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14 African-American Inventors Who Shaped Our Lives

6. Frederick Jones

Frederick Jones was an African-American inventor who is best known for his mobile refrigeration unit, which allows long-distance transportation of perishable food and medical supplies. He won the National Medal of Technology for his contributions during World War II in 1991.

Frederick Jones
Frederick Jones. Image credits: Minnesota Historical Society/Blackpast.org

Born on May 17, 1893, Frederick Jones was virtually orphaned at the age of seven. He was raised by a Catholic priest until he was 11. He started working as a cleaning boy and became an automobile mechanic at 14.

After his service in World War I, Jones returned to Hallock, Minnesota, and taught himself electronics. He built a transmitter for the town’s new radio station and invented a device to combine sound with motion pictures.

In 1938, Jones experimented with refrigeration and devised a portable air-cooling unit for trucks. It enabled long-distance transportation of perishable food. During World War II, his portable cooling units became invaluable in transporting medicine, perishable foods, and blood for the U.S. Army.

Jones died of lung cancer in 1961. He was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. He was also awarded the National Medal of Technology in 1991 for his contribution to World War II. (source)

7. Marie Van Brittan Brown

Marie Van Brittan Brown invented the first-ever home security system in 1966. Living in a neighborhood in Queens, New York, where the crime rate was high, Marie Brown invented a home security system to monitor her doorstep and alert the police if necessary. This system became the pioneer for modern-day CCTV security cameras.

Marie Van Brittan Brown
Marie Van Brittan Brown.

Living in the troubled neighborhood of Queens, New York, where the crime rate was rather high, Marie Van Brittan Bown was often troubled. Marie hated the fact that she had to often wonder who was on the other side of the door whenever someone came calling.

Determined to do something about it, Marie, along with her husband Albert Brown, designed the first-ever home security system. Brown’s system had three peep-holes, with the opposite side containing a camera to identify the visitor.

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A monitor setup was used to view the person and hear the caller. Along with a remote control to open and close doors, the system also provided with an alarm to alert police of any unsavory visitors.

Brown’s system is considered to be the pioneer of modern-day CCTV security cameras. Even to this day, Brown’s system is used by smaller businesses and facilities despite being built for a home initially. (source)

8. Elijah “The Real” McCoy

Elijah McCoy, an African-American inventor, changed the landscape of the railroad industry. He invented automatic lubricators for steam engines that revolutionized the railroad industry. His invention was so widespread that the railroad workers refused to use anything that wasn’t the “The Real McCoy” lubricator.

Elijah McCoy
Elijah McCoy. Image credits: Black inventor.com

Elijah McCoy was born free to a couple of fugitive slaves in 1844 in Canada. He attended Black schools and became a certified mechanical engineer after completing his apprenticeship in Scotland.

McCoy arrived in Michigan and started working as a fireman and oiler for the Michigan Central Railroad. Working on his experiments, McCoy invented an automatic lubricator for oiling the steam engines of locomotives and ships.

His automatic lubricator became famous, and as days passed, more railroad engineers began to request it by name. Its reliability revolutionized the entire railroad industry. Soon, the systems using his lubricators began to be called “the real McCoy systems.”

Elijah McCoy died at the age of 85, after suffering injuries from a car accident seven years prior. As of his death, McCoy owned around 57 patents under his name. (source)

9. Patricia Bath

Dr. Patricia Bath, with her invention of the Laserphaco Probe, restored sight to millions of people suffering from cataracts. She is the first African-American to complete a residency in ophthalmology. She is also the first African-American female doctor to receive a medical patent.

Dr. Patricia Bath
Dr. Patricia Bath. Image credits: Cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov

Born to supportive parents in Harlem, New York, in 1942, Patricia Bath was a serious student who excelled in her studies. Her interest in scientific research blossomed at a young age, and by the time she turned 18, she had already won a merit award for her discoveries.

Bath went on to finish her residency in ophthalmology and became the first African-American to achieve do so. Her research into blindness among Black people promoted her discoveries further, and soon, she invented the Laserphaco Probe in 1986.

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Patricia Bath was an early pioneer of laser cataract surgery. Her invention paved the way for restoring sight to millions of people who were suffering from cataracts. Bath became the first African-American female doctor to own a medical patent.

Patricia Bath was also known for her humanitarian works. Inspired by Martin Luther King’s efforts to uplift the Black community, Bath did a lot of humanitarian work. She also founded the non-profit American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness in Washington, D.C.

Patricia Bath died on May 30, 2019, from cancer-related complications at the age of 76. She has five patents to her name. (1, 2)

10. Alexander Miles

Alexander Miles was an African-American inventor who was best known for his invention of automatic elevator doors in 1887. His invention dramatically improved passenger safety, and he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007.

Alexander Miles
Alexander Miles and his elevator design diagram. Image credits: Duluth Public Library archives – Duluth MN/Wikipedia, Patents.google.com

Alexander Miles was born in 1838 to African-American parents. Miles began his life as a barber in Wisconsin before marrying his wife, Mrs. Candace J Dunlap, a widow with two children. In 1876, the couple had a daughter of their own named Grace.

Miles got the idea of the elevator door mechanism after Grace accidentally fell down an elevator shaft, almost ending her life. At that time, elevators had to be manually closed, often, by dedicated operators. If they did not, the possibility of someone falling down the shaft was rather high.

Miles invented shaft doors that opened and closed along with the elevator doors in 1887 after Grace’s fall. Miles used a flexible elevator belt to time the opening of the elevator doors with the help of drums above and below the floors along the elevator shaft.

His invention dramatically improved passenger safety and also protected people from accidentally falling into the elevator shaft. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007 for his contribution to society. (1, 2)

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