Top 10 Inventions by African Americans

By: Molly Edmonds  | 
George Washington Carver
George Washington Carver at work in his laboratory. CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

When asked to name an African American inventor, many people might immediately think of George Washington Carver and peanut butter. The two have gone as well together as peanut butter and jelly in many history textbooks, but it's actually a myth that Carver came up with peanut butter.

Carver's fascination with the peanut began when he was convincing Southern farmers to adopt his method of crop rotation. Instead of growing cotton every year, which was depleting the soil, Carver urged farmers to alternate cotton with legumes, which provided nutrients to the soil. The farmers obliged, but they had no way to sell all those peanuts. Carver went into the laboratory to come up with products that would make peanuts marketable.


Carver is credited with devising more than 300 different uses for peanuts, including dye, soap, coffee and ink, and his innovations provided the South with an important crop — but peanut butter wasn't one of his ideas. However, many other important inventions were developed by African Americans. Here are just 10 of them.

10: Folding Cabinet Bed

In 1885, Sarah Goode became the first Black woman to receive a U.S. patent. Goode was born into slavery in 1850, and after the Civil War, she moved to Chicago and opened a furniture store. It was there she came up with an idea that would bring more urban residents with limited space into her store. She invented a folding cabinet bed. By day, the piece of furniture could be used as a desk, but at night, it could be folded out into a bed. Goode received her patent 30 years before the Murphy bed, a hideaway bed that folds into a wall, was created.


9: Potato Chips

potato chip
This snack comes courtesy of chef George Crum. MirageC/Getty Images

No chef likes to hear that his or her work has been rejected, but George Crum was able to make magic out of one man's discontent. In 1853, Crum was working as a chef at a resort in Saratoga Springs, New York. A customer sent his dish of french fries back to the kitchen, claiming that they were too thick, too mushy and not salty enough. Crum, in an irritated fit, cut the potatoes as thinly as possible, fried them until they were burnt crisps, and threw a generous handful of salt on top. He sent the plate out to the customer, hoping to teach the patron a thing or two about complaining. However, the customer loved the crisp chips, and soon the dish was one of the most popular things on the menu. In 1860, when Crum opened up his own restaurant, every table received a bowl of chips. Crum never patented his invention, nor was he the one who bagged them and began selling them in grocery stores, but junk food lovers the world over still have him to thank for this crunchy treat.


8: Multiplex Telegraph

Imagine landing a plane without the help of air traffic controllers. These controllers advise pilots on how to navigate takeoffs and landings without colliding with other planes. Granville T. Woods invented the device that allowed train dispatchers to do the same thing in 1887. Woods' invention is called the multiplex telegraph, and it allowed dispatchers and engineers at various stations to communicate with moving trains via telegraph. Conductors could also communicate with their counterparts on other trains. Prior to 1887, train collisions were a huge problem, but Woods' device helped make train travel much safer.

Woods was sued by Thomas Edison who claimed he was the inventor of the multiplex telegraph, but Woods won that lawsuit. Eventually, Edison asked him to work at his Edison Electric Light Company, but Woods declined, preferring to remain independent. He also received a patent for a steam boiler furnace for trains, as well as for an apparatus that combined the powers of the telephone and the telegraph.


7: Shoe Lasting Machine

shoe lasts
An automated machine for shoe lasts allowed the mass production of shoes for the general public. Hemera Technologies/Getty Images

Jan Matzeliger was born in 1852 in Suriname in South America. When he was 21, he traveled to the United States, though he spoke no English, landing a job as an apprentice in a shoe factory in Massachusetts. At the time, the shoe industry was held captive by skilled craftsman known as hand lasters. The hand lasters had the hardest and most technical job on the shoe assembly line; they had to fit shoe leather around a mold of a customer's foot and attach it to the sole of the shoe. A good hand laster could complete about 50 pairs of shoes a day, and because the work was so skilled, hand lasters were paid very large salaries, which made shoes very expensive to produce.

Matzeliger got tired of waiting for the lasters to do their jobs; because they worked so slowly, there were huge backups on the assembly line. He went to night school to learn English so that he could read books about science and manufacturing. He had no money, so he constructed models from spare parts and scraps. After years of study, he produced a shoe lasting machine, which produced between 150 to 700 pairs of shoes a day to the hand laster's 50. Matzeliger died at a young age of influenza, but he left a legacy of more affordable shoes for the general public.


6: Automatic Oil Cup

Even if you've never heard of the automatic oil cup, you've probably uttered the phrase that entered the lexicon because of it. The automatic oil cup was the invention of Elijah McCoy, who was born in 1843 to parents who had escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad. McCoy was sent to Scotland for school, and he returned as a master mechanic and engineer. However, the job opportunities for a Black man — no matter how educated — were limited. The only work McCoy could find was with the Michigan Central Railroad.

McCoy's job was to walk along the trains that pulled into the station, oiling the moving parts by hand. McCoy realized that a person wasn't necessary for this job, and he invented the automatic oil cup, which would lubricate the train's axels and bearings while the train was in motion. As a result, trains didn't have to stop as frequently, which cut down on costs, saved time and improved safety. The oil cup was a huge success, and imitators began producing knockoffs. However, savvy engineers knew that McCoy's cup was the best, so when purchasing the part, they'd ask for "the real McCoy."


5: Carbon-filament Light Bulb

light bulb with filament
Lewis Latimer invented the light bulb filament. Without this, light bulbs could not have been mass-produced. kyoshino/Getty Images

Thomas Edison often gets the credit for inventing the light bulb, but in reality, dozens of inventors were working to perfect commercial lighting. One of those inventors was Lewis Latimer.

