|Dr. Mark Dean: Computer Inventions
As a child, Mark Dean excelled in math. In elementary school, he took advanced level math courses and, in high school, Dean even built his own computer, radio, and amplifier. Dean continued his interests and went on to obtain a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from the University of Tennessee, a masters degree in electrical engineering from Florida Atlantic University and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford. He is one of the most prominent black inventors in the field of computers.
Dr. Mark Dean started working at IBM in 1980 and was instrumental in the invention of the Personal Computer (PC). He holds three of IBM's original nine PC patents and currently holds more than 20 total patents. The famous African-American inventor never thought the work he was doing would end up being so useful to the world, but he has helped IBM make instrumental changes in areas ranging from the research and application of systems technology circuits to operating environments. One of his most recent computer inventions occurred while leading the team that produced the 1-Gigahertz chip, which contains one million transistors and has nearly limitless potential.
Dr. James E. West: Electret Microphone Inventor
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.
Dr. James E. West and a colleague, Gerhard Sessler, developed the mic (officially known as the Electroacoustic Transducer Electret Microphone) while with Bell Laboratories, and they received a patent for it in 1962. The acoustical technologies employed became widely used for many reasons including high performance, acoustical accuracy and reliability. It is also small, lightweight and cost effective.
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.
During his career, West also involved himself with programs designed to encourage minorities to take more of a role in the sciences. In the 1970's, he was a member of the Association of Black Laboratories Employees (ABLE) at Bell Labs that influenced management to fund the Summer Research Program (SRP) and Cooperate Research Fellowship Program (CRFP) – programs that helped more than 500 non-white students graduate with degrees in science, engineering and mathematics.
James Edward West now works with Johns Hopkins University as a research professor.
Dr. Patricia Bath: Fight for the Right to Sight
Imagine living in a world ranging from hazy, clouded vision to that of total darkness for 30 years. Before 1985, that was the plight of those with cataracts who did not want to risk surgery with a mechanical grinder. Now imagine sitting in a doctor's office without being able to see her as she explains that it may be possible to restore your vision. You can't tell by studying body language whether to trust this person or if they're pulling your leg. All you have to go by is the sound of the voice assuring you that this procedure is safe, more accurate and more comfortable than traditional cataract surgery.
As a noted Opthamologist and famous black inventor, Dr. Patricia Bath has dedicated her life to the treatment and prevention of visual impairments. Her personal belief that everyone has the "Right to Sight" led to her invention in 1985 of a specialized tool and procedure for the removal of cataracts. With the Laserphaco Probe and procedure, Dr. Bath increased the accuracy and results of cataract surgery, which had previously been performed manually with a mechanical grinder.
The difference between the old method and her new invention was the difference between the use of highly accurate laser technology and the somewhat subjective accuracy of a mechanical device. The Laserphaco Probe combined an optical laser, irrigation system and suction tubes. In use, the laser is inserted into a tiny incision on the eye; the laser then vaporizes the cataract and lens material, which is removed via the suction tubes. A replacement lens is then inserted on the eye.
With the Laserphaco Probe invention and the development of the procedure for its use, Dr. Bath helped restore the sight of several people who had been blinded by cataracts for up to 30 years. Imagine the joy they felt when they opened their eyes to see Dr. Patricia Bath's smiling face for the first time.
George Crum: Inventor of Potato Chips
Every time a person crunches into a potato chip, he or she is enjoying the delicious taste of one of the world's most famous snacks – a treat that might not exist without the contribution of black inventor George Crum.
The son of an African-American father and a Native American mother, Crum was working as the chef in the summer of 1853 when he incidentally invented the chip. It all began when a patron who ordered a plate of French-fried potatoes sent them back to Crum's kitchen because he felt they were too thick and soft.
To teach the picky patron a lesson, Crum sliced a new batch of potatoes as thin as he possibly could, and then fried them until they were hard and crunchy. Finally, to top them off, he added a generous heaping of salt. To Crum's surprise, the dish ended up being a hit with the patron and a new snack was born!
Years later, Crum opened his own restaurant that had a basket of potato chips on every table. Though Crum never attempted to patent his invention, the snack was eventually mass-produced and sold in bags – providing thousands of jobs nationwide.
Dr. Philip Emeagwali: Inventor of the World's Fastest Computer
Dr. Philip Emeagwali, who has been called the "Bill Gates of Africa," was born in Nigeria in 1954. Like many African schoolchildren, he dropped out of school at age 14 because his father could not continue paying Emeagwali's school fees. However, his father continued teaching him at home, and everyday Emeagwali performed mental exercises such as solving 100 math problems in one hour. His father taught him until Philip "knew more than he did."
