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African American Inventors

Despite the hardships suffered through slavery, many African Americans have managed to become great inventors, scientists, and thinkers. Here are some of the stories and successes of our sometimes unknown and often forgotten African American inventors:

Lonnie JohnsonLonnie Johnson

Born: Marietta, Georgia  Oct 6, 1949

Invention: Super Soaker Water Gun

The super soaker was a water gun that had a large reservoir where you could fill with lots of water. Which gave kids endless amounts of fun.

The top selling toy in the United States in 1991 and 1992, over 40 million Super Soakers have generated over $200 million in sales since 1990. Today, many websites are devoted to them.

Johnson is president and founder of Johnson Research and Development Co., Inc., a technology development company, and its spin off companies, Excellatron Solid State, LLC; Johnson Electro-Mechanical Systems, LLC; and Johnson Real Estate Investments, LLC.

Articles on Lonnie Johnson have appeared in numerous publications including Time Magazine, the New York Times, and Inventor’s Digest. Johnson serves on the Board of Directors of the Georgia Alliance for Children, an organization which serves as an informed and influential voice to protect the rights and interests of Georgia’s less fortunate children. He is a Board member of the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation, and has served on the Board of Directors of the Commonwealth National Bank.

In his hometown of Marietta, Georgia, February 25, 1994 was declared "Lonnie G. Johnson Day" in his honor. Cited:

Dr. Shirley JacksonDr. Shirley Jackson

Born: Washington, D.C. 

Invention: Portable Fax, Touch Tone Telephone, Solar Cell, And The Fiber Optic Cables

Jackson started to conduct successful experiments in theoretical physics and then started to use her knowledge in physics to start making advances in telecommunications while working at Bell Laboratories. These inventions include developments in the portable fax, touch tone telephone, solar cell, and the fiber optic cables used to provide clarity in overseas telephone calls. She has also helped make possible Caller ID and Call Waiting.

She first developed an interest in science and mathematics during her childhood and conducted experiments and studies, such as those on the eating habits of honeybees. She followed this interest to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she received a bachelors, masters, and doctoral degree, all in the field of physics. In doing so she became the first African-American woman to acquire a Ph.D. from MIT.


Dr. Daniel Hale WilliamsDr. Daniel H. Williams

Born: Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania  1856

Invention: Performed First Open Heart Surgery

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams was an African American physician who made history by performing the first successful open heart surgery operation

Daniel Hale Williams was born in 1856 in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, the fifth of eight children. His father was a barber who died when Daniel was only nine. His mother was unable to provide for all the children on her own, so she moved the family to Baltimore, Maryland to stay with relatives. An apprenticeship with a shoemaker was found for Daniel; he remained there as a shoemaker's apprentice for three years while he was still a young child. As a teenager, he learned to cut hair and became a barber, living and working with a family who owned a barber shop in Janesville, Wisconsin.

In Janesville Daniel began to attend high school. He graduated from Hare's Classical Academy in 1877. While working as a barber, he met Dr. Henry Palmer, a leading surgeon, who became the Surgeon General of Wisconsin. Dr. Palmer took Daniel on as a medical apprentice; he had two other apprentices at the time. Dr. Palmer helped the three apprentices apply for admission to a top medical school, the Chicago Medical School, which was affiliated with Northwestern University. All three were accepted and began their studies in 1880. Dr. Daniel Hale Williams graduated with his medical degree in 1883.


Dr. James E. WestDr. James E. West

Born: Prince Edwards County, VA  1931

Invention: Electret Microphone

Ninety percent of microphones used today are based on the ingenuity of James Edward West, an African-American inventor born in 1931 in Prince Edwards County, VA. If you’ve ever talked on the telephone, you’ve probably used his invention.

West started at Bell labs as an intern and joined them full-time in 1957 after graduating from Temple University. As the inventor of the microphone, James West has received numerous awards and honors including a Fellow of IEEE, Industrial Research Institute's 1998 Achievement Award, 1995 Inventor of the Year from the State of New Jersey and induction in the Inventors Hall of Fame in 1999.

James E. West holds 47 US patents and more than 200 foreign patents from his 40-year career with Bell Laboratories.


