In celebration of Black History Month, we’ve highlighted 8 overlooked inventions by Black innovators. Thanks to their contributions, our daily lives are made easier.
- Improved Ironing Board, Invented by Sarah Boone in 1892
- Home Security System, Co-Invented by Mary Van Brittan Brown in 1966
- The Three-Light Traffic Signal, Invented by Garrett Morgan in 1923
- Refrigerated Trucks, Invented by Frederick McKinley Jones in 1940
- Automatic Elevator Doors, Invented by Alexander Miles in 1887
- Electret Microphone, Co-Invented by James E. West in 1964
- Carbon Light Bulb Filament, Invented by Lewis Latimer in 1881
- Color IBM PC Monitor and Gigahertz Chip, Co-Invented by Mark Dean c. 1980 and 1999
In the late 19th century, Sarah Boone – a woman who was born enslaved – improved the ironing board design. One of the first Black women in U.S. history to receive a patent, she re-shaped the commonly used horizontal wooden block to a more narrow and curved design. This made it easier to iron garment, especially women’s clothing. Boone’s design would morph into the modern ironing board that we use today.
Before security systems became a fixture in homes, a nurse named Mary Van Brittan Brown devised an early security unit for her own home in response to high rates of crime in her neighborhood and unreliable police protection. In 1966, Brown invented a system that used a camera that could slide into and look through four peepholes in her front door. The camera’s view would then appear on a monitor in her home so she could survey any potentially unwanted guests. She added other features to the system, including a microphone to speak to anyone at the door, a button to unlock the door, and a button to contact the police. She and her husband were awarded a patent in 1969. Home security systems commonly used today took various elements from her design.
With an elementary school education, Garrett Morgan invented the gas mask and improved the sewing machine. His most influential invention was the improved traffic light, a three-light system that resulted in the widespread adoption we take for granted today. Thanks to the successes of his other inventions, Morgan bought and car, and while driving he 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 a “yield” component, warning oncoming drivers of an impending stop. He was granted a patent in 1923.
You can credit Frederick McKinley Jones for the refrigerated goods at the grocery store. Jones took out more than 60 patents throughout his life, including a patent for the roof-mounted cooling system that’s used to refrigerate goods on trucks during extended transportation in the mid-1930s. He received a patent for his invention in 1940, and co-founded the U.S. Thermo Control Company, later known as Thermo King. The company was critical during World War II, helping to preserve blood, food and supplies during the war.
Prior to the creation of elevator doors that close automatically, riding a lift was both complicated and risky. People had to manually shut both the shaft and elevator doors before riding. Forgetting to do so led to multiple accidents and fatal falls. As the story goes, when the inventor’s daughter almost fell down an elevator shaft, he took it upon himself to develop a solution. In 1887, he patented a mechanism that automatically opens and closes elevator shaft doors, still employed in elevator use today.
For karaoke lovers and performers of all types, the microphone is used to communicate over distances far and wide. And most microphones used today, including those built-in to phones and cameras, use a microphone co-invented by Dr. James E. West. He was tasked with creating a more sensitive and compact microphone while working at Bell Labs in 1960. Along with his German colleague Gerhard Sessler, West invented the foil electret microphone, which was considerably less expensive to produce than the widely used condenser microphones. The landmark invention was patented in 1964, and put in production for used in hearing aids, tape recorders, most telephones and baby monitors.
The light bulb itself was perfected by Thomas Edison, but the innovation used to create longer-lasting light bulbs with a carbon filament came from inventor Lewis Latimer. Latimer, the son of formerly enslaved people, began work in a patent law firm after serving in the military for the Union during the Civil War. He was recognized for his talent drafting patents and was promoted to head draftsman, where he co-invented an improved bathrooms for railroad trains. His successes came to the attention of the U.S. Electric Lighting Company, putting him in direct competition with Edison in 1880. While a company employee, Latimer patented a new filament for the light bulb that used carbon instead of more incendiary materials like the commonly used bamboo. The addition of the carbon filament increased the life span and practicality of light bulbs. The predecessor bulbs lasted only a few days! In 1884, he went on to work with Edison at the Edison Electric Light Company.
Before flat screens and hi-def monitors, PC displays were limited to screens with no color and tethered to computers with limited processing power. That all changed thanks to inventor and engineer Mark Dean, who began working for IBM as a chief engineer in the early 1980s. He was part of a team of 12 people who would develop the first IBM PC. In addition, he also worked to develop the color monitor and led the team that developed the first gigahertz processor. The massive chip built in 1999, allowed for PC processing rates at faster speeds.
Reference material taken in part from the following sources: History.com, Thaddeus Morgan (author, original article prior to edits)