The United States’ history of creating (and legally protecting) new technology is almost as old as the country itself. Although patents were granted earlier under British governance, the U.S. Congress created its first Patent Act in 1790. Within three months, President George Washington had signed off on the first patent awarded under the new government. Americans of all backgrounds have contributed to technological advancements since then, but not all were able to patent their work — or even claim credit for it. Early patent law barred many Black inventors from protecting their work on the basis of citizenship; enslaved people were not considered citizens and therefore were excluded from patent rights. In part because of that, many Black inventors have been lost to history’s recollection of early scientific advancements. Here are a few such visionaries whose works have changed our world.
Thomas L. Jennings
As a New York City tailor, Thomas L. Jennings devised his own method of cleaning clothes without water: dry scouring. The grandfather of modern-day dry cleaning, Jennings’ unique process landed him a patent signed by then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams in 1821. Even more notably, the patent was the first awarded to a Black American. Jennings’ ability to file for and receive his patent was only possible at the time because he was a free person of color. Afterward, royalties from his invention allowed him to establish and support several abolitionist and civil rights organizations, such as the Legal Rights Association, while working alongside other abolitionist leaders and activists such as Frederick Douglass.
Thomas Edison gets a lot of praise for his advancements in electric light and power, while the supporting scientists who tested and improved his inventions are often forgotten. Case in point: Lewis Latimer. Latimer started his scientific career drafting technical drawings for a Boston patent office, where he was exposed to many inventors of the late 19th century. (His sketches helped Alexander Graham Bell secure his telephone patent.) After a while, he began conducting his own experiments, eventually earning a patent of his own — the first of many — in 1874.
He was later hired by the U.S. Electric Lighting Company in Brooklyn, where he worked to improve the incandescent lightbulb invented just a few years earlier by Edison. His 1882 upgrade created a more durable carbon filament that gave the bulbs a longer lifespan. (Previously, they burned out after just a few days of use.) Not long after, Edison himself invited Latimer to work for him at the Edison Company; there, Latimer became head patent investigator and wrote a book, Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System. As the owner of 10 patents, he also created specialty toilets for trains, an air cooler and disinfector, and an anti-theft coat rack.
Benjamin Bradley was ineligible to receive accolades for his invention, but it did help to secure his freedom. Bradley, an enslaved Maryland man who worked at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, created a steam engine for a naval battleship in the mid-19th century. Although he was unable to patent his work, Bradley sold the idea to a sailor and used the funds to build a larger engine that could reach a speed of 16 knots. Alas, not much else is known about Bradley’s endeavors, though a letter published in a January 1860 edition of The Presbyterian Magazinenotes he was able to purchase his freedom for $1,000 with the hopes of continuing his engineering education.
Elijah McCoy’s engineering feats landed him a whopping 57 patents — lawn sprinklers, a portable ironing board, and the first rubber shoe heel are some of his lesser-known works. But his most defining contraption was the lubricating oil cup he crafted for locomotives in 1872, which allowed trains to run for longer periods of time without maintenance or breakdowns. The Canadian-born McCoy was the child of two formerly enslaved Kentuckians who escaped north on the Underground Railroad. When he was 15, his parents sent him to Scotland to study engineering; upon his return to the U.S., the only work he could find was as a railroad fireman tasked with shoveling coal and oiling the train’s moving parts. McCoy’s most prominent invention reflected that work and spun off countless copycat tools. Some historians believe the phrase “the real McCoy” came from references to the inventor’s superior design.
Granville T. Woods
When Granville T. Woods received recognition in the late 1880s, newspaper publishers often referred to him as the “Black Edison.” But the inventor’s accomplishments stand well on their own. Woods, who left school at age 10 to work in a railroad machine shop, is mostly known for his work with trains and electricity: His invention of electrified third rails helped create the subway system, and his induction telegraph helped train conductors communicate to prevent collisions. By the end of his life, he had secured more than 50 patents — and yet, history hasn’t recognized Woods’ achievements in the same way it has recognized those of his nickname counterpart. Woods had to fight for any credit at all; he spent much of his fortune waging lawsuits against inventors accused of stealing his work, and even beat Thomas Edison in court, twice.
