african american inventor

Dr. Herbert Smitherman was a pioneering executive and professional chemist at Proctor & Gamble who led the way for other African-Americans at the prestigious company in the 1960s. He was the first black person with a doctorate hired at Proctor & Gamble. 
With a Ph.D in physical organic chemistry, Dr. Smitherman developed a number of incredibly popular patents, including Crest toothpaste, Safeguard soap, Bounce fabric softeners, Biz, Folgers Coffee and Crush soda, to name a few. Not only are they still on the shelves, but many of them are on display at the Cincinnati Museum Center in the featured exhibit, “America I AM: The African-American Imprint.”
Nicknamed the “Jackie Robinson of Proctor & Gamble,” Dr. Smitherman spent 29 years there before turning in his labcoat to work as a professor at Wilberforce University. But after serving at the historically black college, Smitherman turned his attention to starting a high school called the Western Hills Design Technology School to help black students perform better in math and science. 
A child of the south, Dr. Smitherman’s family lived in Birmingham, Alabama, where his father served as a reverend. A young Smitherman would see his father’s church burn down twice during their push for voting registration and voting rights. 

He died this year on Oct. 9.

Dr. Smitherman’s legacy was left in his association with HBCUs, specifically his alma mater, Tuskegee Institute, where he met his wife of 51 years; Howard University, where he got his PH.D, and Wilberforce University, where he enlightened many students on his world of historical innovation. 

USS George Washington Carver (SSBN 656), named after the African-American scientist, pioneer, and inventor. She served from 1966 to 1993, and underwent 73 patrols until 1991. (NavSource)

This month, we are highlighting #Navy ships named after heroic #AfricanAmericans throughout American history, both in the military and in civilian life. #blackhistorymonth #navalhistory #history

Alfred L. Cralle

It was while working in Pittsburgh as a porter that Cralle noticed that ice cream, which had become a popular confection, was difficult to dispense. It tended to stick to spoons and ladles, usually requiring use of two hands and at least two implements to serve. To overcome this, he invented a mechanical device now known as the ice cream scoop and applied for a patent.

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.

The Black Book

Middleton A. Harris (Editor), Toni Morrison (Foreword by),

Bill Cosby (Introduction)

Ernest Smith (Editor), Morris Levitt (Editor)

Seventeenth-century sketches of Africa as it appeared to marauding European traders. Nineteenth-century slave auction notices. Twentieth-century sheet music for work songs and freedom chants. Photographs of war heroes, regal in uniform. Antebellum reward posters for capturing runaway slaves. An 1856 article titled “A Visit to the Slave Mother Who Killed Her Child.”

In 1974, Middleton A. Harris and Toni Morrison led a team of gifted, passionate collectors in compiling these images and nearly 500 others into one sensational narrative of the black experience in America: The Black Book.

The Black Book remains a breathtaking testament to the legendary wisdom, strength, and perseverance of black men and women intent on freedom. Prominent collectors spent months studying, laughing at, and crying over these materials–from transcripts of fugitive slaves’ trials and proclamations by Frederick Douglass and other celebrated abolitionists to chilling images of cross burnings and lynchings, patents registered by black inventors throughout the early twentieth century to vibrant posters from “Black Hollywood” films from the 1930s and 1940s.

A labor of love and a vital link to the richness and diversity of African American history and culture, The Black Book honors the past, reminding us where our nation has been, and gives flight to our hopes for what is yet to come. Beautifully and faithfully presented, and featuring a new Foreword and original poem by Toni Morrison, The Black Book remains a timeless landmark work.


July 27th 1963: Garrett Morgan dies

On this day in 1963 the prominent African-American inventor Garrett Morgan died in Cleveland aged 86. Born in Kentucky in 1877 the seventh of eleven children and with only an elementary school education, Morgan went on to develop patents for several inventions. His patents included: a new sewing machine (his first job was as a sewing-machine mechanic); an improved traffic signal (he was the first black man in Cleveland to own a car); a hair-strengthening product; and a breathing device. His model of a breathing device, initially meant to help firefighters, went on to be used as the basis for gas masks in World War One. The hair-strengthening product he invented allowed him to start a business which sold these products to African-Americans - the G.A Morgan Hair Refining Company - which had great financial success. However, Morgan faced considerable racial prejudice throughout his career. Some refused to purchase his devices, which led Morgan to hire a white actor to pose as ‘the inventor’ when showcasing some of his inventions. After his heroism during the Cleveland Tunnel Explosion, when Morgan and his brother put on breathing devices and helped save some of the trapped workers, people realised he was African-American and sales of his products dropped. However after his patent of the traffic signal, which he sold to General Electric for $40,000 and provided the basis for the modern signal, he was honoured and respected by many in the business community. Garrett Morgan, who tirelessly supported the African-American community and whose inventions and personal heroism improved countless lives, died on July 27th 1963 in Cleveland.

Lewis Latimer (1848 – 1928)

What He Invented: The Carbon Filament For The Light Bulb.

