Mothers of Invention
African American Women Inventors
February 8, 2016 by Mark Dye
When most people hear the word “inventor” they probably think of Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone, or maybe even more recent innovators such as Elon Musk of the Tesla Motor Company and SpaceX fame. There are, of course, literally thousands of people whose inventions have had positive impacts on the lives of many, from things as “simple” as beauty products, to key breakthroughs in telecommunications.
As a way to honor African American History Month, we take a look at five African American women whose unique ideas left indelible legacies. They might not be featured in school history books, but their inventions have shaped our world.
Born in a small Virginian town in 1914, Blount studied physical therapy at the Panzar College of Physical Education and Union Junior College, and then trained as a physical therapist in Chicago. She spent World War II working with wounded troops, which is when she came up with an idea: an electrical device that allowed amputees to feed themselves. It became a reality in 1951, with a system that could be affixed to a wheelchair and delivered a bite-sized portion through a tube, and a later model being small enough to hang on a patient's neck.
Unfortunately, she was unable to find any financial backing to market her inventions, with even the U.S. Veteran's Administration declining to offer support. Undaunted, she gave the patent rights to the French government in 1952, and they used to improve the lives of countless war veterans. As Blount herself once said, "A black woman can invent something for the benefit of humankind."
Dr. Shirley Jackson
If you've ever used a fax machine, caller ID, call waiting, a touch-tone phone, a solar cell, or had your Internet travel over a fiber optic cable network – and if you've been alive since the 1980s, you have done at least one of those things – you can thank Dr. Jackson.
The first African American woman to earn a PhD from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Dr. Jackson grew up with a love of science, doing her own experiments and studies (the more notable one being on the eating habits of honeybees). The theoretical physicist was working at Bell Labs, when she began experiments using her knowledge of physics to help improve telecommunications delivery methods, both for the companies and end users. The results are now part of our daily lives.
She now serves as president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, one of the (if not the) premier polytechnic schools in the nation.
Later known as Madam C. J. Walker, Breedlove's early life was both difficult and tragic: her parents were former slaves, and both of them died when she was just seven years old, leaving her an orphan. At age ten she and her sister worked as maids, she got married when just 14 years old, and was a widow (and, because of that, also a single mother) by the time she was 20. It was at that point that she moved to St. Louis, where her brothers ran a barber shop and she got a job selling products for Annie Turnbo Malone, an African American hair care entrepreneur.
All of her early tragedies clearly motivated her, as she learned all she could about the beauty industry and, especially, how that industry lacked products for African Americans. After all, most soap at the time included lye, which cause a great deal of damage to both the hair and scalps of many. So she went on to develop a full line of special beauty products just for African Americans, becoming the nation's first African American woman to be a self-made millionaire. As she said in 1912, “I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations….I have built my own factory on my own ground.”
She was also a proud mother (her daughter, A'Lelia Walker, was an instrumental figure during the Harlem Renaissance) and was featured on a postage stamp from the U.S. Postal Service in 1998.
Marie Van Brittan Brown
In today's day and age, closed circuit cameras used for home security are so ubiquitous we hardly even notice them. But there was a time where such a thing was unheard of, and it took a black woman from the Jamaica neighborhood in Queens, New York, and her husband to make it happen.
Brown wanted a way for people in apartment buildings to know who was at the door before opening it as a way to help stay safe. (She found police responses to be much too slow, especially in her neighborhood.) Her system used a camera mounted on a small motor that could be adjusted to view through various peep holes so residents could see who was at the door, with the images shown on a closed-circuit screen in the apartment. A revolutionary idea at the time, CCTV security systems are now commonplace throughout the world.
Dr. Patricia Bath
A graduate of the Howard School of Medicine who studied ophthalmology at both New York and Columbia universities, Dr. Bath blazed several trails: she was the first African-American woman surgeon at the UCLA Medical Center, the first woman to be on the faculty of the UCLA Jules Stein Eye Institute, and became the first African American woman doctor to receive a patent for a medical invention. (Note that Bessie Blount mentioned earlier was not a doctor.)
Specifically, she developed a method for removing cataracts by using a laser device. It made the operation much more precise, and led to her 1988 patent of the Cataract Laserphaco Probe, which used a laser to quickly “zap” cataracts from patient's eye. This helped restore vision in people who had been legally blind for decades, and thousands have had their site restored thanks to her invention. She even holds patents for her invention in Japan, Canada, and Europe.
We not only salute these amazing women, but ask for you to share their exploits-after all, it is time they get the recognition they earned long ago.