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14 African-American Inventors Who Shaped Our Lives

11. James E. West

James E. West is an American inventor and acoustician. He holds over 250 patents for the production and design of the microphone. In 1964, James West co-invented the foil electret microphone along with Gerhard Sessler. Over 90% of microphones in the world use West’s design, including the ones in our phones.

James E. West
James E. West. Image credits:

Born on February 10, 1931, James E. West earned his Master’s Degree in Physics from Temple University in 1957. He had a distinguished career at Bell Laboratories for 40 years and has been named a fellow by them.

In 1964, he co-invented the foil electret microphone along with Gerhard Sessler. Compared to previous condenser microphones, West’s invention contains higher capacitance and does not require a DC bias. 

Nearly 90% of microphones in the world use electret microphone design. From our phones to hearing aids and baby monitors, almost all of the modern pieces of equipment use an electret microphone. 

In 2010, West was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. West holds over 250 patents centered around the production and design of microphones.and techniques of creating polymer foil electrets. (source)

12. George Crum

George Crum, a chef in New York, invented potato chips to satisfy customer complaints about French fries. Because African-Americans could not own a U.S. patent at the time, George did not profit or was given credit for his invention, which people consume over 1.2 billion pounds every year.

George Crum
George Crum. Image credits:

While others in this list are known for their scientific inventions, George Crum is a unique case. Crum and was a culinary expert who accidentally created one of the most consumed food by the people of the world.

As per popular legend, Crum accidentally invented potato chips in order to satisfy a difficult customer who was complaining that the French fries served were too soggy. Crum never expected his retaliation to be liked. He soon embraced it and started popularizing the dish.

Since African-Americans couldn’t own a U.S. patent at that time, George Crum was unable to cash in on the invention. Considering that people consume about 1.2 billion pounds of potato chips every year, that is a huge opportunity that was missed out by George Crum. (source)


13. Mark Dean

Mark Dean co-invented the original IBM Personal Computer and PC color monitor in 1981. In 1999, he invented the gigahertz chips that are used in modern-day computers. He holds over 22 PC patents and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1997.

Mark Dean
Mark Dean and IBM Computer. Image credits: German Federal Archives /Wikimedia

Born on March 2, 1957, Mark Dean holds a :Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University. Dean’s affinity for technology was evident at a young age, and he liked experimenting with it.

In 1981, Mark Dean co-invented the original IBM PC and PC color monitor. He also led the team that created the ISA bus used in the computers. He also holds around 22 patents for his innovations in the filed.

In 1999, Dean invented the gigahertz chip that is widely used in modern computers. Dean is credited with being the first African-American to become a fellow at IBM. He was inducted in the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1997. (source)

14. Garrett Morgan

Garrett Morgan was an African-American inventor, businessman, and community leader. He invented the modern three-position-traffic-light system in 1923 after witnessing a serious accident at an intersection. His ingenious idea of introducing a third signal saves countless lives in America.

Garrett Morgan
Garrett Morgan and blueprints for Morgan’s traffic signal. Image credits:

Garrett Morgan was born in an almost exclusively African-American community in 1877. His father was a freed slave, and his mother was a slave. Morgan spent most of his teenage years working as a handyman for a landowner in Cincinnati.

Morgan was an avid inventor and businessman. In 1907, Morgan started his own sewing machine shop. While tinkering with a liquid used to polish the sewing needles, he discovered that the liquid could help straighten hair and launched his own line of hair-care products.

In 1914, Morgan invented a smoke hood that he used to rescue workers trapped in a water intake tunnel in 1916. Conscious of his heritage, he hired White actors to pose as the inventors while selling his inventions.

In 1923, after witnessing a serious traffic accident at an intersection, Morgan came up with an ingenious idea of introducing a third signal in traffic lights. This three-position-traffic-light system saved countless lives and made road travel far safer in America.

Morgan was also a gifted community leader. He worked tirelessly to improve the standing of his community. (source)


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