Why It’s Important: Latimer is one of the greatest inventors of all time. Thomas Edison may have invented the electric lightbulb, but Latimer helped make it a common feature in American households. In 1881 he received a patent for inventing a method of producing carbon filaments, which made the bulbs longer-lasting, more efficient and cheaper.

In 1876, he worked with Alexander Graham Bell to draft the drawings required for the patent of Bell’s telephone.


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

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. He worked in the laboratories of both Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell.
Black Inventors Day 4

Valerie Thomas - is an African-American scientist and inventor. She invented the illusion transmitter, for which she received a patent in 1980.

Thomas was interested in science as a child, learning at the age of 8 about electronics after reading The Boys First Book on Electronics. She wanted her father to help her work on projects involving electronics, but he failed to do so. She went to an all-girls school where she did not receive any training in the sciences. Implicit stereotypes contributed to this, as the girls school did not teach the students about math or science, so she had to educate herself about those subjects. Thomas would go on to attend Morgan State University, and was one of two women in majoring in physics.

From 1964 to 1995, Thomas worked in a variety of capacities for NASA where she developed real-time computer data systems, conducted large-scale experiments and managed various operations, projects and facilities. While managing a project for NASA’s image processing systems, Thomas’ team spearheaded the development of “Landsat,” the first satellite to send images from space.

In 1976, Thomas learned how concave mirrors can be set up to create the illusion of a 3-dimensional object. She believed this would be revolutionary if technology could be harnessed to transmit this illusion. With an eye to the future, Valerie Thomas began experimenting on an illusion transmitter in 1977. In 1980, she patented it. In operation, concave mirrors are set up on both ends of the transmission. The net effect of this is an optical illusion of a 3-dimensional image that looks real on the receiving end. This brilliant innovation placed Thomas among the most prominent black inventors of the 20th century.

Valerie Thomas continued working for NASA until 1995 when she retired. In addition to her work with the Illusion Transmitter she designed programs to research Halley’s comet and ozone holes. She received numerous awards for her service, including the GSFC Award of Merit and the NASA Equal Opportunity Medal. In her career, she showed that the magic of fascination can often lead to concrete scientific applications for real-world problem-solving.

NASA continues to use her technology and is exploring ways to use it in surgical tools and possibly television and video.

(Did you ever think of what it might be like if your television could project the on-screen image directly into your living room as a 3-Dimensional image? Maybe not, but if it happens, you’ll have African-American inventor Valerie Thomas to thank for it.)


May 2nd 1844: Elijah McCoy born

On this day in 1844, the inventor Elijah McCoy was born in Ontario, Canada. McCoy’s parents were fugitive slaves from Kentucky who made their escape via the Underground Railroad. When he was three years old, the family returned to the United States and settled in Michigan. McCoy showed an early aptitude for mechanics, and was apprenticed to Scotland when he was fifteen, earning certification as a mechanical engineer. Despite his prodigious talents, McCoy struggled to find work in the face of racial discrimination, and ended taking a job as an oilman on the railroad. While working on trains he began designing inventions, and in 1872 invented a lubricating cup designed to distribute oil evenly over train engines. McCoy patented this design, which allowed trains to run for long periods of time without having to make maintenance stops. He continued to invent, ultimately receiving nearly sixty patents, which included an ironing board and lawn sprinkler.  Other inventors attempted to mimic his machines, but companies demanded ‘the real McCoy’, thus coining the famous phrase. McCoy’s name did not appear on many of his products, but in 1920 he formed a manufacturing company bearing his name. In 1922, McCoy and his wife were in a car accident, killing his wife and critically injuring him. Having never fully recovered from his wounds, Elijah McCoy died in 1929 aged eighty-five, and remains one of the most accomplished black inventors in American history.

Sketch of J. Ernest Wilkins, jr. Born in 1923, Wilkins was admitted to the University of Chicago at the age of 13, and was awarded a Ph.D. in mathematics at the age of nineteen. Wilkins was the seventh African American to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics and later worked at the Manhattan Project and taught at the Tuskegee Institute.

It is unclear exactly what year John Standard the great African American inventor, was born, however it is clear that he lived in Newark, New Jersey, and received a patent on July 14, 1891 for his refrigerator design.

John Standard did not invent the very first refrigerator, however, every patent represents something that has not be done before and most utility patents are issued for what is called an “improvement.” patent. Improvements are the work of inventors and often it is the improved design that succeeds the original.

In his patent for the refrigerator John Standard declared, “this invention relates to improvements in refrigerators; and it consists of certain novel arrangements and combinations of parts.” He was the first to design a refrigerator that had two part in one, with a freezer on the top and a cooler on the bottom. That configuration is the “Standard” for most of the refrigerators sold around the world still today.

John Standard was saying that he had found a way to improve the design of refrigerators. A non-electrical and unpowered design, Standard’s refrigerator made in 1891 used a manually-filled ice chamber for chilling.

John Standard was also received U.S. patent #413,689 on October 29 1889 for an improved oil stove. John Standard’s oil stove was a space-saving design that he suggested could be used for buffet style meals on trains.