Photo of James West Via John Hopkins Engineering.jhu.edu/faculty/james-west/
It is no secret that the American media, education, and society have a long and enduring history of ignoring Black achievement while magnifying failures. One consequence of this problem is the fact that whereas the names of White inventors and scientists are taught in schools and are household names to many Americans, their Black counterparts receive little to no attention.
This Black History Month, we want to correct this mistake, by showing gratitude to five Black inventors who made the modern life as we know it today possible:-
1) Charles Drew
Around 15 million units of donated blood are transfused each year in the United States. If you or your loved ones ever had to go through this life-saving procedure, you should be thankful to the Washington, D.C.-born scientist Charles Richard Drew (1904-1950). As a young Black man, Drew could not study medicine in the U.S., and had to become a surgeon in Montreal instead. Nonetheless, he returned to his country of birth and played a vital role in several breakthrough improvements in blood collection, storage and transfusion.
During the Second World War, Drew oversaw the first large-scale blood banks in history, paving the way to their establishment worldwide. Sadly, Drew was forced to resign from his posts after he protested racial segregation in blood samples stored by the Army and the Red Cross, a policy maintained until his year of death in 1950.
2) Mary Brown
In 1966, a Black housewife and nurse in Queens, New York came across a seemingly bizarre idea to protect her home and ensure her peace of mind in the absence of her husband. The woman in question, Mary Van Brittan Brown, began her project with a simple camera-and-projector system to monitor activity on her front door. The system was gradually expanded with a microphone, police alarm, and a button to open the door.
Struck by the brilliance of the invention, Mary and her husband registered a patent for this first-ever home security system in 1969. The couple’s design later became the inspiration for its modern counterparts all around us today.
3) James West
If you do not live in a jungle and are one of the 90% of Americans who own a smart phone, you should recognize the seminal contributions of Mr. James Edward Maceo West to the field of radio and electronics. As a child, West and his family faced a plethora of legal and social obstacles to advancement due to their African heritage. West was born (in 1931) at home due to a lack of ‘colored’ medical facilities in Farmville, Virginia, and was raised primarily by his maternal grandmother, a former slave.
West served the U.S. Army in the ‘forgotten’ Korean War, and later nurtured his passion for electronics and physics at Temple University. Initially denied a place in group studies, West earned the respect of his colleagues due to his personal intelligence and managed to secure a job at Bell Laboratories. While working there, West invented the foil electret microphone in 1960 almost single-handedly, revolutionizing the field of acoustics.
4) Sarah Boone
The North Carolina-born freewoman Sarah Boone (1832-1904) was one of the pioneering Black women inventors during the second industrial revolution. After moving with her family to New Haven in the north-east, Boone worked on several improvements to household equipment in her old age. Her landmark patented achievement came in 1892, when she essentially invented the modern ironing board by herself at the age of sixty.
5) Frederick Jones
If you have ever eaten perishable food transported from thousands of miles at a reasonable cost, you should cherish the life and achievements of Frederick McKinley Jones (1893-1961). Born in Covington, Kentucky, Jones mostly spent a quite life dedicated to his passion as a mechanical engineer based in Hallock, Minnesota. He briefly served as an engineer in the Army during World War One, before returning to Hallock.
A self-taught man, Jones went on to register 61 patents during his lifetime, including a portable X-ray machine, a ticket dispenser, and several audio products. But Jones went on to make history when he heeded the request of Joseph A. Numero, a local entrepreneur, to invent the first roof-mounted cooling system in 1938. Jones knew he had hit the jackpot and dedicated much of his later research to refrigeration.
Jones and Numero went on to found the U.S. Thermo Control Company, today known as ‘Thermo King’. The refrigeration trucks manufactured by his company have been vital to safely transporting perishable items such as food and medical supplies since the 1940s.