Latimer was hired at a law firm that specialized in patents in 1868; while there, he taught himself mechanical drawing and was promoted from office boy to draftsman. In his time at the firm, he worked with Alexander Graham Bell on the plans for the telephone. Latimer then began his foray into the world of light. Edison was working on a light bulb model with a paper filament (the filament is the thin fiber that the electric current heats to produce light). In Edison's experiments, the paper would burn down in 15 minutes or so, rendering the bulb unrealistic for practical use.


It was Latimer who created a light bulb model that used a carbon filament, which lasted longer and made light bulb production cheaper. Because of Latimer's innovation, more people could afford to light their homes. Latimer also received patents for a water closet on railroad cars and a predecessor to the modern air conditioner.

4: Walker Hair Care System

Madam C.J. Walker
Sarah Breedlove (better known as Madam C.J. Walker) drives a car accompanied by some of the women who sold her hair care system. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Sarah Breedlove was born in 1867. She was an orphan at age 7, a wife at 14, a mother at 17 and a widow at 19. She supported her family for 18 years as a laundress, but in the early 1900s, she reinvented herself as Madam C.J. Walker, creator of the Walker Hair Care System.

Breedlove had suffered extreme hair loss, which was common for Black women of the time, due to scalp disease, bad diet, damaging hair products and infrequent washing. She said she prayed to God for assistance and a man appeared to her in a dream with the recipe for pomade that would regrow and settle her hair. The pomade worked for her and for other women she knew, so she began marketing her "Wonderful Hair Grower." In reality, she served a stint as an agent for Annie Pope-Turbo Malone, a Black woman with an established line of beauty products. Malone believed Walker (and others) knocked off her products.


Madam C.J. Walker's method of selling her hair care system was just as innovative as the system herself. She was one of the first people to use direct sales; she hired women to serve as door-to-door salespeople, and she taught them how to use all of the products in a university she founded. Over her lifetime she employed 40,000 people in the U.S., Central America and the Caribbean. Although she is often thought of as inventing the hair straightening comb, it already existed — but she did improve on the design (giving it wider teeth) which made sales soar.

Walker was believed to be the first self-made female millionaire, though records later showed that she was worth about $600,000, still a remarkable achievement for its time, and worth around $6 million today. Much of her wealth was donated to the YMCA and the NAACP.

3: Blood Bank

Dr. Charles Drew
Dr. Charles Drew was the director of the first American Red Cross Blood Bank, due to his ground-breaking work on blood storage. Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Charles Richard Drew already had an M.D. and a Master of Surgery degree when he went to Columbia University in 1938 to earn a Doctor of Medical Science degree. While there, he became interested in researching the preservation of blood. Drew discovered a method of separating red blood cells from plasma and then storing the two components separately. This new process allowed blood to be stored for more than a week, which was the maximum at that time. The ability to store blood (or, as Drew called it, banking the blood) for longer periods of time meant that more people could receive transfusions. Drew documented these findings in a paper that led to the first blood bank.

After completing his studies, Drew began working with the military. First, he supervised blood preservation and delivery in World War II, and then he was appointed director of the first American Red Cross Blood Bank, a blood bank for the U.S. Army and Navy that served as the model for blood banks today. However, Drew resigned his position because the armed forces insisted on separating blood by race and providing white soldiers with blood donated from white people. Drew knew that race made no difference in blood composition, and he felt that this unnecessary segregation would cost too many lives. Drew returned to private life as a surgeon and medical professor at Howard University. He was killed in a car accident in 1950.


2: Protective Mailbox

When you drop a letter in a public mailbox, you expect it to reach its destination safely and in good condition. Before 1891, people using the U.S. mail couldn't make those kinds of assumptions. Public mailboxes were semi-open, which made it easy for thieves to steal mail and for elements like rain and snow to damage letters. Philip B. Downing changed that with a mailbox design that featured an outer door and an inner safety door. When the outer door was open, the safety door remained closed so the mail was safe from thieves and inclement weather. When the outer door closed, the safety door would open so that the deposited mail would join the other letters in the box. This safety device allowed mailboxes to be set up everywhere, near people's homes.

Born into a middle-class family in 1857, Downing had a long career as a clerk with the Custom House in Boston. He also received patents for a device to quickly moisten envelopes and one for operating street railway switches.


1: Gas Mask

gas mask
Garrett Morgan not only invented the gas mask; he also developed an early prototype of the traffic signal. Sean Gladwell/Getty Images

Garrett Morgan only received a sixth-grade education, but he was observational and a quick learner. While working as a handyman at the turn of the 20th century, he taught himself how sewing machines worked so that he could open up his own shop, selling new machines and repairing broken ones. While trying to find a fluid that would polish needles, Morgan happened upon a formula that would straighten human hair — his first invention.

Morgan went on to save countless lives with his next two inventions. Troubled by how many firefighters were killed by smoke on the job, Morgan developed what he called the safety hood. The hood, which went over the head, featured tubes connected to wet sponges that filtered out smoke and provided fresh oxygen. This primitive gas mask became a sensation in 1916 when Morgan ran to the scene of a tunnel explosion and used his invention to save the lives of trapped workers. In 1923, as automobiles were becoming more common, Morgan went on to develop an early prototype of the three-position traffic signal after seeing too many collisions.

Originally Published: Jan 12, 2011

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