Alice H. Parker
Alice Parker is considered by some to be the mother of central heating, thanks to her significant work on early furnaces. Awarded a patent in 1919 for a “new and improved heating furnace,” the New Jersey-based inventor provided major upgrades to the way central heating systems warmed air and moved it through buildings. At a time when most furnaces relied on wood or coal, Parker’s invention proposed using natural gas, which would allow homeowners to regulate temperatures for the first time. The design also pushed heated air from a small warming chamber through a set of ducts, a major improvement over furnaces of the time that had only one heat vent. Parker didn’t pursue manufacturing of her furnace design, but it laid the groundwork for the heating systems we use today.
Inventor Frederick Jones is the brilliant mind behind movie theater magic and refrigerated trucks. Orphaned as a child and raised by a priest, Jones didn’t let his limited education keep him from pursuing an interest in mechanics and electronics. After returning from overseas duty in World War I, Jones used his background in auto repair to create his own self-starting gas motor. His aptitude for engineering also led him to create an automatic ticket machine for movie theaters (patented in 1939) and mechanisms that allowed movie projectors to play sound.
In the late 1930s, Jones saw a need for cooled shipping trucks and he launched Thermo King, a brand of refrigerated trucks that used his patented gas motor. Jones’ cold-storage trucks allowed fresh food to be shipped across the country and overseas during World War II, and a retooled design provided portable blood storage coolers during the war. All told, Jones held more than 60 patents. And in 1991, 30 years after his death, he became the first Black American to receive the National Medal of Technology.
Dr. Charles Richard Drew
Lifesaving blood transfusions weren’t common medical practice until the first half of the 20th century, and even then there were limitations, especially when it came to storing and banking blood. That changed when Dr. Charles Richard Drew — the first Black American to earn a medical doctorate from Columbia University — pioneered long-term blood plasma storage in the late 1930s. Drew’s research on blood preservation led him to manage the Blood for Britain Project, a World War II effort that inspired a similar Red Cross pilot program. Drew became the director of the first Red Cross blood bank, but despite his innovations — including refrigerated “bloodmobiles” that became a medical standard — inequity continued to play a role in his career and in the medical field as a whole. When the Red Cross began its blood donation program in the United States in 1941, Drew initially couldn’t participate due to a policy that barred Black blood donors. The ban was lifted in 1942, though donations remained segregated until 1950, with some states keeping the policy in place until the 1970s.
Almost all electronic devices rely on resistors, components that regulate electrical currents for consistent power. These tiny parts were the life’s work of Otis Boykin, a Black inventor who patented improved resistors that are still in use today. Boykin’s upgrades made resistors easier and cheaper to manufacture, which in turn reduced the price of many early electronics. IBM used his devices in its computers, and the U.S. military considered the parts so reliable that they were used in guided missiles. Boykin’s inventions also helped civilians — the pacemaker control unit he created in 1964 revolutionized the lifesaving heart regulators, making them less expensive, more accurate, and longer-lasting.
Patricia Bath’s scientific work can be seen in the eyes of millions of people who’ve had cataract surgery. In the 1980s, she created a medical device used to save fading eyesight caused by a clouding of the lens. Bath’s interest in curing cataracts began during her early years of medical practice in New York City, where she noticed racial inequalities that prevented equal access to sight-saving eye care. Determined to change that, she focused on research for what would become the Laserphaco Probe, now an industry-standard laser surgery tool that removes vision-clouding cataracts. In 1988, after five years of designing and testing the technology, she became the first Black woman doctor to be awarded a patent for a medical device. Bath also cofounded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, which supports global medical care for children to prevent blindness — a legacy that crosses time and borders.