In recognition of Black History Month, here are the stories of some notable African-American inventors who changed the world with their ingenuity and technical know-how.
Two of the most famous inventors in American history — Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell — didn’t work alone. A Massachusetts-based inventor named Lewis Lattimer worked on both men’s teams, and helped develop the revolutionary inventions for which both are widely known. For example, he worked with Thomas Edison to improve on the design of the light bulb…which Lattimer helped create by patenting a carbon filament for an incandescent light bulb in 1881. That came after Lattimer had already helped Bell draft his patent drawings for the telephone in 1876…and after he’d invented a bathroom for trains in 1874.
Dr. George Grant
The son of escaped slaves, Grant worked as a dental assistant, eventually attending dental school himself — only the second African-American to graduate from Harvard Dental School. After opening a practice in Illinois, he got involved in the same hobby as countless other doctors and dentists: golf. That drove him to, in 1899, design and patent the first ever wooden golf tee. While other inventors would create designs that were widely used from the 1920s on, Grant never mass-manufactured his, preferring instead to have a batch made up for to use himself and give to his golfing buddies.
John Albert Burr
Most people today cut their grass with lawnmowers powered by electricity or gasoline, but they’re all based on old-fashioned elbow-grease-driven push mowers, which are still widely sold and used. And the common design for those is very similar to the one created and patented by John Albert Burr in 1899. His rotary blade lawn mower improved on previous grass-cutting implements with the inclusion of traction wheels and a specially designed rotating blade that made grass clipping jams less likely. It could also be used to cut along edges and along walls and fences. (Burr, born in 1848 and who worked as a slave before the Civil War and as a field hand and steelworker after, ultimately held 30 patents relating to the burgeoning American pastime of lawn care.)
Up until the 1990s, squirt guns were small, made of cheap plastic, cost no more than a dollar at the local drugstore, and could shoot a light stream of its three-ounce reservoir about six feet. Boring. Then along came high-powered water cannons, first and best represented by Larami’s (and then Hasbro’s) Super Soaker line. The brightly colored, rifle-sized guns came with a reservoir that held (at least) a quart of water and a pump-action handle that allowed for a thick, continuous stream of water that could travel (at least) 20 feet. More than 200 million of them have sold and made summer a lot more fun, and that’s all thanks to engineer Lonnie Johnson. A lifelong inventor, won the Alabama state science fair in 1968 (the only African-American competing) with a compressed-air powered robot named Linex. He went on to attend Tuskegee University on a math scholarship and ultimately earned degrees in mechanical engineering and nuclear engineering. Extremely curious and crafty, Johnson’s original design for the Super Soaker was built from PVC pipe and an empty soda bottle.