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Unsung Heroes – The Black Technologists Who Shaped Our Nation

Inventions of black technologists

Unsung Heroes – The Black Technologists Who Shaped Our Nation

Back in 1989 when I first began teaching myself about black history, I read a book called Blacks in Science by Ivan Van Sertima. It had two sections. The first half was about examples of science and technology in Africa, and the second was about black technologists and their accomplishments in the US. The section on African developments “before Columbus”, included some that I knew, and some that I didn’t know: building cities, charting stars, casting metal with 3,000° furnaces, and of course, all of the many creations of the Egyptians. I later learned about the 200+ pyramids of Nubia – in Sudan, not Egypt, the medicinal practices with the chemicals that predated aspirin and Kaopectate and the surgical techniques that predated the Caesarian section. And then there was our history in America. Developing blood banks, synthesizing steroids, perfecting lightbulbs. Back then, this was powerful information. Black history was always about civil rights heroes, politicians, entertainers. But this was different. This was our contributions to science.

Since then I have embarked on a 35 year journey of exploring black history – the poets, the artists, the military heroes, the millionaires, the billionaires, the organizations, the early politicians, but as an engineer, I always return to what we have done with science and technology. For this blog, I decided to go through the countless websites that didn’t exist when I was doing my early explorations, to see everyone else’s picks for most notable African-American scientists and technologists. There were a few I didn’t know – many things have happened in the last 40 years. I’ve pared it down to 10 – plus the men and women of the Manhattan Project, and it was hard, but I think they truly represent unsung heroes. They developed things that are so important that their contributions transformed our nation. I am presenting them in chronological order.

 

  1. In 1821 in New York City, Thomas Jennings was awarded a patent for dry-scouring delicate fabrics, the forerunner to dry-cleaning. He may be the very first black man to have ever been awarded a patent, and his dry-scouring technique made him very wealthy.

 

  1. In 1881 in Boston, Lewis Latimer took Thomas Edison’s lightbulb invention, which could only last a few minutes, and transformed it with a carbon filament that could last for hours, making incandescent lighting practical and affordable.

 

 

  1. In 1887 in Duluth, MN, Alexander Miles invented the mechanism that automatically opens and closes elevator doors in precision with the arrival of an elevator cabin. Previously, they were closed by hand, and people had fallen to their deaths.

 

  1. In 1923 in Ohio, Garrett Morgan, who was rich enough to own a car, designed the first traffic light with an intermediate signal, warning people to slow down before a stop.

 

 

  1. In 1940 in Hallock, MN, Frederick McKinley Jones developed the first mobile refrigeration technology – the trucks that transport produce, frozen foods and blood throughout the world. The company he co-founded, Thermo King, still exists.

 

  1. In 1935 at DePauw University in Indiana, Percy Julian was awarded his first of over 200 patents. His achievements include synthesis of physostigmine, cortisone, testosterone and progesterone from plants, and at industrial scales, leading to steroid shots, glaucoma medicine and birth control pills.

 

 

  1. In 1940 at Columbia University in NY, Charles Drew discovered that you could separate blood into plasma and preserve it for up to two months, enabling the first blood banks to be created. As a result of his work, blood plasma could be shipped overseas to Britain as part of the WWII war effort.
  2. From 1942-1946, 27 patriotic black men and women worked alongside hundreds of others on the Manhattan Project to build nuclear weapons. They included physicists, chemists, biologists, technicians and even mathematicians, working independently in various university labs (but never in the South) often not knowing what they were doing or why. PhD mathematician J. Ernest Wilkins Jr., discovered 3 effects, named after him, which impact the motion of subatomic particles. William Jacob Knox Jr, Samuel Massie and Lloyd Quarterman were PhD chemists who worked on separating uranium isotopes. PhD physicist Carolyn Beatrice Parker and PhD chemist Ralph Garner-Chavis worked with polonium; Gardner-Chavis lived to be 95, but Parker contracted leukemia from the radiation. Biologist Ella Tyree raised animals for radiation experiments, some of which was useful for cancer radiation treatment. Only recently, since the documentation has been declassified, do we have an understanding of what these men and women contributed to enable us to win WWII.

 

  1. In 1962 at Bell Laboratories (now Nokia Bell Labs) in NJ, James West co-developed the electret microphone which is used in telephones, hearing aids and baby monitors. West holds over 250 patents for microphones and electrets.

 

 

  1. In 1984 in IBM’s Austin TX lab, Mark Dean was awarded a patent for the color computer monitor for the IBM PC. Mark holds 3 of the 9 patents associated with the IBM PC and worked for IBM. Dean worked for IBM for over 30 years, becoming an IBM Fellow as well as a VP for the Almaden Research Center in CA. In 1999, his team patented the first gigahertz microprocessor.

 

  1. In 2006, at AT&T Bell Labs, Marion Croak had been working on digital transmission of voice, text and video data. She was awarded a patent for VOIP – voice over internet protocol that led a new generation of telephone communication and conference calling.

 

So there you have it. My top 10 unsung heroes – plus the 27 heroes of the Manhattan Project – black technologists who have developed things that are a major part of our every day life. Don’t let anyone suggest that we have never done anything of merit in the STEM fields!

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Comments (4)

  • Amira Boylston Reply

    Very interesting! Sad to say I haven’t heard of these individuals. Thank you for sharing this info!

    March 2, 2024 at 5:17 am
    • Lauren Wilson Reply

      Any time!

      March 2, 2024 at 7:52 pm
  • UvTfmxoZVYruzy Reply

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    April 19, 2024 at 5:53 pm
  • UvTfmxoZVYruzy Reply

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    April 19, 2024 at 5:53 pm

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