Growing up in a country torn by civil war, Emeagwali lived in a building crumbled by rocket shells. He believed his intellect was a way out of the line of fire. So he studied hard and eventually received a scholarship to Oregon State University when he was 17 where he obtained a BS in mathematics. He also earned three other degrees – a Ph.D. in Scientific computing from the University of Michigan and two Masters degrees from George Washington University.
The noted black inventor received acclaim based, at least in part, on his study of nature, specifically bees. Emeagwali saw an inherent efficiency in the way bees construct and work with honeycomb and determined computers that emulate this process could be the most efficient and powerful. In 1989, emulating the bees' honeycomb construction, Emeagwali used 65,000 processors to invent the world's fastest computer, which performs computations at 3.1 billion calculations per second.
Dr. Philip Emeagwali's resume is loaded with many other such feats, including ways of making oil fields more productive – which has resulted in the United States saving hundreds of millions of dollars each year. As one of the most famous African-American inventors of the 20th century, Dr. Emeagwali also has won the Gordon Bell Prize – the Nobel Prize for computation. His computers are currently being used to forecast the weather and to predict the likelihood and effects of future global warming.
Dr. Betty Harris: Chemisty
Born and raised in Monroe, Louisiana, Betty Harris was one of eleven children. The young Betty Harris was interested in chemistry. At college she obtained a BS degree in chemistry from Southern University and an MS degree in chemistry from Atlanta University.
Harris then started to work as a visiting staff member for the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The Los Alamos National Laboratory focuses primarily on field and laboratory studies of geological processes related to environmental issues. After working for some time and gaining more exposure to the field of research, she decided to become a research chemist and earned her Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico.
As a research chemist at Los Alamos, Betty Harris worked in the areas of hazardous waste treatment and environmental restoration facilities contaminated with energetic materials such as propellants, gun propellants, and explosives. She eventually became a noted expert in the chemistry of explosives. Recently, she has even worked with Girl Scouts to develop a chemistry badge that is similar to the chemistry merit badge for Boy Scouts. Through her research, Harris obtained a patent for her invention of a spot test for identifying explosives in a field environment. She has received the state's Governor's Trailblazer Award for her achievements.
Dr. Shirley Jackson: Telecommunications Inventions
Dr. Shirley Jackson, a theoretical physicist and famous black inventor, has been credited with making many advances in science. 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.
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.
Currently, Jackson is the president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, recently ranked by U.S. News and World Report as one of the nation's top 50 universities. The mission of the Rensselaer Plan calls for "apply[ing] science to the common purposes of life." Dr. Jackson's goal for Rensselaer is "to achieve prominence in the 21st century as a top-tier world-class technological research university, with global reach and global impact."
Frederick McKinley Jones
Anytime you see a truck on the highway transporting refrigerated or frozen food, you're seeing the work of Frederick McKinley Jones.
One of the most prolific Black inventors ever, Jones patented more than 60 inventions in his lifetime. While more than 40 of those patents were in the field of refrigeration, Jones is most famous for inventing an automatic refrigeration system for long haul trucks and railroad cars.
Before Jones' invention, the only way to keep food cool in trucks was to load them with ice. Jones was inspired to invent the system after talking with a truck driver who lost his whole cargo of chicken because he couldn't reach his destination before the ice melted. As a solution, the African-American inventor developed a roof-mounted cooling system to make sure food stayed fresh.
In addition to that refrigerator invention, Jones also invented an air-conditioning unit for military field hospitals, a refrigerator for military field kitchens, a self-starting gas engine, a series of devices for movie projectors and box-office equipment that gave tickets and made change. Jones was posthumously awarded the National Medal of Technology in 1991 – the first Black inventor to ever receive such an honor.
Garrett A. Morgan: Traffic Signal and Gas Mask Inventor
Many of the world's most famous inventors only produced one major invention that garnered recognition and cemented their prominent status. But Garret Augustus Morgan, one of the country's most successful African-American inventors, created two – the gas mask and the traffic signal.
Born in the last quarter of the nineteenth century to former slaves, Garrett A. Morgan was only formally educated to a sixth-grade level. Fortunately, like many great inventors, Morgan had an innate mechanical mind that enabled him to solve problems. And, unlike most other inventors, he also was a skilled entrepreneur.
