10 African American Inventors Who Changed the World

President Barack Obama presents George Carruthers with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in February 2013.
President Barack Obama presents George Carruthers with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in February 2013.
Brendan Hoffman, Getty Images

Can you imagine life without blood banks, personal computers, or affordable shoes? These innovative creations—and more—wouldn't exist today if it weren't for the brilliant minds of these 10 African American inventors.

1. Thomas L. Jennings

A laundry operation circa 1925
Chaloner Woods/Getty Images

Thomas L. Jennings (1791-1859) was the first African American person to receive a patent in the U.S., paving the way for future inventors of color to gain exclusive rights to their inventions. Born in 1791, Jennings lived and worked in New York City as a tailor and dry cleaner. He invented an early method of dry cleaning called "dry scouring" and patented it in 1821—four years before Paris tailor Jean Baptiste Jolly refined his own chemical technique and established what many people claim was history’s first dry cleaning business.

People objected to an African American receiving a patent, but Jennings had a loophole: He was a free man. At the time, U.S. patent laws said that the "[slavemaster] is the owner of the fruits of the labor of the slave both manual and intellectual"—meaning slaves couldn't legally own their ideas or inventions, but nothing was stopping Jennings. Several decades later, Congress extended patent rights to all African American individuals, both slaves and freedmen.

Jennings used the money from his invention to free the rest of his family and donate to abolitionist causes.

2. Mark E. Dean

An old IBM personal computer
Steve Petrucelli, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

If you ever owned the original IBM personal computer, you can partially credit its existence to Mark E. Dean (born 1957). The computer scientist/engineer worked for IBM, where he led the team that designed the ISA bus—the hardware interface that allows multiple devices like printers, modems, and keyboards to be plugged into a computer. This innovation helped pave the way for the personal computer's use in office and business settings.

Dean also helped develop the first color computer monitor, and in 1999 he led the team of programmers that created the world's first gigahertz chip. Today, the computer scientist holds three of the company's original nine patents, and more than 20 overall.

Dean was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1997. He's currently a computer science professor at the University of Tennessee.

3. Madam C. J. Walker

Madam C.J. Walker beauty products
Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Essence

Madam C. J. Walker is often referred to as America’s first self-made female millionaire—a far cry from her roots as the daughter of Louisiana sharecroppers. The entrepreneur was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, and her early life was filled with hardships: By the age of 20, she was both an orphan and a widow.

Breedlove's fortunes changed after she moved to St. Louis, where her brothers worked as barbers. She suffered from hair loss, and experimented with various products, including hair care recipes developed by an African American businesswoman named Annie Malone.

Breedlove became a sales representative for Malone and relocated to Denver, where she also married her husband, Charles Joseph Walker, a St. Louis newspaperman. Soon after, she began selling her own hair-growing formula developed specifically for African American women.

Breedlove renamed herself "Madam C.J. Walker," heavily promoted her products, and established beauty schools, salons, and training facilities across America. She died a famous millionaire and is today considered to be one of the founders of the African American hair care and cosmetics industry.

4. Charles Richard Drew

Portrait of Charles Richard Drew
Associated Photographic Services, Inc., Wikimedia Commons // Courtesy of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center

Countless individuals owe their lives to Charles Richard Drew (1904-1950), the physician responsible for America’s first major blood banks. Drew attended McGill University Faculty of Medicine in Montreal, where he specialized in surgery. During a post-graduate internship and residency, the young doctor studied transfusion medicine—and later, while studying at Columbia University, he refined key methods of collecting, processing, and storing plasma.

In 1940, World War II was in full swing in Europe, and Drew was put in charge of a project called "Blood for Britain." He helped collect thousands of pints of plasma from New York hospitals, and shipped them overseas to treat European soldiers. Drew is also responsible for introducing the use of “bloodmobiles”—refrigerated trucks that service as collection centers and transport blood.

The following year, Drew developed another blood bank for military personnel under the American Red Cross—an effort that grew into the American Red Cross Blood Donor Service. Eventually, he resigned in protest after he learned that the military separated blood donations according to race.

Drew spent the remainder of his life working as a surgeon and a professor, and in 1943, he became the first African American doctor to be chosen as an examiner for the American Board of Surgery.