Lewis LattimerLewis H. Latimer

Born: Chelsea, Massachusetts  Sept 4, 1848 – Dec 11, 1928

Invention: Carbon Filement

Latimer received a patent in January 1882 for the "Process of Manufacturing Carbons", an improved method for the production of carbon filaments for lightbulb.

 He was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts on September 4, 1848 as the youngest of the four children of Rebecca (1826-1848) and George Latimer (July 4, 1818 [2] -c.1880). George Latimer had been the slave of James B. Gray of Virginia. George Latimer ran away to freedom in Boston, Massachusetts in October, 1842, along with his wife Rebecca, who had been the slave of another man. When Gray, the owner, appeared in Boston to take them back to Virginia, it became a noted case in the movement for abolition of slavery, gaining the involvement of such abolitionists as William Lloyd Garrison. Eventually funds were raised to pay Gray $400 for the freedom of George Latimer.[2] One of Lewis' siblings was named William H. Latimer (1846-1892), who worked as a barber.

He joined the U.S. Navy at the age of 16 on September 16,1864. After receiving an honorable discharge from the Navy on July 3, 1865, he gained employment as an office boy with a patent law firm, Crosby Halstead and Gould, with a $3.00 per week salary. He learned how to use a L square, ruler, and other tools. Later, after his boss recognized his talent for sketching patent drawings, Latimer was promoted to the position of head draftsman earning $20.00 a week by 1878.


Dr. Charles DrewCharles Richard Drew

Born: Washington, DC  June 3, 1904 – April 1, 1950

Invention: Blood Storage Techniques

Charles Richard Drew was an African American physician and medical researcher. He researched in the field of blood transfusions, developing improved techniques for blood storage, and applied his expert knowledge in developing large-scale blood banks early in World War II, saving thousands of lives of the Allied forces.

The research and development aspect of his blood storage work is disputed. Drew protested against the practice of racial segregation in the donation of blood, as it lacked scientific foundation, an action which cost him his job.

In 1943, Drew's distinction in his profession was recognized when he became the first black surgeon selected to serve as an examiner on the American Board of Surgery.

Drew was born to Richard Y. Drew and Nora Burrell in Washington, DC. He attended Meads Mill Elementary School, and began working as a paperboy selling copies of the Washington Times-Herald while attending school.

In 1918, he enrolled at Dunbar High School, a racially segregated high school with a reputation for being one of the strongest academic Black public schools in the country. Drew’s sister Elsie, who was ailing with tuberculosis, died of pandemic influenza in 1920. Her death was said to influence his decision to study medicine.

His athletic achievements helped win him a partial scholarship to Amherst College in Massachusetts. Drew became a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. He did graduate work at McGill University, Montreal, and Columbia University, where he earned his Ph.D.


Otis BoykinOtis Boykin

Born: Dallas, Texas  1920-1982

Invention: Electrical Resistors

invented an improved electrical resistor used in computers - radios - television sets and a variety of electronic devices.

 Boykin's resistor helped reduce the cost of those products. Otis Boykin also invented a variable resistor used in guided missile parts, a control unit for heart stimulators, a burglar-proof cash register and a chemical air filter. Otis Boykin patentAfter graduating from Fisk University and the Illinois Institute of Technology, Otis Boykin worked in a laboratory testing automatic controls for airplanes. He later worked as a consultant for several firms and as a successful inventor. Boykin died of a heart failure in 1982.


Mae JemisonMae Jemison

Born: Decatur, Alabama  October 17, 1956

Invention: First Black Woman Astronaut

Mae Carol Jemison is an American physician and NASA astronaut. She became the first African American woman to travel in space when she went into orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour on September 12, 1992.

After her medical education and a brief general practice, Jemison served in the Peace Corps from 1985 to 1987, when she was selected by NASA to join the astronaut corps. She resigned from NASA in 1993 to form a company researching the application of technology to daily life.

She has appeared on television several times, including as an actress in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. She is a dancer, and holds nine honorary doctorates in science, engineering, letters, and the humanities.

Born the youngest child of Charlie Jemison and Dorothy Green. her father was a maintenance supervisor for a charity organization. Her mother worked most of her career as an elementary school teacher of English and math at the Beethoven School in Chicago.


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