From the gastroscope to the SuperSoaker, African American inventors changed life in the 20th and 21st centuries.
6 - 12+
Anthropology, Engineering, Geography, Human Geography
African American inventors continued to make life easier and work more profitable for individuals, businesses, and communities well into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
William Harry Barnes
William Harry Barnes (1887–1945) was an ear, nose, and throat doctor at the Frederick Douglass Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He invented a medical instrument that allowed doctors to reach the pituitary gland more easily. Found on the underside of the brain, the pea-sized pituitary gland secretes hormones directly into the blood. He called his invention a hypophyscope.
Dr. Barnes also perfected a way to remove a patient's tonsils in just ten minutes, with no bleeding.
Leonidas Berry (1902–1995) was also a doctor. He invented the Eder-Berry biopsy gastroscope in 1955. His invention made it easier for doctors to collect tissue from the inside of the stomach without surgery.
Five years after inventing his gastroscope, Dr. Berry studied the stomachs of alcoholics. He discovered that it was the liver, and not the stomach, that became diseased because of too much alcohol. This changed the diagnosis and treatment of alcoholism forever.
Billy Blanks (b.1955) is famous for inventing Tae Bo, a fitness program that combines martial arts, boxing, and aerobics. Tae Bo is a combination of the words for tae kwon do, a Japanese martial art form, and boxing.
Bessie Blount Griffin
Bessie Blount Griffin (b. 1914) was a physical therapist who worked with veterans coming back from World War II. Many of the soldiers at the veterans’ hospital in Chicago where she worked were amputees or had lost the use of their limbs.
Griffin's first invention was called the portable receptacle support. The device consisted of a tube attached to a bowl, which was connected to a brace attached to the patient's neck. It allowed the wearer to eat an entire meal without assistance. This allowed amputees to have more freedom and independence.
In 1977, Griffin became the first black woman to train and work at Scotland Yard. (Scotland Yard is the famous agency responsible for law enforcement in London, England.)
Otis Boykin (1920–1982) had an incredibly diverse career. He invented a machine used to control heart pacemakers, parts for guided missiles and computers, an electronic air filter, and a cash register that thieves couldn't break into. Boykin worked in Chicago, Illinois, and in Paris, France.
George Carruthers (b.1939) invented the far ultraviolet camera/spectrograph in 1969. It was plated in gold and carried aboard the Apollo 16 mission, where it was placed on the moon's surface. The camera used ultraviolet light, invisible to the naked eye, to capture high-quality images of Earth.
Carruthers's invention helped scientists see how air pollution forms. This allowed them to develop new ways to control air pollution. The camera also found hydrogen in deep space, which led to new ideas about the birth of stars in the universe.
Michael Croslin (b.1933) invented computerized blood pressure and pulse monitoring devices called the Medtek 410 and 420. The Medtek 410 took the guesswork out of monitoring a patient’s vital signs, allowing medical professionals to diagnose and treat patients. A later invention, the Medtek 420, adjusts for air pressure and surrounding noise. The Medtek 420 is approved for use in emergency medical evacuation helicopters.
Meredith Charles Gourdine
Meredith Charles Gourdine (1929–1998) was the first inventor to use electrogasdynamics (EGD) to make useful inventions. Electrogasdynamics is the generation of electricity through the energy in highly pressurized gases.
Some of Gourdine’s inventions included the Electradyne Spray Gun, which made it easier to paint unusual surfaces, like bicycle frames, and the Incineraid, a device to reduce air pollution created by incinerators. Other Gourdine inventions include an electric car battery, a system for clearing fog on airport runways, a method for getting oil out of shale rock, and repairing potholes using rubber from old car tires.
Walter Lincoln Hawkins
Walter Lincoln Hawkins (1911–1992) held eighteen U.S. and 129 foreign patents, but his most famous one was for a weather-resistant plastic coating for telephone wires. Before Hawkins’s invention, telephone cables were coated with lead, making them too heavy, expensive, and toxic for general use. Hawkins’s invention increased the life of telephone wires by seventy years.
Elmer Samuel Imes
Elmer Samuel Imes (1883–1941) was an astrophysicist who made improvements on infrared spectrometers. Infrared spectrometers measure the amount of infrared light, invisible to the naked eye, in the atmosphere or outer space. Imes’ improved infrared spectrometers improved rocket engines and chemical lasers.
Dr. Imes was married to Nella Larsen, a writer in the Harlem Renaissance.
Lonnie Johnson (b.1949) used to build robots and cook up batches of rocket fuel in his kitchen when he was a boy. As an adult, he worked on NASA’s Mars Observer project and on the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn.
