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14 African-American Inventors Who Shaped Our Lives

African-American Inventors

Since the moment humankind figured out how to make fire, inventions have constantly shaped and changed our world. Inventors of different countries, races, and backgrounds have ceaselessly shaped our lives with their constant ingenuity. Here are 14 such African-American inventors who have shaped our lives.

From simple foods to modern computers, the efforts of African-American inventors have paved the path to the current world we live in. Their ingenious inventions have changed and shaped our lives for the better. Unbeknown to ourselves, we have been benefitting from the actions of these African-American inventors.

1. Otis Boykin

Otis Boykin was an African-American inventor who invented more than 25 electrical devices. His improved electrical resistors are used in guided missiles, computers, and pacemakers to this date. His widely acclaimed artificial cardiac pacemaker control unit uses electrical impulses to maintain a regular heartbeat.

Otis Boykin
Otis Boykin and Chest xray pacemaker. Image credits: Teacher.scholastic.com, CardioNetworks

Forced to drop out of his graduate studies in 1947, Otis took followed his passion and began researching wire resistors. In 1959, his inventions bore fruit when Otis created a wire precision resistor that saw its use in radios and televisions.

Two years later, Otis designed a wire resistor that was cheaper and more reliable than the ones then on the market. It was highly sought after by the U.S. military for guided missiles and IBM for their computers.

After moving to Paris in 1964, Otis created an artificial pacemaker unit that used electrical impulses to maintain a regular heartbeat. The death of his mother, Sarah, from heart failure, when he was a one-year-old, inspired him to create an artificial heart unit to prevent any such deaths in the future.

Ironically, Otis Boykin died due to heart failure in 1982. As of his death, Boykin owned patents for more than 25 electrical devices. (1, 2)

2. Granville T. Woods

Granville T. Woods was the first American of African descent to be a mechanical and electrical engineer after the Civil War. He has more than 60 patents under his name. His telegraph systems were used by traveling trains to communicate with each other and train stations.

Granville T. Woods
Granville T. Woods, Telegraph. Image credits: Cosmopolitan Magazine via NYTimes, Telegraphy.eu

Granville T. Woods was born in Columbus, Ohio, and was only educated formally until he turned ten. Due to his poverty, Woods took an apprenticeship in a machine shop and learned the trades of machinist and blacksmith.

Picking up his education once more, Woods studied mechanical and electrical engineering in college between 1876 to 1878. He became the first African-American to do so after the Civil War. During his business dealings, he often posed as an Australian immigrant to combat the stigma of his African-American descent.

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In 1885, Woods started to work on what he called “telegraphony,” a device that allowed users to switch between two forms of communication, either a voice or a morse code, to transmit messages. This led to him inventing the induction telegraph in 1887.

Prior to his invention of the induction telegraph, moving trains were unable to communicate with each other. Woods’ invention aided the railway system tremendously and made railway passage far safer than it was before.

Woods died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1910. During his lifetime, Woods invented and owned patents for over 60 devices. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006 for his contributions to society. (1, 2)  

3. George Edward Alcorn, Jr.

George Edward Alcorn, Jr. is an American physicist and inventor who worked predominantly for NASA and IBM. He invented X-ray spectrometers in 1984 that are widely used by scientists around the world. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2015.

George Edward Alcorn
George Edward Alcorn and X-ray spectrometer. Image credits: Invent.org, Sutori.com

Born on March 22, 1940, Alcorn earned a Master of Science in Nuclear Physics in 1963 from Howard University. In the summer between 1962 and 1963, Alcorn worked as a research engineer for the Space Division of North American Rockwell.

During his tenure, he computed trajectories and orbital mechanics of Rockwell missiles. In 1967, Alcorn earned his Ph.D. in Atomic and Molecular physics. For the next twelve years, he worked at NASA and IBM and honed his craft. 

In 1984, Alcorn invented X-ray spectrometers, which made a huge impact in his chosen field. He was named Inventor of the Year by NASA for his work with X-ray spectrometers. His invention was widely used by scientists around the world.

He was later inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2015 for his contributions.

(1, 2)  

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4. Lewis Howard Latimer

Lewis Howard Latimer was an American inventor of African descent who made the light bulb more economical with his ingenious design. In 1881, he obtained the patent for the light bulb using carbonized filaments that were more durable and economical than the original design.

Lewis latimer
Lewis latimer.

Born on September 4, 1848, Lewis Howard Latimer joined the U.S. Navy at the age of 15. He was honorably discharged from service on July 3, 1865, and began working as a patent draftsman for a patent law firm.

Throughout his life, Latimer had worked alongside great inventors like Thomas Alva Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. While Latimer didn’t invent the light bulb, he created a design for the light bulb using carbonized filaments, which were more durable and economical. He also co-owns a patent for an improved toilet system for railroad cars.

Latimer was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his work on electric filament manufacturing techniques. (source)

5. Lonnie Johnson

Lonnie Johnson was an African-American inventor and a former NASA and U.S. Air Force engineer who invented and patented the Super Soaker. He used his fortune to start his own company, which is currently developing a high-efficiency heat engine for solar power generation.

Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie Johnson. Image credits: Engadget

Born on October 6, 1949, Lonnie Johnson holds a Master’s Degree in Nuclear Engineering and an honorary Ph.D. in Science from Tuskegee University. Even a child, Johnson has been a scientist. He created a compressed-air powered robot named “Linex,” and took first price in the Alabama science fair.

Johnson started working for the U.S. Air Force after his master’s and later moved on to work in NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory in 1979. During the next decade, he worked in NASA across various projects and contributed heavily.

In 1982, Johnson conceived the widely popular Super Soaker from his experiences in the U.S. Air Force. While working on an eco-friendly heat pump, Johnson accidentally shot a stream of water across a bathroom. Thinking that it would make a great gun, Johnson invented the first model of Super Soaker.

Super Soaker soon became a great hit across the country and turned in a fortune for Johnson. Johnson used the fortune to start his own company that started developing a high-efficiency heat engine for solar-powered generators.

Johnson has been awarded several awards for his work in the U.S. Air Force and NASA. He was also inducted into the State of Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame in 2011. (1, 2)

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