Did you know that CCTV was invented by an African American nurse, Marie Van Brittan Brown, in 1966? Or that the vital component of the light bulb, the carbon filament, was invented by a black engineer and inventor, Lewis Latimer, working closely with Thomas Edison?
Did you also know that perishable foods only arrive unspoilt to our supermarkets thanks to the African American inventor Frederick McKinely? He was responsible for making and patenting a cooling system for trucks.
These are just a few of the amazing inventions that have been brought to us by black scientists and inventors over the years – inventions that have really changed our world for the better.
In celebration of Black History Month, we take a look at some of these inventions and the inspired and pioneering people who created them.
1. Garrett Morgan - traffic signal
Garrett Morgan was an inventor and businessman from Cleveland, US, who’s best known for inventing a gas mask called the Morgan safety hood and smoke protector in 1914.
However, after witnessing a nasty accident between an automobile and a horse-drawn carriage, Morgan set about inventing a traffic signal that could control the flow of traffic. Other inventors had experimented with traffic signals, but in 1923 it was Morgan who was the first to acquire a US Patent for an inexpensive way to produce a traffic signal.
What made Morgan’s traffic signal different was that it featured three positions: Stop, Go, and an all-directional stop position. This "third position" halted traffic in all directions allowing pedestrians to cross streets more safely.
He sold the rights to his life-saving signal to the General Electric Corporation for $40,000. Though shortly before his death in 1963, he was awarded a citation for his traffic signal by the United States Government.
2. Shirley Ann Jackson - telecommunications inventions
Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson is an American physicist who was also the first black woman to graduate from M.I.T. with a Ph.D. She’s responsible for an impressive number of inventions, particularly within telecommunications.
It was her groundbreaking research that enabled the invention of the portable fax, the tone telephone, solar cells, fibre optic cables, and the technology behind caller ID and call waiting.
3. William Pasi Sachiti - Kar-go
William Pasi Sachiti was born in Harare, Zimbabwe, but moved to the UK when he was 16 years old. In 2015 he went to University in Aberystwyth to study artificial intelligence and robotics. And while there, he worked with a team of scientists to find a way to deliver packages autonomously.
In 2016, after receiving funding from the University, he founded the Academy of Robotics, a vehicle manufacturing company, to develop Kar-go. Kar-go is a driverless car that can deliver multiple packages by using a combination of advanced robotics and driverless vehicle technology.
Sachiti says, “The car has been received very well…both by retailers because it solves a real problem for them, as well as consumers."
4. Patricia Bath - laser tool for eye surgery
Born in Harlem, NY, Patricia Bath developed an interest in science very early in life. She went on to attend medical school at Howard University and completed a fellowship in ophthalmology at Colombia.
In 1981 she invented a laser tool, the Laserphaco Probe, that has helped to restore the sight of millions worldwide (even people who have been blind for over 30 years). The tool is used during eye surgery to correct cataracts – an eye condition that clouds vision and can lead to blindness.
With this life-changing invention, Bath was the first African American doctor to receive a medical patent.
“It is smarter to borrow from nature than reinvent the wheel.”
5. Lonnie G. Johnson - The Super Soaker
Lonnie G. Johnson is an engineer and inventor who created The Super Soaker while working for the US Airforce.
The inspiration hit him while working on an eco-friendly pump. “I accidentally shot a stream of water across the bathroom where I was doing the experiment and thought to myself, ‘This would make a great gun.’”
In 1983 he applied for a U.S. patent but didn’t receive one until 1986. Initially, it was called the “Power Drencher” when it appeared in toy shops in 1990, but after some tweaks and re-marketing, it was given the name it’s known by today.
In its first year, the Super Soaker really took off, generating $200 million in sales in 1991. And it has been among the world's bestselling toys every year since.
6. Philip Emeagwali - supercomputer
Despite having to leave school at just 13 because of the Nigerian Civil War, Philip Emeagwali went on to become one of the greatest computer pioneers of our time. Some call him the “Bill Gates of Africa.”
He drew his inspiration from nature, especially bees. Studying the efficient way they constructed a honeycomb made him rethink his approach to computer processing. In 1989 he put his ideas to work and used 65,000 processes to invent the world’s first supercomputer – able to perform 3.1 billion calculations per second.
His computers are currently being used to forecast the weather and predict the effects of global warming.