Dr. Johnson used his training in astrophysics to invent more down-to-earth tools and toys. He experimented with a heat pump that used water instead of Freon, a toxic gas important to astrophysics. Dr. Johnson hooked up the invention to the bathroom sink and saw a powerful stream of water squirt across the room. He called his invention the Power Drencher, but later changed it to the Super Soaker.
Johnson holds approximately 80 patents, including rechargeable batteries, a dart gun, a spacecraft cooling system, and a hair curler.
Frederick McKinley Jones
Frederick McKinley Jones (1893–1961) was granted his first patent in 1939 when he invented a machine that gave out tickets and the correct change.
After fighting in World War I, he returned to Hallock, Minnesota, to work as a mechanic and as the town’s movie projectionist. Movies were silent back then, but the first movies with sound, called “talkies,” were replacing the old silent pictures. They required expensive equipment the movie theater couldn’t afford, so Jones built a sound synchronization machine for less than $100.
Jones is most famous for inventing the refrigerated truck. It allowed frozen food to be shipped across the country without spoiling.
Marjorie Stewart Joyner
Marjorie Stewart Joyner (1896–1994) was a Chicago activist, community leader, philanthropist, hair salon executive, and the supervisor of over 200 of Madame C. J. Walker’s beauty schools. Joyner holds a patent for a permanent hair wave machine. She did the hair of such notable women as Billie Holiday, Ethel Waters, and Marian Anderson.
Percy Lavon Julian
Percy Lavon Julian (1899–1975) was known as “the soybean chemist.” Julian’s first invention was for coating paper with a soy protein instead of a more expensive milk protein. That technique was used in a product called Aero-Foam. Aero-Foam smothered oil and gasoline fires by blanketing them in the soy-based foam. Aero-foam was adopted by the U.S. Navy and saved the lives of thousands of sailors and naval airmen during World War II.
However, Julian is most famous for using the soybean plant to create the synthetic hormones cortisone and physostigmine. Cortisone is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and physostigmine to treat glaucoma.
Julian was active in the U.S. civil rights movement, raising money for the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund.
John King (1925–2000) worked with the aerospace and safety industries. He invented an early warning sonic transducer in 1972. A sonic transducer analyzes sound waves to determine distances, speeds, and other units of measurement. King also invented a NASA-approved alarm system in 1999.
Garrett Morgan (1877–1963) invented the first hair straightening cream by accident in his workshop, but his other two inventions, the gas mask and the traffic signal, were no accident.
In 1912, Morgan was awarded patent number 1,113,675 for a “breathing device,” also known as a Morgan helmet or safety hood. It allowed firemen to safely fight fires without breathing in poisonous gases. Morgan’s gas mask was used in World War I and by fire departments in New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
After seeing a bad accident involving an automobile and a horse-drawn carriage, Morgan came up with a traffic signal device. A woman’s hat fastener, a round belt fastener, and a friction drive clutch are some more of Morgan’s inventions.
James Parsons, Jr. (1900–1989) did research on how to stop metals from rusting. He held several patents which led to the development of stainless steel.
Edwin Roberts Russell
Edwin Roberts Russell (1913–1996) worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II. The Manhattan Project was a secret program to develop the atomic bomb. Russell holds eleven patents related to nuclear energy and its processes.
Earl Shaw (b.1937) is sometimes called the Henry Ford of laser research. He invented the spin-flip tunable laser. This device made it easier for scientists to adjust the strength of the laser beam to perform delicate operations.
Dox Thrash (1893–1965) joined the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the height of the Great Depression, in 1937. Working as a printmaker, Thrash discovered a new technique for etching copper. Thrash's new technique became common practice for printmakers and printers. Thrash wanted to call the new technique the "Opheliagraph" after his mother, Ophelia.
Moses Fleetwood ("Fleet") Walker
Moses Fleetwood ("Fleet") Walker (1856–1924) was the first and last African American to play Major League Baseball until Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. He was also an inventor.
Walker’s first patent was for an artillery shell in 1891. He registered three more patents in 1920 that would make it easier to load and change movie reels.
The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.
May 20, 2022
For information on user permissions, please read our Terms of Service. If you have questions about licensing content on this page, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information and to obtain a license. If you have questions about how to cite anything on our website in your project or classroom presentation, please contact your teacher. She or he will best know the preferred format. When you reach out to him or her, you will need the page title, URL, and the date you accessed the resource.
If a media asset is downloadable, a download button appears in the corner of the media viewer. If no button appears, you cannot download or save the media.
Text on this page is printable and can be used according to our Terms of Service.
Any interactives on this page can only be played while you are visiting our website. You cannot download interactives.