A common sentiment in today’s community is that America was built by Black people—everything from the country’s economy to the White House. Although largely overlooked due to their race, Black male visionaries played a crucial role in revolutionizing America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These seven trailblazers improved the quality of life beyond our wildest dreams and continue to serve as role models for aspiring scientists of any background. Their impact has been felt for generations and their contributions still shape the world as we know it today. Read more about these seven inventions from Black men that changed Americans' lives for the better.
George Washington Carver
Famously known by many nicknames during his life, such as “the plant doctor” and “the wizard of Tuskegee," George Washington Carver is mostly remembered today as “the Peanut Man." In the late 19th century, Carver, on the faculty at the Tuskegee Institute, used his agricultural prowess to refine his crop rotation method and share it with farmers across America. The surplus of peanuts that followed after his method became popularized inspired Carver to create over 300 products and uses for the legume, including cosmetics and soap. Carver was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and, after his passing, Missouri, his native home state erected a monument in recognition of his many accomplishments.
An active advocate for equality in the early 1900s, Garrett Morgan refused to allow racism to stunt the sales of his life-saving inventions. Mostly self-taught, he invented the Safety Hood, a device made to help first responders withstand smoke-polluted environments. Morgan believed so strongly in the value of his invention that he utilized white actors to sell it to the resistant Southern audience. In 1923, he helped to revolutionize America’s roads by inventing and patenting the traffic light, which controlled traffic using “go” and “stop” signs. In 1963, he was honored for his contributions at the Emancipation Centennial Celebration.
Frederick McKinley Jones
America was forever altered when Frederick McKinley Jones debuted his mobile refrigerator in 1938. His unit, which was utilized on trucks, ships and cargo trains, allowed for food to be transported to greater distances than ever before. Thanks to Jones, Americans gained year-round access to fresh produce, which was unthinkable with the outdated salt and ice system. His contributions to the world were further cemented when he became the first Black American to receive the National Medal of Technology.
Dr. James E. West
Advocating for more minorities in the science field, Dr. James E. West made history in the music industry in 1962. Following West’s graduation from Temple University in 1957, he went on to work at Bell Labs and invented and patented the electret microphone. Due to a combination of the microphone’s inexpensive cost and dependability, the product found widespread use and success across the industry. West’s multiple patents have earned him both the National Medal of Technology and the George R. Stibitz Trophy.
Alfred L. Cralle
Noticing his fellow staff members at a Pennsylvania hotel struggle to serve ice cream with a standard spoon, Alfred L. Cralle saw an opportunity to bring a new invention to the market. Cralle patented his ice cream scoop with a built-in scraper in 1897, which allowed servers to easily operate it single-handedly. Although the durable design went on to find broad use, he did not profit from the product and instead used his talents for business management.
Gerald “Jerry” Lawson
The course of youth culture felt a seismic shift after Gerald Lawson blazed a new trail in the video game industry. His 1976 console, the Fairchild Channel F, created and pioneered the concept of the removable video game cartridge, which could be removed and safely played multiple times over. He went on to establish the earliest Black-owned video game company, called Videosoft. His contributions to the industry have recently been recognized years after his death; his work has been immortalized in the World Video Game Hall of Fame.
Phillip B. Downing
The son of an abolitionist, Philip B. Downing helped to improve the nation’s vital postal service in 1891. His original patents for the street mailbox closely resemble the ones that occupy street corners today, creating a hinged door to protect mail inside from harsh outdoor weather. Downing’s invention allowed people to forgo having to travel to the post office and instead they could conveniently drop off their mail closer to where they lived with the confidence that it would be safe. Along with this invention, Downing filed five other patents and served dutifully at the Boston Customs House for 30 years of his life.