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A Day In YOUR Life with Black Inventors

February is Black History Month (but we could celebrate it year round). This month-long observance in the US and Canada is a chance to celebrate Black achievement and give visibility to the people and organizations making a stand against systematic inequalities.

Black History Month was first created in February 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, known as the “father of Black history.” Mr. Woodson was a historian who helped establish the field of African American studies and his organization, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, aimed to encourage “people of all ethnic and social backgrounds to discuss the Black experience”.

Every year, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) chooses the theme for Black History Month. This year’s theme is “Black Resistance,” specifically calling out the legacy of resistance through politics, the arts, society and education. 

Inventors often spend their entire lifetimes creating devices which have long lasting benefits for society for many years – yet the inventor may only gain recognition only after they have passed away. Read on to learn about Black inventors who have made so many of your daily routines possible out of their resistance and unique experiences.

Rise and Shine (and be safe!)

Alice Parker – Thermostat & Temperature Control
Isn’t it nice that you can just walk into your home and turn on the heat when you’re cold?  Alice is the reason we can keep toasty during the winter months. She felt that the fireplace alone was not enough to keep her and her home warm during the cold Jersey winters.

Her design allowed for warm air to enter through ducts in individual rooms of a house. Ms. Parker patented her invention, the residential natural gas furnace, on December 23, 1919. 

Marie Van Brittan Brown – Security System
The Brown family felt the increasing crime in their New York neighborhood, coupled with the fact that police were slow to respond to calls in their part of town, so they set out to make their home feel safer.  So they created a system to view who was at their home and contact the appropriate authorities.

On December 2, 1969, Mrs. Brown and her husband received a patent for a household closed-circuit-television security system, which led to today’s home security systems.

Looking Good

Sarah Boone – Ironing Board
Sarah Boone is the reason we no longer iron across a piece of wood balanced on two chairs.  She’s also one of the first Black women in U.S. history to receive a patent on April 26, 1892.   

Ms. Boone expanded upon the original ironing board, which was essentially a horizontal wooden block originally patented in 1858.  Her addition of a padded surface and a smaller rounded end helped ironing become much more efficient and her design remains intact to this day. 

Lyda D. Newman – Hairbrush
Hairdresser Lyda D. Newman patented her “new and improved hairbrush” on November 15, 1898. Hair brushes weren’t as user friendly as they are today; used mainly as a styling tool, hair brushes were an indulgence reserved for the wealthy.

Ms. Newman designed a brush with evenly spaced rows of bristles that were easy to keep clean with ventilated air chambers.  While she didn’t invent the hairbrush, she improved the design that is similar to today’s modern hairbrushes. Oh, and it’s a myth that you need to brush your hair 100 times a day!

Vroom Vroom

Richard Bowie Spikes – Automatic Gear Shift
People (like myself) who can’t drive a stick shift are definitely happy Mr. Spikes created the automatic gear shift. Richard Spikes invented the gear shift to help keep the gears constant for different speeds. He received this patent on February 28, 1932. 

Mr. Spikes was a prolific inventor with more than a dozen patents to his name and his inventions transformed the transportation industry, including the automatic gear shift, the automatic safety brake system, an automatic car washer, and automobile directional signals.

Another fun fact, Mr. Spikes is also responsible for inventing the beer keg tap, which was purchased by the Milwaukee Brewing Company and the same technology is still in use today.

Garrett Morgan – Traffic Light
Mr. Morgan witnessed a severe car accident at an intersection in his city of Cleveland, Ohio. In response, he decided to expand on the current traffic light by adding an amber “yield” component, warning oncoming drivers of an impending stop.  The modern three-position traffic signal patent was awarded on November 20, 1923 and Mr. Morgan later sold his concept to General Electric for $40,000 (today’s equivalent of about $610,000 USD).

Hold the Elevator, I have a conference call

Alexander Miles – Automatic Elevator Doors
While riding in an elevator with his daughter, Alexander Miles saw the associated risk with an elevator shaft door carelessly left unsecured. He designed a way for electric elevator doors to open and close automatically and was granted a patent on October 11, 1887.

His innovation improved the complicated and risky business of riding a lift or walking up grueling flights of stairs. Mr. Miles’ invention allowed the elevator mechanism to open and close  doors while greatly improving elevator safety.

Dr. Shirley Jackson – Telecommunications
The next time you make a call, you will be using the research of Dr. Shirley Jackson, one of the first two Black American women to receive a doctorate in physics in the U.S. and the first to receive a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  

Ms. Jackson’s ground-breaking work led to those innovations that enabled others to later invent the portable fax, touch tone telephone, solar cells, fiber optic cables, and the technology behind caller ID and call waiting.

She has been awarded 54 honorary doctoral degrees and, in 2016, President Obama awarded her the National Medal of Science for her work in condensed matter and particle physics, public policy achievements, and for being an inspiration to the next generation of STEM professionals.

It’s Peanut Butter Jelly Time

John Standard – Refrigerators
How terrible would it be to not have a place to keep your leftovers from going bad? Mr. Standard’s improvements to kitchen appliances eventually led to more innovations in both refrigerator and stove designs that would change the way people around the world stored and cooked their food.

