Top 10 African American Inventors

African American Inventors

You can't get a blood transfusion, stop at a traffic signal, turn on a lamp, or even put on a pair of shoes without relying on technologies and devices first patented by African Americans. Here are just a few of the remarkable African American men and women who changed the way we live our lives.

Articles marked with an (*) are available to those with access to MSN Encarta Premium. Learn more.

1. Norbert Rillieux* (1806-1894)
The son of an engineer and a freed slave, American chemist and inventor Norbert Rillieux revolutionized the sugar industry by inventing a device to remove the water from the juices of sugarcane and sugar beets to produce dry sugar. Rillieux's invention enabled a purer sugar product, cost less money, and was far less dangerous to workers than previous methods.
Elijah McCoy, image courtesy of Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
2. Elijah McCoy* (1844-1929)
Responsible for a remarkable 57 patents, American inventor Elijah McCoy is best known for inventing ingenious devices to lubricate heavy machinery automatically. McCoy's devices were so reliable that people often asked if machinery contained "the real McCoy," likely giving rise to this enduring expression.
Lewis Latimer, image courtesy of Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
3. Lewis Howard Latimer* (1848-1928)
Although he received seven patents for his inventions, mechanical draftsman and inventor Lewis Howard Latimer is best remembered for his key contributions to the incandescent light bulb. In 1881 Latimer patented an electric lamp with an inexpensive carbon filament and a threaded wooden socket. He later joined Thomas Alva Edison's team of inventors and wrote the first known book on electric lighting.
4. Jan E. Matzeliger (1852-1889)
American artist and inventor Jan E. Matzeliger is most famous for designing and creating a machine that stretched leather shoe uppers around a foot-shaped model, or last. Before Matzeliger introduced his machine, highly skilled artisans lasted a maximum of 50 pairs of shoes a day. Matzeliger's automatic shoe lasting machine revolutionized the shoemaking industry, producing as many as 700 pairs of shoes in a single day.
5. Granville T. Woods* (1856-1910)
Forced to quit school when he was only ten years old, American railroad engineer and inventor Granville T. Woods patented a remarkable 35 electrical and mechanical devices during his prolific career. Woods received his first patent in 1884 for a steam boiler furnace. His many later patents included a system that enabled telegraph lines to carry voice signals; an induction telegraph for sending messages to and from moving trains; and electromechanical and electromagnetic railway brakes.
6. George Washington Carver (1864-1943)
Born on a Missouri farm to slave parents, George Washington Carver developed several hundred industrial uses for peanuts, sweet potatoes, and soybeans, and developed a new type of cotton known as Carver's hybrid. Carver is credited with introducing crop rotation to farmers in the southern United States, thereby revolutionizing the American farming industry.
7. Sarah Walker (1867-1919)
Inventor and entrepreneur Sarah Walker created a line of hair-care products especially for black women. Walker, the daughter of Louisiana sharecroppers and nicknamed "Madame C.J.," was the first woman to sell products via mail order and to organize a nationwide membership of door-to-door agents. Madame C.J. is best remembered as one of the first American women of any race to become a millionaire through her own efforts.
8. Garrett A. Morgan* (1877-1963)
The son of former slaves, businessman and inventor Garrett A. Morgan patented the first traffic signal in 1923. Morgan made national news when he used another of his inventions--the gas mask--to rescue several men trapped in a tunnel beneath Lake Erie. Morgan's mask was soon adopted by firemen around the world, and was also refined for use by the United States Army during World War I.
9. Frederick McKinley Jones (1893-1961)
American businessman, inventor, and World War I veteran Frederick McKinley Jones is most remembered for introducing the first practical refrigeration system for trucks and railroad cars, a system that completely changed the food transport industry. Jones was responsible for a phenomenal 60 patents during his lifetime, 40 for refrigeration equipment alone.

10. Charles Richard Drew, M.D. (1904-1950)
American surgeon Charles Richard Drew conducted pioneering work in blood storage and transfusion techniques. Drew showed that blood plasma lasts longer than whole blood, a medical breakthrough that enabled the creation of the modern blood bank. In 1939, Dr. Drew used his new understanding of blood storage and transfusion to help establish the first blood banks to serve the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II. He went on to become the first director of the American Red Cross Blood Bank.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button
Listen to this post (powered by


  1. protocolinpractice Says:

    This is a great story. I've spread it a bit further and added to the diggs!