on her most well-known invention which she would call a “Laserphaco Probe.” The device employed a laser as well as two tubes, one for irrigation and one for aspiration (suction). The laser would be used to make a small incision in the eye and the laser energy would vaporize the cataracts within a couple of minutes. The damaged lens would then be flushed with liquids and then gently extracted by the suction tube. With the liquids still being washed into the eye, a new lens could be easily inserted. Additionally, this procedure could be used for initial cataract surgery and could eliminate much of the discomfort expected, while increasing the accuracy of the surgery. Unfortunately, though her concept was sound, she was unable to find any lasers within the United States that could be adapted for the procedure (the majority of laser technology in the United States was dedicated to military purposes). She was able to find the laser probe she needed in Berlin, Germany and successfully tested the device which she described as an “apparatus for ablating and removing cataract lenses” and later dubbed it the “Laserphaco Probe.” Bath sought patent protection for her device and received patents in several countries around the world. She intends to use the proceeds of her patent licenses to benefit the AIPB. Patricia Bath retired from UCLA in 1993 and continues to advocate vision care outreach and calls for attention to vision issues. Her remarkable achievements as a Black woman make her proud, but racial and gender-based obstacles do not consume her. “Yes, I’m interested in equal opportunities, but my battles are in science.”
George Washington Carver
Invented Thousand of Uses for the Peanut
George Washington Carver was born in 1860 in Diamond Grove, Missouri and despite early difficulties would rise to become one of the most celebrated and respected scientists in United States history. His important discoveries and methods enabled farmers through the south and midwest to become profitable and prosperous. In 1896 he received his master’s degree in agriculture and in 1897 discovered two funguses that would be named after him. At this point, the most pivotal moment of his life arose – he was summoned by Booker T. Washington to teach at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. He was appointed director of agriculture and quickly set out to completely correct its wretched state. He was given a 20 acre shabby piece of land and along with his students planted peas on it. Like all legumes, the peas had nitrogen-fixing bacteria on their roots which took nitrogen from the air and converted it into nitrates which then worked to fertilize the soil. The depleted soil quickly became rich and fertile, so much so that he was able to grow 500 pounds of cotton on each acre of land he worked on. Carver soon instructed nearby farmers on his methods of improving the soil and taught them how to rotate their crops to promote a better quality of soil. Most of the staple crops of the south (tobacco and cotton) stole nutrients from the soil, but these nutrients could be returned to the soil by planting legumes. Thus, in order to improve the soil, Carver instructed the farmers to plant peanuts, which could be harvested easily and fed to livestock. The farmers were ecstatic with the tremendous quality of cotton and tobacco they grew later but quickly grew angry because the amount of peanuts they harvested was too plentiful and began to rot in overflowing warehouses. Within a week, Carver had experimented with and devised dozens of uses for the peanut, including milk and cheese. In later years he would produce more than 300 products that could be developed from the lowly peanut, including ink, facial cream, shampoo and soap.
Invented Resistors for Pacemakers.
Otis F. Boykin was born on August 29, 1920 in Dallas, Texas. After graduating high school, he attended Fisk College in Nashville, Tennessee. He graduated in 1941 and took a job as a laboratory assistant with the Majestic Radio and TV Corporation in Chicago, Illinois. He undertook various tasks but excelled at testing automatic aircraft controls, ultimately serving as a supervisor. Three years laster he left Majestic and took a position as a research engineer with the P.J. Nilsen Reseach Laboratories. Soon thereafter, he decided to try to develop a business of his own a founded Boykin-Fruth, Incorporated. Otis BoykinAt the time, the field of electronics was very popular among the science community and Boykin took a special interest in working with resistors. A resistor is an electronic component that slows the flow of an electrical current. This is necessary to prevent too much electricity from passing through a component than is necessary or even safe. Boykin sought and received a patent for a wire precision resistor on June 16, 1959. This resistor allowed for a specific amounts of current to flow through for a specific purpose and would be used in radios and televisions. Two years later, he created another resistor that could be manufactured very inexpensively. It was a breakthrough device as it could withstand extreme changes in temperature and tolerate and withstand various levels of pressure and physical trauma without impairing its effectiveness. The chip was cheaper and more reliable than others on the market. Not surprisingly, it was in great demand as he received orders from consumer electronics manufacturers, the United States military and electronics behemoth IBM. In 1964, Boykin moved to Paris, creating electronic innovations for a new market of customers. Most of these creations involved electrical resistance components (including small component thick-film resistors used in computers and variable resistors used in guided missile systems) but he also created other important products including a chemical air filter and a burglarproof cash register. His most famous invention, however, was a control unit for the pacemaker, which used electrical impulses to stimulate the heart and create a steady heartbeat. In a tragic irony, Boykin died in 1982 as a result of heart failure.
Developed a 3-D Optical Illusion Device.
As a child, Valerie Thomas became fascinated with the mysteries of technology, tinkering with electronics with her father and reading books on electronics written for adolescent boys. The likelihood of her enjoying a career in science seemed bleak, as her all-girls high school did not push her to take advanced science or math classes or encourage her in that direction. Nonetheless, her curiosity was piqued and upon her graduation from high school, she set out on the path to become a scientist. In 1976 Thomas attended a scientific seminar where she viewed an exhibit demonstrating an illusion. The exhibit used concave mirrors to fool the viewer into believing that a light bulb was glowing even after it had been unscrewed from its socket. Thomas was fascinated by what she saw, and imagined the commercial opportunities for creating illusions in this manner. In 1977 she began experimenting with flat mirrors and concave mirrors. Flat mirrors, of course, provide a reflection of an object which appear to lie behind the glass surface. A concave mirror, on the other hand, presents a reflection that appears to exist in front of the glass, thereby providing the illusion that they exist in a three-dimensional manner. Thomas believed that images, presented in this way could provide a more accurate, if not more interesting, manner of representing video data. She not only viewed the process as a potential breakthrough for commercial television, but also as scientific tool for NASA and its image delivery system.
Created Processes to Innovate Internet Apps.
The early life of Philip Emeagwali seemed destined for poverty in his native land of Nigeria. He was the oldest of nine children and his father, who worked as a nurse’s aide, earned only a modest income. As a result, at age 14, Philip was forced to drop out of school in Onitsha. Because he had shown such great promise in mathematics, his father encouraged him to continue learning at home. Every evening, Philip’s father would quiz him in math as well as other subjects. He would ask these questions in a rapid-fire manner, prompting Philip to think quickly on his feet. Eventually, Philip was tasked to answer 100 question in an hour, which to his father’s delight, he succeeded in. Unable to attend school, Philip instead journeyed to the public library, spending most of his day there. He sped through books appropriate for his age and moved up to college-level material, studying mathematics, chemistry, physics and English. After a period of study, he applied to take the General Certificate of Education exam (a high-school equivalency exam) through the University of London and he passed it easily. Encouraged by his success and newly found status, Emeagwali moved forward with further research and provided new theories and concepts for computer design. Many of these were based on the idea that computers were simply an extension of the function of nature and thus that they should be designed based on nature. One of his theories is aimed at exploring long-term effects of greenhouse gases and global warming. Emeagwali offered a new design for a computer based on honeycombs. Based on the theory of tessellated models, Emeagwali broke the Earth’s atmosphere into sections that resembled honeycombs created by bees. He reasoned that bees are able to use the most efficient methods to develop their honeycombs and that following principles of honeycomb design in a computer will allow it to work in an optimal fashion. He believes that his hyperball computer will allow for weather forecasting far into the future and for simulated global warming trends in order to address the problem.