After moving to Cleveland, Ohio, at the age of 18, Garrett Morgan's business sense and strong work ethic led him to almost immediate success. He invented and patented the first chemical hair straightener, started his own sewing equipment repair business, and even established a newspaper – the Cleveland Call.
But Morgan's most prolific accomplishments came in his role as an inventor. He received a patent for the first gas mask invention in 1914, but it wasn't until two years later that the idea really took off. When a group of workers got stuck in a tunnel below Lake Erie after an explosion, Morgan and a team of men donned the masks to help get them out. After the rescue was a success, requests for the masks began pouring in.
Similarly, Garrett Morgan's other famous invention – the traffic signal – was also invented to help save lives. After witnessing an accident on a roadway, Morgan decided a device was needed to keep cars, buggies and pedestrians from colliding. His traffic signal was designed to stand on a street corner and notify vehicles and walkers whether they should stop or go. After receiving a patent in 1923, the rights to the invention were eventually purchased by General Electric.
Dr. Charles Drew: Blood Bank Inventor
It's impossible to determine how many hundreds of thousands of people would have lost their lives without the contributions of African-American inventor Dr. Charles Drew. This physician, researcher and surgeon revolutionized the understanding of blood plasma – leading to the invention of blood banks.
Born in 1904 in Washington, D.C., Charles Drew excelled from early on in both intellectual and athletic pursuits. After becoming a doctor and working as a college instructor, Drew went to Columbia University to do his Ph.D. on blood storage. He completed a thesis titled Banked Blood that invented a method of separating and storing plasma, allowing it to be dehydrated for later use. It was the first time Columbia awarded a doctorate to an African-American.
At the onset of World War II, Drew was called upon to put his techniques into practice. He emerged as the leading authority on mass transfusion and processing methods, and went on to helm the American Red Cross blood bank. When the Armed Forces ordered that only Caucasian blood be given to soldiers, Drew protested and resigned.
Valerie Thomas: Inventor of the Illusion Transmitter
Did you ever think of what it might be like if your television could project the on-screen image directly into your living room as a 3-Dimensional image? Maybe not, but if it happens, you'll have African-American inventor Valerie Thomas to thank for it.
From 1964 to 1995, Thomas worked in a variety of capacities for NASA where she developed real-time computer data systems, conducted large-scale experiments and managed various operations, projects and facilities. While managing a project for NASA's image processing systems, Thomas' team spearheaded the development of "Landsat," the first satellite to send images from space. In 1976, Thomas learned how concave mirrors can be set up to create the illusion of a 3-dimensional object. She believed this would be revolutionary if technology could be harnessed to transmit this illusion. With an eye to the future, Valerie Thomas began experimenting on an illusion transmitter in 1977. In 1980, she patented it. In operation, concave mirrors are set up on both ends of the transmission. The net effect of this is an optical illusion of a 3-dimensional image that looks real on the receiving end. This brilliant innovation placed Thomas among the most prominent black inventors of the 20th century.
NASA continues to use her technology and is exploring ways to use it in surgical tools and possibly television and video.
George Alcorn: Inventor of the Imaging X-ray Spectrometer
Not many inventors have resumes as impressive as George Edward Alcorn's. Among his credits, the African-American inventor received a B.A. in physics, a master's degree in nuclear physics and a Ph.D in atomic and molecular physics. On top of that, Alcorn worked for the likes of Philco-Ford, Perkin-Elmer, IBM and NASA, created over 20 different inventions and was granted eight patents.
Despite such impressive credentials, Alcorn is probably most famous for his innovation of the imaging x-ray spectrometer – a device that helps scientists better understand what materials are composed of when they cannot be broken down. Receiving a patent for his method in 1984, Alcorn's inclusion of the thermomigration of aluminum in the spectrometer was regarded as a major innovation by experts in the field. The invention led to Alcorn's reception of the NASA Inventor of the Year Award.
And that wasn't the only award George Edward Alcorn received. Along with being awarded a NASA medal for his work in recruiting minority scientists and engineers, he also won the Government Executives Magazine's prestigious Technology Leadership Award for the Airborne Lidar Topographical Mapping System. And, in 2001, Alcorn was awarded special congressional recognition for his efforts in helping Virgin Islands businesses through application of NASA technology and technology programs.
George Alcorn's work as an educator should not be overlooked either. He held positions at both Howard University and the University of the District of Columbia, where he taught courses in electrical engineering. He also was an organizer and mentor for the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's (UMBC's) Myerhoff Program, which works to promote minority Ph.Ds in science and mathematics.