He received a patent June 14, 1891 for improvements to the refrigerator and the oil stove. In many references, John’s name is spelled “Standard,” however the correct spelling of his name is “Stanard,” as that is how he spelled it in his patent documents.

George Washington Carver Peanut Butter
A peanut butter and jelly sandwich just wouldn’t be the same without the peanut butter. Everyone and their dog thanks George Washington Carver for the invention of peanuts, but contrary to popular belief, George Washington Carver did not invent peanut butter. (I know, I was surprised too!)

Mr. Carver was a pioneer in the agricultural world and many refer to him as the “father of the peanut industry.” He spent all his life in agricultural research and developed 300 products from peanuts, among them cheese, milk, coffee, flour, ink, dyes, plastics, wood stains, soap, linoleum, medicinal oils and cosmetics. 

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (the creator of Kellogg’s cereal) patented  a process for creating peanut butter from raw peanuts in 1895. He marketed it as a nutritious protein substitute for people who could not chew on solid food.

FORE! at Four

Dr. George Grant Golf Tee
Dr. Grant began his career attending Harvard Dental School, the first university based dental program in the nation, and graduated with honors in 1870. He was the second African American to earn a degree in dentistry.

He developed a love for golf, but hated the ancient practice of preparing a pinched mound of damp sand to elevate a golf ball.  On December 12, 1899 Dr. Grant received the patent on his invention of the improvement of the modern wooden tee used today.  

Dr. William Lowell, also a dentist, developed a similar golf tee In 1920, and spent many years and a fortune fighting patent infringement.  It wasn’t until 1991 that the United States Golf Association recognized Dr. Grant as the original inventor of the wooden tee.

Joseph H. Smith – Sprinklers
Imagine dragging garden hoses across golf courses without a sprinkler system.  We have Mr. Smith to thank for his improvement upon the lawn sprinkler by patenting the first rotary-head lawn sprinkler that sprayed water in two directions. On May 4, 1897, Smith patented the lawn sprinkler, and later patented an improvement of the original design.  

John Burr – Lawn Mower Blades
Time for golf on those beautifully manicured greens! This is possible thanks to his improvement of the first lawn mower rotary blades. Mr. Burr patented a lawn mower with traction wheels and a rotary blade that was designed to not easily get plugged up by lawn clippings. He also improved the design of lawn mowers by making it possible to mow closer to building and wall edges.

Movie Night

Dr. Valerie Thomas 3D Movies
Have you seen any 3D movies lately? Thank Dr. Thomas who was a physicist, inventor, and NASA data analyst.  When she wasn’t busy managing the Landsat program, which has produced millions of images of Earth, she was inventing the technology which went on to become the premise for more advanced TV screens and modern 3D technology. On October 21, 1980, Dr. Thomas obtained the patent for the illusion transmitter which would become the basis for 3D technology. 

“I” can’t just eat one!

George Crum – Potato Chips
George Crum was working as a chef at a resort in New York in 1853. A customer sent his dish of French fries back to the kitchen, claiming that they weren’t good. In an irritated fit, Mr. Crum cut the potatoes as thinly as possible, fried them until they were burnt crisps, and threw a generous handful of salt on top. Thus, the potato chip was born. Unfortunately, Mr. Crum never patented his invention, but we have him to thank for this crunchy treat.

Summertime Fun

Lonnie G. Johnson – Super Soaker
Being a NASA Aerospace Engineer is very impressive, but we love Lonnie Johnson for inventing the Super Soaker, a best-selling toy generating well over $1 billion in sales over its lifetime.  Mr. Johnson invented the Super Soaker water gun in 1989. The Super Soaker is a toy squirt gun, which shoots a continuous high velocity stream of water.  An updated patent, in 1992, described improvements to the design using air pressure instead of water pressure.

Currently, Lonnie holds over 100 patents, with over 20 more pending, and is the author of several publications on spacecraft power systems.

Alfred L. Cralle Ice Cream Scooper
While working at a hotel, he noticed ice cream servers having difficulty trying to place ice cream into the cone they were usually holding. The ice cream tended to stick to spoons and ladles, usually requiring the server to use two hands and at least two separate implements to serve customers.

Mr. Cralle applied for and received a patent on February 2, 1897 and we all have been screaming for ice cream since.

Inspired Ideas

I hope you agree that these are all such great stories about Black inventors to learn about during Black History Month. You never know when inspiration will strike or who’ll discover the next big thing that affects our daily lives.

For more inspiration, check out these impressive student stories on people who have gone on to do great things from past Udacity scholarship programs such One Ten, AWS and Pledge to Equality.

Udacity is committed to changing the face of tech to build job-ready digital skills with the goal of creating a pipeline of tech professionals from underrepresented communities through Corporate Social Responsibility programs such as our OneTen/Blacks In Technology scholarship.

Contact us if you’d like to learn more about our active scholarship programs.

Monique Roberts
Monique Roberts
Monique enjoys traveling, photography, and connecting with Udacity students around the world in addition to writing about digital transformation, career upskilling, and innovative technologies.