Seven Black Inventors Whose Patents Helped Shape American Life

Garrett A. Morgan, born to former slaves in the post-bellum South, designed an improved gas mask.CreditIanDagnall Computing/Alamy

Mr. Morgan after putting his invention into practice in 1916, when he helped rescue injured workers from a tunnel after an explosion under Lake Erie.CreditLisa DeJong/The Plain Dealer, via Associated Press
By Claudio E. Cabrera and Julia Jacobs

Black inventors’ paths to securing a patent in the United States have historically been jammed with obstacles.

Before the abolition of slavery, the United States Patent and Trademark Office excluded slaves from owning patents. Because slaves themselves were considered property, they could not own property.

After the Civil War, black inventors faced widespread and virulent racism from white institutions that doubted their ingenuity and stood in the way of their success, Rayvon Fouché wrote in “Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation.”

Black Americans had limited opportunities to receive technical training, Mr. Fouché wrote. And professional organizations that were often vital for making business connections did not allow black people in their ranks.

Still, many black inventors have overcome these obstacles to secure their own patents - though the marketing of those products brought further challenges. With Black History Month nearing its end, we looked back at seven such innovators. 

Garrett Morgan: The inventor of an early gas mask
Garrett A. Morgan’s patent application for his gas mask included an illustration of a man breathing through tubes that dangle low to the ground, where smoke is less likely to linger. Credit United States Patent and Trademark Office

Born in the 1870s to former slaves in the post-bellum South, Garrett A. Morgan had only six years of formal education. During his teenage years in Cincinnati, he worked and paid for his own tutor. Mr. Morgan went on to patent inventions like a hair relaxer, a traffic signal system and his famed gas mask.

Because smoke rises during a fire, leaving more breathable air closer to the ground, Mr. Morgan created a hood with a mouthpiece attached to tubes that dangled near one’s feet. His patent, approved in 1914, called it a “breathing device.”

Mr. Morgan created his own firm to sell the product, staging demonstrations of the mask across the country. He put the mask into practice in 1916 after a natural gas explosion in an underground work site beneath Lake Erie. Mr. Morgan and others entered the gas-filled tunnel wearing the mask, rescuing two men and recovering four bodies.
In the late 1960s, Marie Van Brittan Brown, who worked as a nurse, patented a invention that became a technological precursor to the modern home security system.

She worked with her husband, Albert L. Brown, an electronics technician. Ms. Brown said at the time that the couple, who lived in Jamaica, Queens, developed the system as a protective measure against crime in their area and that they planned to install it in their home.

The system included a camera at the front door and a video receiver resembling a small television set, as well as a speaker and a microphone that allowed the homeowner to communicate with outside visitors. It also had a “radio-controlled lock” that could be unbolted by the house’s occupants and an alarm to alert a guard at a security station, the patent application said.
One day in 1982, Lonnie G. Johnson, an aerospace engineer who grew up in Mobile, Ala., was at home working on an ambitious idea: He wanted to create a refrigerator that ran on water, rather than ozone-layer-depleting chemicals.

While tinkering in the bathroom with some vinyl tubing and a homemade metal nozzle, Mr. Johnson made a discovery that led him to create one of the world’s most popular toys: the Super Soaker. Instead of the simple water pump used in squirt guns at the time, Mr. Johnson’s design used a large air pump to create a more powerful stream.

The patent was approved in 1986, and a few years later, it was snapped up by the Larami Corporation, a water gun manufacturer. That company was later acquired by Hasbro, and sales for the toy reached $200 million in 1992, according to Mr. Johnson’s research and development company.
Before there were tampon commercials promising an easier period, there was Mary Beatrice Kenner, an inventor who wanted to make old-fashioned sanitary belts more comfortable for women.

Ms. Kenner wrote in her 1954 patent application that her belt, which was meant to keep menstrual pads in place, eliminates “chafing and irritation normally caused by devices of this class” and could be adjusted to fit women of different sizes.
According to a book on 20th-century inventors, Ms. Kenner was approached by a company hoping to market her idea, but once it found out she was black, its “interest dropped.”

Ms. Kenner, who at one point ran a flower business, continued to invent things that made life more convenient for people, wrote Patricia Carter Sluby, a former primary patent examiner for the Patent and Trademark Office. Those inventions included an improved design for a toilet paper holder and an attachment to a walker for people with disabilities that featured a tray and a pocket for carrying their belongings.
Dr. Charles R. Drew created a device that could preserve donated blood for transfusions. He patented the invention during World War II, a time when there was a desperate need for blood donations.CreditScience History Images/Alamy

Before Dr. Charles R. Drew invented a way to preserve donated blood in the late 1930s, transfusions needed to happen within a few minutes or hours after the blood left the donor’s veins. Early in World War II, there was a desperate need for donated blood, and refrigeration methods could not preserve blood long enough.

As Dr. Drew explained in his patent application, filed in 1939, human blood disintegrates over time, in part because of the diffusion of potassium from the blood cells to the blood plasma. His invention aimed to separate the cells and plasma using a container with a reservoir on bottom and top and a slender neck in between.

After he patented the device, with the help of Dr. John Scudder, Dr. Drew became a leader of the Red Cross blood bank in the United States and was responsible for the Army and the Navy’s blood collection.
When Dr. Patricia Bath had her “eureka” moment with a tool to fix cataracts in the 1980s, her supervisor was skeptical. By that point, she was used to being treated differently from her male counterparts in ophthalmology.

“I explained to the director what I had achieved, and he said: ‘You didn’t do that. That’s impossible,’” Dr. Bath said in an interview with Time.

She had discovered how to remove cataracts using a laser, making the surgery less invasive and more efficient. Her invention, which was patented in 1988 and would ultimately be called the Laserphaco probe, could eliminate cataracts — a clouding of the lens that can cause blindness — with a one-millimeter insertion into the patient’s eye.

During her training, Dr. Bath, who grew up in Harlem, documented racial disparities in access to eye care and worked throughout her career to make ophthalmic care more widely accessible.
While working as an engineer at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, Dennis Weatherby made an important contribution to a time-consuming task that Americans are all too familiar with dishwashing.

At the time, detergents would often stain dishes and the inside of automatic dishwashers, which had become common in American homes in the 1970s. After discovering a chemical solution for the problem along with his partner, Brian J. Roselle, Dr. Weatherby filed a patent application in March 1987, and it was granted by the end of the year.

Dr. Weatherby’s yellow detergent used nonstaining dyes that could maintain their color when in the presence of chlorine bleach, serving as the basis for the famous lemon-scented Cascade detergent.

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