5. Marie Van Brittan Brown

A CCTV camera outside a home
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Homeowners can rest a little easier thanks to Marie Van Brittan Brown (1922-1999), a nurse and inventor who invented a precursor to the modern home TV security system. The crime rate was high in Brown's New York City neighborhood, and the local police didn't always respond to emergencies. To feel safer, Brown and her husband developed a way for a motorized camera to peer through a set of peepholes and project images onto a TV monitor. The device also included a two-way microphone to speak with a person outside, and an emergency alarm button to notify the police.

The Browns filed a patent for their closed-circuit television security system in 1966, and it was approved on December 2, 1969.

6. George Carruthers

George Carruthers surrounded by other scientists looking at the Lunar Surface Ultraviolet Camera
NASA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

George Carruthers (born 1939) is an astrophysicist who spent much of his career working with the Space Science Division of the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C. He’s most famous for creating the ultraviolet camera/spectrograph, which NASA used when it launched Apollo 16 in 1972. It helped prove that molecular hydrogen existed in interstellar space, and in 1974 space scientists used a new model version of the camera to observe Halley’s Comet and other celestial phenomena on the U.S.’s first space station, Skylab.

Carruthers was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2003.

7. Dr. Patricia Bath

Dr. Patricia Bath of Laserphaco in 2012
Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Dr. Patricia Bath (born 1942) revolutionized the field of ophthalmology when she invented a device that refined laser cataract surgery, called the Laserphaco Probe. She patented the invention in 1988, and today she’s recognized as the first female African American doctor to receive a medical patent.

Bath is a trailblazer in other areas, too: She was the first African American to finish a residency in ophthalmology at New York University; the first woman to chair an ophthalmology residency program in the U.S.; and she co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness. If that weren't enough, Bath's research on health disparities between African American patients and other patients gave birth to a new discipline, "community ophthalmology," in which volunteer eye workers offer primary care and treatment to underserved populations.

8. Jan Ernst Matzeliger

Postage stamp featuring Jan Ernst Matzeliger
John Flannery, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In the 19th century, the average person couldn't afford shoes. This changed thanks to Jan Ernst Matzeliger (1852-1889), an immigrant from Dutch Guiana (modern Surinam) who worked as an apprentice in a Massachusetts shoe factory. Matzeliger invented an automated machine that attached a shoe’s upper part to its sole. Once it was refined, the device could make 700 pairs of shoes each day—a far cry from the 50 per day that the average worker once sewed by hand. Matzeliger's creation led to lower shoe prices, making them finally within financial reach for the average American.

9. Alexander Miles

Portrait of Alexander Miles
Duluth Public Library archives, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not too much is known about Alexander Miles’s life (1830s–1918), but we do know that the inventor was living in Duluth, Minnesota, when he designed an important safety feature for elevators: automatic doors. During the 19th century, passengers had to manually open and close doors to both the elevator and its shaft. If a rider forgot to close the shaft door, other people risked accidentally falling down the long, vertical hole. Miles’s design—which he patented in 1887—allowed both of these doors to close at once, preventing unfortunate accidents. Today's elevators still employ a similar technology.

10. George Washington Carver

Portrait of George Washington Carver
Frances Benjamin Johnston, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

George Washington Carver (1860s-1943) was born into slavery in Missouri. The Civil War ended when he was a boy, allowing the young man the chance to receive an education. Higher education opportunities for African Americans were limited at the time, but Carver eventually received his undergraduate and master's degrees in agricultural science at Iowa State Agricultural College.

After graduation, Carver was hired by Booker T. Washington to run the Tuskegee Institute’s agricultural department in Alabama. He helped poor agrarians by teaching them about fertilization and crop rotation—and since the region's primary crop was cotton, which drains nutrients from the soil, the scientist conducted studies to determine which crops naturally thrived in the region. Legumes and sweet potatoes enriched the fields, but there wasn't much demand for either. So Carver used the humble peanut to create more than 300 products ranging from laundry soaps to plastics and diesel fuel. By 1940, it was the South's second-largest cash crop.

