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A History of Innovation: Pioneering Achievements of Black Engineers

PostedThursday, February 8, 2018 at 3:28 PM

A History of Innovation: Pioneering Achievements of Black Engineers

What do stop lights, long-running trains, microphones, and video games have in common? They were all invented or got an engineering boost from African Americans.

“From the time of their arrival in America,” writes John Slaughter in the introduction to Changing the Face of Engineering: The African American Experience (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), “African-American men and women have contributed significantly to the creation and development of many of the tools, machines and devices that have propelled America’s industrial progress and technological achievements.”  History books have often overlooked those contributions, leaving many people unable to identify the achievements of minority engineers. This is a shame. By neglecting the tremendous accomplishments of African Americans we deprive students of color the pride of historical role models and all of us with inspiring examples of creative innovation.

As documented in The Changing Face of Engineering, the stories and breakthroughs of black engineers represent the very best of American ingenuity. Not only are the engineers listed here ground-breaking innovators, they often lacked formal education, financial backing, and a receptive audience for their ideas due to racial bias. These systemic roadblocks make their achievements even more remarkable.

1. Norbert Rillieux (1806–1894) 

Rillieux Rillieux was born into a wealthy Creole family in Louisiana. After studying engineering in Paris he went on to revolutionize the sugar industry with his invention of the multiple-effect vacuum evaporator, which improved the speed and quality of sugar production. He gained recognition as one of the prime architects of the modern sugar industry. Techniques developed by Rillieux are now commonly used in the reduction or concentration of saturated liquids into super-saturated liquids, high density solids, or dry granules.


2. Elijah McCoy (1843-1929) 

Born in Canada to escaped slaves, McCoy showed a strong interest in mechanics at a young age. His parents arranged for him to travel to Scotland when he was 15 for an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering. He returned home to Michigan after becoming a certified engineer. Despite his qualifications, McCoy was unable to find work as an engineer in the United States due to racial barriers. McCoy accepted a position as a fireman and oiler for the Michigan Central Railroad. It was in this line of work that he developed his first major inventions. After studying the inefficiencies in the existing system of oiling axles which required trains to be stopped, McCoy invented a lubricating cup that distributed oil evenly over the engine's moving parts. He obtained a patent for this invention, which allowed trains to run continuously for long periods of time without pausing for maintenance, thus making reliable train service possible. The story goes that many tried to copy his design with disappointing results, leading to the expression “the real McCoy.”

Woods3. Granville T. Woods (1856-1910) 

Woods left school at age 10 and began working in a machine shop. He continued his education in his free time, studying electricity which fascinated him. He eventually received training in electrical and mechanical engineering and invented 15 appliances for electric railways including a power pick-up device in 1901, which is the basis of the so-called "third rail" currently used by electric-powered transit systems. He also developed a steam boiler furnace and an automatic air brake. Woods's most important invention was the multiplex telegraph, also known as the "induction telegraph," or block system. The device allowed men to communicate on moving trains by voice over telegraph wires, facilitating important communications which dramatically increased train safety. He held over 40 patents for electrical innovations and was recognized in his lifetime for his achievements, earning the nick-name "the Black Edison." In 1887, the Cincinnati Catholic Tribune went to so far as to call Woods the “greatest electrician in the world.” Learn more about Woods contribution to induction telegraphy.

Garret Morgan4. Garrett Morgan (1877-1963) 

With only an elementary school education, Garrett Morgan, began his career as a sewing-machine mechanic. He furthered his education by hiring private tutors at night. While many people know him as the inventor of the three-way traffic signal, his first success came with the development of a hair-straightening product which sold well among African Americans. He also had a successful sewing machine business and dress shop that gave him the financial security to pursue other projects. He developed a “safety hood” that protected the wearer against toxic smoke and gas. Due to racial prejudice, he had a hard time selling his device until he hired an actor to play the “inventor” while he pretended to be the “assistant”. Sales to fire departments took off. The design would later be adapted to make gas masks during WW1. He was an early automobile enthusiast and saw the need for improved traffic control when the car became popular in the 1920s. He developed a three-position traffic signal. Though Morgan’s was not the first traffic signal, his included an important innovation: By adding a third position which meant "slow down" to “Stop” and “Go,” it regulated crossing vehicles more safely than earlier signals had.

Otis Boykin5. Otis Boykin (1920-1982) 

As a boy Boykin took a special interest in working with resistors and began researching and inventing on his own. He graduated from Fisk College and went to work at the Majestic Radio and TV Corporation in Chicago. He sought and received a patent for a wire precision resistor on June 16, 1959. This resistor would later be used in radios and televisions. Two years later, he created a breakthrough device that could withstand extreme changes in temperature and pressure. The device, which was cheaper and more reliable than others on the market, was used by the United States military for guided missiles and by IBM for computers. His resistor was applied to everything from TVs to computers. Later, he developed his most famous invention, a control unit for the pacemaker. When he died he had 26 patents in his name.

