Garret Augustus Morgan
Garrett Morgan opened up a sewing machine and shoe repair shop in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1907. An innovative mind, he kept busy creating prototypes to solve many everyday problems. One of his first creations was a liquid that straightened fabric—which he later sold as a product for hair straightening.
In 1911, after hearing about the tragic deaths in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, Morgan invented a safety hood and smoke protector for firefighters. The hood, which contained a wet sponge to filter out smoke and cool the air, became the precursor to the gas mask. To sell his safety hood, Morgan had to hire a white actor to pretend to be the inventor.
In 1923, Morgan patented another useful invention: A hand-cranked mechanical signal machine for traffic crossing. It would eventually lead to the creation of the traffic light.
African-American surgeon Charles Drew felt called to the study of medicine after his sister, Elsie, died of Influenza. He excelled in medical school, and became a doctor around the beginning of World War II. Drew was recruited to set up a program for blood storage in Britain, which laid the foundation for the American Red Cross Blood Bank. In 1943, Drew was chosen as the first African-American surgeon to serve as examiner on the American Board of Surgery.
Lewis Howard Latimer
Though Thomas Edison is recognized as the inventor of the light bulb, African-American inventor Lewis Latimer played an important role in its development. In 1881, Latimer patented a method for making carbon filaments, allowing light bulbs to burn for hours instead of minutes. Latimer also drafted the drawings that helped Alexander Graham Bell receive a patent for the telephone.
Physicist and inventor George Carruthers built his first telescope at age 10, and has spent the rest of his life making important contributions to the study of outer space. Carruthers has developed ways to use ultraviolet imaging in order to view images in deep space that were previously impossible to see. In 1972, Carruthers invented the “Far Ultraviolet Camera/Spectograph,” the first moon-based observatory. It was used in the Apollo 16 mission. Then, in 1986, one of his inventions captured an image of Hailey’s Comet—the first time a comet had ever been pictured from space.
This list wouldn’t be complete without The Real McCoy. Elijah McCoy was born in 1844 to parents who fled from slavery in Kentucky, via the Underground Railroad. McCoy was born free in Canada, and moved back to the United States when he was 5. At age 15, he traveled to Edinburgh in Scotland for an apprenticeship, and returned as a mechanical engineer. In Detroit, he took a job as a fireman and oiler for the Michigan Central Railroad, unable to find any other work. At his home workshop, McCoy developed an automatic lubricator for oiling steam engines on trains and ships. McCoy’s invention allowed trains to run faster and longer without stopping for maintenance. The invention was so good, it was referred to as “the real McCoy,” in order to differentiate it from other pale imitations that popped up on the market.