Amazon’s Big Fall Sale Features Deals on Electronics, Kitchen Appliances, and Home Décor

Dash/Keurig
Dash/Keurig

If you're looking for deals on items like Keurigs, BISSELL vacuums, and essential oil diffusers, it's usually pretty slim pickings until the holiday sales roll around. Thankfully, Amazon is starting these deals a little earlier with their Big Fall Sale, where customers can get up to 20 percent off everything from home decor to WFH essentials and kitchen gadgets. Now you won’t have to wait until Black Friday for the deal you need. Make sure to see all the deals that the sale has to offer here and check out our favorites below.

Electronics

Dash/Amazon

- BISSELL Lightweight Upright Vacuum Cleaner $170 (save $60)

- Dash Deluxe Air Fryer $80 (save $20)

- Dash Rapid 6-Egg Cooker $17 (save $3)

- Keurig K-Café Single Coffee Maker $169 (save $30)

- COMFEE Toaster Oven $29 (save $9)

- AmazonBasics 1500W Oscillating Ceramic Heater $31 (save $4)

Home office Essentials

HP/Amazon

- HP Neverstop Laser Printer $250 (save $30)

- HP ScanJet Pro 2500 f1 Flatbed OCR Scanner $274 (save $25)

- HP Printer Paper (500 Sheets) $5 (save $2)

- Mead Composition Books Pack of 5 Ruled Notebooks $11 (save $2)

- Swingline Desktop Hole Punch $7 (save $17)

- Officemate OIC Achieva Side Load Letter Tray $15 (save $7)

- PILOT G2 Premium Rolling Ball Gel Pens 12-Pack $10 (save $3)

Toys and games

Selieve/Amazon

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- Holy Stone HS165 GPS Drones with 2K HD Camera $95 (save $40)

Home Improvement

DEWALT/Amazon

- DEWALT 20V MAX LED Hand Held Work Light $54 (save $65)

- Duck EZ Packing Tape with Dispenser, 6 Rolls $11 (save $6)

- Bissell MultiClean Wet/Dry Garage Auto Vacuum $111 (save $39)

- Full Circle Sinksational Sink Strainer with Stopper $5 (save $2)

Home Décor

NECA/Amazon

- A Christmas Story 20-Inch Leg Lamp Prop Replica by NECA $41 save $5

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Did the Northern Lights Play a Role in the Sinking of the Titanic? A New Paper Says It’s Possible

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912, is the most famous maritime disaster in history. The story has been retold countless times, but experts are still uncovering new details about what happened that night more than a century later. The latest development in our understanding of the event has to do with the northern lights. As Smithsonian reports, the same solar storm that produced an aurora over the North Atlantic waters where the Titanic sank may have caused equipment malfunctions that led to its demise.

Independent Titanic researcher Mila Zinkova outlines the new theory in a study published in the journal Weather. Survivors and eyewitnesses from the night of the Titanic's sinking reported seeing the aurora borealis light up the dark sky. James Bisset, second officer of the ship that responded to the Titanic's distress calls, the RMS Carpathia, wrote in his log: "There was no moon, but the aurora borealis glimmered like moonbeams shooting up from the northern horizon."

Zinkova argues that while the lights themselves didn't lead the Titanic on a crash course with the iceberg, a solar storm that night might have. The northern lights are the product of solar particles colliding and reacting with gas molecules in Earth's atmosphere. A vivid aurora is the result of a solar storm expelling energy from the sun's surface. In addition to causing colorful lights to appear in the sky, solar storms can also interfere with magnetic equipment on Earth.

Compasses are susceptible to electromagnetic pulses from the sun. Zinkova writes that the storm would have only had to shift the ship's compass by 0.5 degrees to guide it off a safe course and toward the iceberg. Radio signals that night may have also been affected by solar activity. The ship La Provence never received the Titanic's distress call, despite its proximity. The nearby SS Mount Temple picked it up, but their response to the Titanic went unheard. Amateur radio enthusiasts were initially blamed for jamming the airwaves used by professional ships that night, but the study posits that electromagnetic waves may have played a larger role in the interference.

If a solar storm did hinder the ship's equipment that night, it was only one condition that led to the Titanic's sinking. A cocktail of factors—including the state of the sea, the design of the ship, and the warnings that were ignored—ultimately sealed the vessel's fate.

[h/t Smithsonian]