Trailblazers in History: 16 Black Inventors and Scientists to Inspire Your Kids

The movie Hidden Figures is a chance for young African American girls to see themselves reflected in the work of great NASA engineers Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan. Even in 2018, science and technology fields struggle with diversity, and it’s hard for young girls and black students to find role models who look like them.

Fortunately, the women in Hidden Figures are just the tip of the iceberg for amazing African American role models in STEAM fields. For centuries, black inventors and scientists have overcome racism to improve society. From open heart surgeons to engineers and machinists, here are 16 historic black STEAM heroes who continue to inspire.  

Benjamin Banneker

Born in 1731, Benjamin Banneker had a keen interest in mechanics and astronomy from a young age. He worked on the family farm and tinkered in his free time, eventually developing a clock made of wood when he was 22.

According to Mario Ritter at Voice of America, Banneker used his love of math to calculate the time of a solar eclipse, along with using latitude and longitude to find coordinates. He was eventually hired as a surveyor for the District of Columbia.

Banneker would go on to publish an almanac in 1792, one of six with 28 editions. In an almanac he sent to Thomas Jefferson, he petitioned for equality based on race and pleaded for him to end slavery.      

Benjamin Bradley

The first person to develop a working model of a steam engine on a warship, Benjamin Bradley was born a slave in 1830. He had a natural skill and curiosity for mechanical engineering and was sent to work at the Department of Natural and Experimental Philosophy at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He was the first African American to advance his role above menial posts at the academy.

According to BlackPast.org, Bradley created the propeller engine that he is known for in 1856. While he was unable to patent the invention because he was a slave, he was able to sell it and buy his freedom.

Joseph Carter Corbin

Joseph Carter Corbin, who was born in 1833, graduated with a master’s degree in art from Ohio University at Athens. He was a journalist who went on to serve the Arkansas school board as the superintendent of public instruction.  

According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Corbin taught math in his later years and contributed to mathematical journals at the time. He was dedicated to creating learning environments for black students and founded what is now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. He also formed the the Teachers of Negro Youth, which went on to become the Arkansas Teachers Association. He had a passion for learning and was able to speak and read at least nine languages.

Elijah McCoy

In 1843, Elijah McCoy was born to former slaves who had escaped to Canada through the Underground Railroad. After studying in the U.S. and Scotland, McCoy settled in Michigan and started working for the Michigan Central Railroad. Despite his engineering degree, he was put to work in the boiler room because the managers didn’t think a black man could be an engineer.

McCoy’s first patent was an automatic oiling device for steam locomotives, which was quickly adopted by most railroads. He used the money from his patent to continue inventing, ultimately holding 57 United States patents. In an article for Smithsonian.com, Kat Eschner says his patents were easy to duplicate, but his devices were known for having the highest quality. The phrase “the real McCoy” likely stems from the superior quality of his products when compared to knockoffs.  

Jan Ernst Matzeliger

Jan Ernst Matzeliger was born in Dutch Guyana, now Suriname, in 1852. When he turned ten, he served as an apprentice in the machine shops run by his father, where he developed an interest in mechanics. He moved to Philadelphia at 19 and started his career in a machinery shop.

Matzeliger is known for his shoe lacing machine that turned a very difficult, manual process and made it automatic. Omar Alleyne Lawler at BlackHistoryMonth.org explains that a skilled worker could produce 50 pairs of shoes in a 10-hour day. Matzeliger’s invention could produce 150-700 shoes per day. This cut shoe prices in half and dramatically improved productivity.

Unfortunately, Matzeliger was so dedicated to his inventions that he rarely ate or slept, which caused him to develop tuberculosis and die at the age of 36 in 1889.  

Granville T. Woods

Born in Columbus, Ohio in 1856, Granville T. Woods developed a passion for electricity in his early 20s. While he worked at a variety of railroad jobs, he started working on “the inductor telegraph” which is also known as the multiplex telegraph. His invention allowed for communication between trains in order to improve efficiency and prevent accidents.

According to the Curiosity blog, Thomas Edison actually took Woods to court over a patent for this invention and lost. Woods continued to invent throughout his life, acquiring more than 60 patents. He invented 15 appliances for electric railways, some of which are still used today.

Daniel Hale Williams

Daniel Hale Williams performed the first successful open-heart surgery. According to the African American Registry, Williams was born in 1858 and worked his way through the Janesville Classical Academy in Wisconsin as a barber and violinist. He attended Chicago Medical College (now part of Northwestern University) and founded Provident Hospital, the first Chicago hospital with African Americans on staff.

The open-heart surgery occurred in 1807, when a man was brought into the hospital with a knife wound in his chest. Williams opened the man’s chest, removed the knife, and repaired the torn sac surrounding the heart. The patient recovered fully.

George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver was born in 1864 and grew up in Missouri. He earned a master’s degree in agriculture from Iowa State College and led the agricultural department of the all-black Tuskegee Normal and Industrial School for 20 years.

Carver worked to reduce expenses for farmers and increase uses for crops like cow peas and sweet potatoes. He is most known for his research on peanuts. The National Peanut Board says Carver was a sustainability pioneer before responsible farming practices were popular. For example, by alternating growing cotton and peanuts, the soil stays rich and usable much longer. Carver is one of the most prominent botanists of his time and published 44 practical bulletins for farmers over his lifetime.      

