Do You Know Your History? Black Inventors We Forgot About

As we continue to honor the contributions the Black community has made throughout U.S. history, we cannot discredit some of the most revolutionary inventions made by black inventors over the course of American history.

Black inventors are responsible for some of the world’s greatest technological and social advancements today. However, many Black inventors were discredited for their inventions. Though the law, at the time, never explicitly prohibited Black inventors from applying for patents, those who born into slavery were not considered American citizens and therefore, not able to legally own their creations. 

In 1821, Thomas L. Jennings became the first African American and emancipated enslaved person to be granted a U.S. patent. As a new citizen (or freedman), Jennings was able to circumvent around the suppression so many African Americans faced and gain ownership to his property. His patent was awarded for his discovery of a process called ‘dry-scouting’ , which would then become the forerunner of today’s dry-cleaning. 

Thus, began a history of relentless exploration and creations that still affect everyday American life. The first home security system created by Marie Van Brittan Brown was an important invention that still impacts our safety today. Born in Queens, New York, Brown was inspired by the neighborhood where she lived. Due to its high crime rates, Brown decided to create a security system by rigging a motorized camera to record her entryway and project images onto a monitor. It also included a panic button that could be used to immediately contact police and a two way microphone to communicate with visitors. She officially received her approval for a patent in December of 1969.She is also credited with the invention of the first closed circuit television.

Sometimes remembered as “the wealthiest colored man in the Northwest,” Alexander Miles was awarded a patent in 1887 for creating an automatic device to open and close elevator doors. While riding in an elevator with his young daughter, Grace Miles,  Alexander Miles saw the risk associated with an elevator shaft door carelessly left ajar. This led him to draft his design. Before, passengers had to manually open and close doors, as well as the door leading to the shaft. His invention ultimately made the elevator system easier and much safer.

Elijah Mcoy was also another inventor who helped to make life easier. Created by Mcoy, the portable ironing board may have been one of his most timeless inventions. After his wife, Mary Eleanor Delaney, complained about having to iron on uneven surfaces, Mccoy decided to help her by creating the ironing board in 1882. A decade later, Sarah Boone, another African American inventor, received her patent for making improvements to McCoy’s ironing board. In her application, she stated that her purpose was to “ produce a cheap, simple, convenient, and highly effective device, particularly adapted to be used in ironing the sleeves and bodies of ladies’ garments.”

Most of us have never stopped to think about this famous invention that helps us to see things a bit brighter: the lightbulb. Though the light bulb itself was invented by Thomas Edison, the innovation used to create longer-lasting light bulbs with a carbon filament came from Lewis Latimer. Born to two parents who had fled slavery, Lewis Latimer learned about the art of mechanical drawing working at a patent firm. His talents were necessary during the post Civil War era. Latimer patented a carbon filament for the lightbulb which made it more practical. He also contributed to creating the first telephone by drafting the drawing that Alexander Graham Bell used in 1876.

Often overlooked, Black innovators have changed the way we live through their contributions. Their innovations, intelligence, and drive have led to an easier and safer life for everyone. The disregard of impactful black inventors not only whitewashes the historical record, but influences our perception of great inventors in the present. Therefore, It is important that we recognize their accomplishments, not only this month, but throughout the rest of the year. 

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