History Stories

Black innovators changed the way we live through their contributions, from caller ID to the traffic light to the ironing board.

Most people have heard about famous inventions like the light bulb, the cotton gin and the iPhone. But there are countless other, often overlooked inventions that make our daily lives easier. Among the creative innovators behind these devices, are African-Americans. From the traffic light to caller ID to the ironing board, see a list of products that have sprung from the minds of black inventors. 

Black-Inventions-Ironing-Board-Sarah-Boone-1068564526

Improved Ironing Board, Invented by Sarah Boone in 1892

The ironing board is a product that’s used possibly just as much as it’s overlooked. In the late 19th century, it was improved upon by Sarah Boone, an African-American woman who was born a slave. One of the first black women in U.S. history to receive a patent, she expanded upon the original ironing board, which was essentially a horizontal wooden block originally patented in 1858. With Boone’s 1892 additions, the board featured a narrower and curved design, making it easier to iron garments, particularly women’s clothing. Boone’s design would morph into the modern ironing board that we use today.

Black-Inventions-Home-Security-System-Brown-870531678

Home Security System, Co-Invented by Mary Van Brittan Brown in 1966

Before security systems became a fixture in homes, an African-American nurse Mary Van Brittan Brown, devised an early security unit for her own home. She spent many nights at home alone in Queens, New York while her husband was away, and felt unsafe with high rates of crime in her neighborhood. On top of that, police were unreliable and unresponsive. So she created a device that would help put her mind at ease.

In 1966, Brown invented a system that used a camera that could slide into and look through four peepholes in her front door. The camera’s view would then appear on a monitor in her home so she could survey any potentially unwanted guests.

She added other features to the system, including a microphone to speak to anyone at the door, a button to unlock the door, and a button to contact the police. She and her husband took out a patent for the system in the same year, and they were awarded the patent three years later in 1969. Home security systems commonly used today took various elements from her design.

Garrett Morgan

The Three-Light Traffic Light, Invented by Garrett Morgan in 1923

With only an elementary school education, black inventor (and son of a slave), Garrett Morgan came up with several significant inventions, including an improved sewing machine and the gas mask. However, one of Morgan's most influential inventions was the improved traffic light. Without his innovation, drivers across the nation would be directed by a two-light system.

Read More: How an African Slave in Boston Helped Save Generations from Smallpox

Thanks to the successes of his other inventions, Morgan became the first black person in Cleveland, Ohio to own a car. As a motorist, he witnessed a severe car accident at an intersection in the city. In response, he decided to expand on the current traffic light by adding a “yield” component, warning oncoming drivers of an impending stop. He took out the patent for the creation in 1923, and it was granted to him the following year.

Black-Inventions-Refrigerated-Trucks-Frederick-McKinley-Jones-858462276

Refrigerated Trucks, Invented by Frederick McKinley Jones in 1940

If your refrigerator has any produce from your local grocery store, then you can credit African-American inventor Frederick McKinley Jones. Jones took out more than 60 patents throughout his life, including a patent for the roof-mounted cooling system that’s used to refrigerate goods on trucks during extended transportation in the mid-1930s. He received a patent for his invention in 1940, and co-founded the U.S. Thermo Control Company, later known as Thermo King. The company was critical during World War II, helping to preserve blood, food and supplies during the war.

Black-Inventions-Caller-ID-and-Call-Waiting-Shirley-Ann-Jackson-1080610888

Caller ID and Call Waiting, Research Led by Shirley Ann Jackson c. 1970

No one likes picking up a call from an unknown number, particularly if you’re already on the phone with someone else. This issue was solved by black inventor and physicist Shirley Ann Jackson. The first black woman to ever earn a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Jackson led research to develop caller ID and call waiting functions while working at AT&T Bell Laboratories in the 1970s.

Black-Inventions-Elevator-Doors-Alexander-Miles-883982476

Automatic Elevator Doors, Invented by Alexander Miles in 1887

The use of elevators in everyday life keeps people from committing to long and grueling climbs up several flights of stairs. However, before the creation of elevator doors that close automatically, riding a lift was both complicated and risky.

Before automatic doors, people had to manually shut both the shaft and elevator doors before riding. Forgetting to do so led to multiple accidents as people fell down elevator shafts. When the daughter of African-American inventor Alexander Miles almost fatally fell down the shaft, he took it upon himself to develop a solution. In 1887 he took out a patent for a mechanism that automatically opens and closes elevator shaft doors and his designs are largely reflected in elevators used today.

Black Inventions-Microphone-942158540

Electret Microphone, Co-Invented by James E. West in 1964

Even for those who aren’t quick to pick up the mic during karaoke, microphones are used every day to communicate over distances far and wide. And more than 90 percent of the microphones used today, including the microphones used in phones and cameras, use a microphone co-invented by a black man. Dr. James E. West was tasked with creating a more sensitive and compact microphone while working at Bell Labs in 1960.

Along with his German colleague Gerhard Sessler, West invented the foil electret microphone, which was considerably less expensive to produce than the typically used condenser microphones. Two years after it was invented, the final model of the microphone was developed and in 1964 they patented the landmark invention. Only four years later, the new microphone was in wide production was used in hearing aids, tape recorders, most telephones and baby monitors.

Black-Inventions-Light-Bulb-Filament-Lewis-Latimer-859775126

Carbon Light Bulb Filament, Invented by Lewis Latimer in 1881

The light bulb itself was invented by Thomas Edison, but the innovation used to create longer-lasting light bulbs with a carbon filament came from African-American inventor Lewis Latimer. Latimer, the son of runaway slaves, began work in a patent law firm after serving in the military for the Union during the Civil War. He was recognized for his talent drafting patents and was promoted to head draftsman, where he co-invented an improved bathroom for railroad trains.

Read More: When Edison Turned Night into Day

His successes would garner him further attention from the the U.S. Electric Lighting Company, putting him at a company in direct competition with Edison, in 1880. While there, Latimer patented a new filament for the light bulb, using carbon instead of more incendiary materials, like bamboo, that were commonly used for filaments. The addition of the carbon filament increased the life span and practicality of light bulbs, which had previously died after just a few days. In 1884, he went on to work with Edison at the Edison Electric Light Company.

Black-Inventions-PC-Monitor-Mark-Dean-808417750

Color IBM PC Monitor and Gigahertz Chip, Co-Invented by Mark Dean c. 1980 and 1999

Before flat screens and hi-definition LCD monitors were the norm, PC displays were limited to screens with no color that were tethered to computers with limited processing power. That all changed thanks to black inventor and engineer Mark Dean. Dean began working for IBM as a chief engineer in the early 1980s, making up a team of 12 people who would develop the first IBM PC. In addition to helping create IBM’s original machine in his early years with the company, he also worked to develop the color monitor and led the team that developed the first gigahertz processor. The massive chip, built in 1999, would allow for for higher processing rates at faster speeds within PCs.

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us!

RELATED CONTENT