James West6. James West (b. 1931) 

As a kid, West had a passion for taking apart appliances and developed an interest in science and electricity. After college, he landed in the Acoustics Research Department at Bell Laboratories where he developed the electret transducer technology with Gerhard Sessler. West's and Sessler's invention made microphones lighter and more responsive, becoming the industry standard. Today, 90 percent of all contemporary microphones—including the ones found in telephones, tape recorders, camcorders, baby monitors and hearing aids—use their technology. West holds 47 U.S. and more than 200 foreign patents on microphones and techniques for making polymer foil-electrets. West was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1998. And both West and Sessler were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1999.

George Carruthers Naval Lab

7. George Carruthers (b. 1939) 

George CarruthersCarruthers’ father, George. Sr. was a civil engineer who encouraged his son’s interest in science. By the age of 10, Carruthers had made his first telescope. He earned his Ph.D. in aeronautical and astronautical engineering at the University of Illinois in 1964 and began working at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. His telescope and image converter were used to identify molecular hydrogen in space, and his ultraviolet camera/spectograph was used by Apollo 16 during its flight to the moon. His contributions changed how we observe space weather. Carruthers cites his childhood love for science fiction as an inspiration. In 2003, Carruthers was inducted into the National Inventor's Hall of Fame for his work in science and engineering.

Gerald Lawson8. Gerald Lawson (1940-2011) 

Jerry Lawson dabbled in electronics growing up in Queens, repairing televisions for spending money. Although he attended some college, he was largely self-taught. His interest in computing led him in the 1970s to Silicon Valley where he was one of the only black members of the Homebrew Computer Club crossing paths with other members Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Lawson went on to create the first video game console with interchangeable cartridges at Fairchild Semiconductor, paving the way for the future of gaming. A crucial element of the invention was the use of a new processor, the Fairchild 8; another was a mechanism that allowed for repeated insertion and removal of cartridges without damaging the machine’s semiconductors. Gerald Lawson is considered a pioneer of the gaming industry, ushering in a new era of consumer video games.

Lilia Abron crop9. Lilia A. Abron (b. 1945) 

An early aptitude with math put Abron on an educational track to study science in college. Abron was inspired by Rachel Carson and the burgeoning environmental movement to pursue a career in environmental engineering. Abron researched the removal of pesticides from water for her doctoral thesis and was the first black woman to earn a PhD in chemical engineering. In 1978, she founded PEERCP, an engineering consultant firm focused on environmentally sustainable solutions. Abron has worked on everything from aging water infrastructure programs to harbor cleanups all around the country.

Shirley jackson at board

10. Shirley Jackson (b. 1946) 

As a young girl, Jackson studied the bees in her backyard sparking a lifelong interest in science. She became the first African-American female Ph.D graduate of MIT. While working at Bell Labs, she developed inventions that lead to the creation of caller-id and call-waiting. She went on to become the president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a prestigious engineering school. Her impact on society has gone far past her improvement to phone communication, under her leadership RPI has steadily risen in the rankings and continues to produce high quality engineers. Jackson was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2001.

 “The advice I give to young people is fundamentally to not let others put limits on who you think you can be, to not put limits on them, and to understand and to believe that all of us have talents and have things to contribute.” -- Shirley Jackson

Mae Jemison Contemporary11. Mae Jemison, (b. 1956) 

Motivated by a high school teacher who declared that girls weren’t any good at chemistry, Jemison enrolled at Stanford University at age 16, receiving degrees in chemical engineering and Afro-American studies. She went on to get her medical degree from Cornell. Harboring a secret dream to be an astronaut, she applied to NASA’s training program. Jemison became the first African-American female astronaut sent into space on a shuttle flight in September of 1992. Since leaving NASA, she joined the faculty at Cornell and continues to inspire a new generation of minority students to reach for the stars.

“Never limit yourself because of others' limited imagination; never limit others because of your own limited imagination.”  -- Mae Jemison

Mark Dean12. Mark Dean (b. 1957) 

When Dean was a boy he built a tractor from scratch, with a little help from his dad. He would follow this love of building things to an engineering degree and a career at IBM, where he helped usher in the era of personal computers. Dean developed a number of landmark technologies for IBM, including the color PC monitor and the first gigahertz chip. He holds three of the company's original nine patents. He also invented the Industry Standard Architecture system bus with engineer Dennis Moeller, allowing for computer plug-ins such as disk drives and printers. He likes to joke that his drive to create better, faster computers came from a desire to play more Pac Man. Dean has more than 20 patents in his name and is a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

"A lot of kids growing up today aren't told that you can be whatever you want to be. There may be obstacles, but there are no limits." -- Mark Dean

Meeting the challenges and opportunities of today and the future requires a highly skilled, diverse, and fearless army of engineers. Willie Pearson Jr. says in Changing the Face of Engineering, “You don’t have to look the same as the student to have an impact. You do, however, have to have commitment and passion and believe that all students are capable of becoming engineers if given the proper support and encouragement.”  Hopefully, these stories will inspire you and your students to break new ground for all of us.

Do you know other inspiring black engineers? Tell the community about them in the comments!

Other Resources:

Check out our YouTube playlist with short films about these and other black engineers.

Changing the Face of Engineering: The African American Experience edited by John Brooks Slaughter, Yu Tao, and Willie Pearson, Jr. Johns Hopkins University Press

Top photo credit: NASA, Dr. Mae Jemison aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1992.

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