For the month of February and in celebration of African American History Month, Headline Science Now is featuring biographies of prominent African American scientists and inventors. Our first installment features Inventors and their contributions to history and society.
Prior to the Civil War, free blacks were entitled to receive patents for their inventions, although very few had the skills or education to develop their ideas. But a significant number of black inventors successfully developed and patented their inventions. Thomas Jennings was the first to hold a patent and he used funds from that patent to fund abolitionist causes. In 1870, after the Civil War, the U.S. patent laws were revised so that anyone, regardless of race, could hold a patent and the number of patents issued to African Americans greatly increased.
This post focuses on Norbert Rillieux, Elijah McCoy, Lewis Howard Lattimer, Garrett Augustus Morgan, Frederick McKinley Jones, Patricia Bath, and Mark Dean.
Norbert Rillieux (1806-1894) – Born the son of a French planter and a slave in New Orleans, Rillieux was educated at Catholic schools in Louisiana before studying in France. He became an expert in applied mechanics, teaching and publishing several papers on steam technology before his return to the United States. In the U.S. he developed and patented an evaporating pan for refining sugar that greatly improved the speed and safety for refinement. Rillieux’s evaporation technique is still used in the sugar industry and in the manufacture of soap and other products. He returned to France to become headmaster of L’ecole Centrale where he deciphered hieroglyphics.
Elijah McCoy (1844-1929) – The son of escaped slaves from Kentucky, McCoy was born in Canada and educated in mechanical engineering in Scotland. Settling in Detroit, Michigan, he was denied employment as an engineer but took a job as a railroad fireman. Recognizing the trains had to shut down periodically in order to prevent overheating, and also preventing railroads from being profitable, he invented a lubricator for steam engines (patented 1872) that prevented those frequent stops and overheating. He established his own manufacturing company and during his lifetime he acquired 58 patents including the folding ironing board and automatic sprinkler
Lewis Howard Latimer (1848-1929) – Born in Chelsea, MA, to parents who fled Virginia to escape slavery, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War. After an honorable discharge, Latimer learned mechanical drawing while working for a Boston patent attorney. He designed several of his own inventions, including an improved railroad car bathroom and an air conditioning unit. He worked closely with Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. He invented an electric lamp and a carbon filament for light bulbs (patented 1881, 1882). Latimer was the only African American member of Thomas Edison’s engineering laboratory.
Garrett Augustus Morgan (1877-1963) – Born in Kentucky, and starting his career as sewing maching mechanic, Morgan patented several inventions including an improved sewing machine and a hair-straightening product. Morgan invented a gas mask (patented 1914) that became the prototype and precursor to the gas masks used in World War I to protect soldiers from chlorine fumes. Morgan also received a patent (1923) for a traffic signal that featured automated STOP and GO signs. Morgan’s invention was later replaced by traffic lights.
Frederick McKinley Jones (1892-1961) – Jones was born in Cincinnati, Ohio and taught himself mechanical and electrical engineering. An experienced mechanic and U. S. Army veteran from World War I, he invented a self-starting gas engine and a series of devices for movie projectors. More importantly, he invented the first automatic refrigeration system for long-haul trucks (1935) that helped the U.S. military carry food, medicine and blood during World War II. He was awarded more than 60 patents, most of those in the field of refrigeration. Others related to X-ray machines, engines and sound equipment. Jones was the first African-American to receive the National Medal of Technology, presented posthumously to his widow in 1991.
Patricia Bath (1942-) – Born in Harlem, New York, Bath holds a bachelor’s degree from Hunter College, an M.D. from Howard University and she was the first African-American to complete a residency in opthalmology. She is a co-founder of the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness. Bath is best known for her invention of the Laserphaco Probe for the treatment of cataracts which she patented in 1988, making her the first African American female doctor to receive a medical patent.
Mark Dean (1957-) – Dean was born in Jefferson City, Tennessee, and holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Tennessee, a master’s degree from Florida Atlantic University, and a Ph.D. from Stanford University. He led the team of IBM scientists that developed the Industry Standard Architecture System bus—a device that enabled computer components such as disk drives, printers and monitors to be plugged directly into computers, which made personal computers fast and efficient for the first time. Dean also led the design team responsible for creating the first one-gigahertz computer processor chip and the color PC monitor. Dean holds three of IBM’s original nine patents and as more than 20 patents associated with his name. He was named an IBM fellow, the first African American to receive the honor and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1997.
Next Week’s post: African American Women in Science