Madam C.J. Walker

Sarah Breedlove, who later adopted the name Madam C. J. Walker, was born in rural Louisiana to former slaves and sharecroppers in 1867. During the 1890s, Breedlove suffered from a scalp ailment that caused her to lose most of her hair. Though she tried natural remedies and over-the-counter cures, she still struggled to properly treat her hair. She eventually invented her own Wonderful Hair Grower, and took on the name “Madam” to sell her products.

Walker went on to become one of the most successful female African American entrepreneurs of her time. You can read more about her at the official Madam C. J. Walker Biography website.

Otis Boykin

Born in 1920, Otis Boykin attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He is known for inventing an electrical resistor, which was better than the existing devices used in TV and radio sets. This made access to electronic devices more affordable for the general public. He also developed a control unit for heart stimulators, used in pacemakers.

According to Mary Bellis at ThoughtCo., Boykin worked in the P.J. Nielsen Research Laboratories and founded his own company, Boykin-Fruth Inc. with his mentor Hal Fruth. He filed his first patent in 1959 and would patent more than 25 electronic devices in his lifetime.

Frederick McKinley Jones

Frederick McKinley Jones was born in 1893 and orphaned at a young age. He did not have a formal education and stopped attending school in eighth grade, preferring to run away and work at R.C. Crothers Garage instead.

In a profile on Black Then, Jones is said to have patents for at least 60 inventions, with more than 40 of those related to refrigeration. He is known for his refrigeration unit for trucks, able to keep food fresh during transportation. Not only did his inventions pave the way for long-distance food markets and frozen food, they also helped doctors in WWII transport medicine safely in the battlefield.    

Vivien Thomas

Born in 1910, Vivien Thomas was a high school honors student who worked as a carpenter for his dad while he was trying to save for medical school. During the Depression and without a medical degree, Vivien found work as an assistant to Alfred Blalock, a surgeon at Vanderbilt University, where only white students could attend.

During WWII, Blalock and Thomas worked on shock treatments for soldiers and conducted experiments with cardiac surgery, Scott Smith at the Leaders & Success column of Investor’s Business Daily writes. The pair also worked to develop treatments for hypertension and fought for a cure for Blue Baby Syndrome, when newborns can’t get enough blood to their lungs.

The whole time Vivien was at the side of Blalock coming up with solutions as a team, but was viewed as a janitor by most of the other people working in the hospital.

Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark

Born in 1917, Mamie Phipps Clark graduated from high school with scholarship offers to two of the most prestigious black universities in the country: Fisk University and Howard University. She chose Howard University as a math major minoring in physics. There, her future husband, Kenneth Bancroft Clark, encouraged her to study psychology in order to learn about child development. (Her husband became known for his work on the Supreme Court Case Brown versus Board of Education of Topeka.)

According to a profile on Psychology’s Feminist Voices, Mamie Phipps Clark studied black children to determine when they became aware of their race. She never backed down from a challenge, choosing an open racist (Henry E. Garrett) as her sponsoring professor. She would eventually testify against Garrett in court cases related to education and black youth, countering his testimony on the mental inferiority of black children. Both Clark and her husband worked  throughout their lives with civil rights leaders to improve the treatment and education of black students.

Dr. Patricia Bath

The first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology, Dr. Patricia Bath was also the first person to invent and successfully demonstrate laserphaco cataract surgery in 1988. She was born in 1942 in Harlem, within a stressed community focused on WWII.  

In a video shared by Christina Coleman at Essence, Bath admits that she was a curious child and calls herself a nerd. She attended New York University in 1970 and when she joined the faculty at UCLA in 1974, Bath was the only woman. The men placed her with the secretaries to work because it made them feel more comfortable.

Coleman writes that Bath knew her worth, and never let the fact that she was black or a woman stop her from her research. As a result, she has helped millions of people regain their sight and serves as an example to all women and all races.  

Dr. Mae Jemison

Mae Jemison was the first African American woman in space. She graduated from Stanford and served as a doctor in the Peace Corps in Liberia and Sierra Leone. She holds nine doctorate degrees in science, engineering, and the humanities, and is a dancer as well as a scientist.  

In a fantastic interview with Makers, Jemison discusses her childhood and natural curiosity about space. She admits how annoyed she was during the Apollo era that there were no women astronauts and grew frustrated when people tried to explain to her why there weren’t. She points to Star Trek as a model show for inclusivity in the space age.

Dr. Mark Dean

Dr. Mark Dean was the chief engineer of the original IBM PC in the 1980s. He earned three of the nine original patents for the device. Most notably, he designed the Industry Standard Architecture bus, which allows people to plug in external drives, and laid the groundwork for color PC monitors.

Devindra Hardawar shares an interview with Dean, who advises young engineers struggling against racism to never give up. He counsels them to find other ways to expose their ideas, even when the most direct path is blocked. Dean left IBM in 2013 and now serves as a John Fisher distinguished professor at the University of Tennessee.

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