Women’s History Month
Honoring Black Women Inventors
Have you ever wondered where the idea of curling or straightening hair through heat originated? Or, even who made it possible to see a caller’s identity before picking up a phone? Maybe you would like to know where holographic or some gaming imagery originated? Did you ever want to know just who was behind the technology that restored or enhanced sight? Just who should we acknowledge for making us feel safe in our homes today?
It is black women inventors that developed these great technologies. This month in black history, I would like to honor them. I did not notate all of our black women inventors, but I think I compiled a decent list.
Sarah E. Goode was born a slave and the first black woman to receive a patent in 1885. After the Civil War was over, she moved to Chicago and became a furniture store owner. Her invention was the Folding Cabinet Bed. Space was limited in some homes so her invention enabled folks to store their beds. When the bed was folded, it looked like a desk. The invention itself had several compartments for storage.
Miriam Benjamin was a D.C. school teacher and the second black woman to receive a patent. She received a patent in 1888 for an invention called a Gong and Signal Chair for Hotels. Customers were able to summon their waiter from their chairs. The button on the chair would alert the waiters’ station. A simple light on the chair would let the staff know who wanted the service. The invention was adapted and used by the United States House of Representatives.
Sarah Boone developed an improvement to the ironing board, patented in 1892. The board was far more narrow which enabled users to iron and fit sleeves. Plus it was reversible. Prior to this, users used flat plank sized boards or tables.
Madam C.J. Walker was a successful self-made millionaire from selling hair care products. At first it was the Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower then the Walker Hair Care System that grew her wealth. She worked tirelessly traveling and making house calls early in her career. She ultimately opened and operated 200 beauty schools across the nation.
Marjorie Joyner was the granddaughter of a slave owner and a slave. In 1916, she became the first Black woman to graduate from the A. B. Molar Beauty School. She developed the invention called the “Permanent Waving Machine, which permed or straightened hair by wrapping it in rods”, patented in 1928. She never profited directly from the invention because she was an employee of Madam C. J. Walker, a beauty entrepreneur and tycoon. Walker owned the rights. She served as the National Supervisor for Walker’s 200 beauty schools after her death.
Bessie Blount was a physical therapist that served during WWII. She invented a feeding tube device that enabled wounded soldiers to consume a mouthful of food upon biting down on a tube. The patent was developed in 1951. She also received another patent for a modified version that consisted of a smaller tube that could be worn around the patient’s neck.
Marie Van Brittan Brown along with husband Albert Brown invented the first video home security system, patented in 1969.
Virgie Ammons patented the Damper in 1974. The Damper stays lock, thereby preventing debris, dust and cold air from entering in the chimney, then entering in the house.
Valerie Thomas is an American scientist that worked at NASA. She is the inventor of the Illusion Transmitter, patented in 1980. A transmitter makes it possible to see three-dimensional illusions in real-time.
Dr. Betty Harris is a scientist and expert in chemistry of explosives. Her invention is a spot test for identifying of explosives in field of environment, patented in 1986.
Dr. Shirley Jackson is the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. from MIT in nuclear physics. She is the 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the first woman and first African-American to hold this position. Her inventions include developments in the portable fax, touch tone telephone, solar cell, and the fiber optic cables used to provide clarity in overseas telephone calls. She has also helped make possible Caller ID and Call Waiting.
Dr. Patricia Bath is an ophthalmologist. She was the first African American resident at New York University. In 1975, Bath became the first African-American woman surgeon at the UCLA Medical Center and the first woman faculty member at the UCLA Jules Stein Eye Institute. She has become famous for the invention Laserphaco Probe, a surgical tool that uses a laser to vaporize cataracts. After using the Laserphaco Probe to remove a cataract, the patient’s lens can be removed and a replacement lens inserted. She received her first patent for the device in May, 1988, followed by another in December, 1998. She holds four U.S. patents in all for innovations related to the Laserphaco.
Janet Emerson Bashen is the first African American female to hold a patent for a software invention. The development was LinkLine, a web-based application for Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) claims intake and tracking, claims management, document management and numerous reports. It was patented in 2006.
African American Women were on the cutting edge of technology women scientists and inventors have made significant contributions in the field of science and technology, but it was only after the Civil War that they could file and receive their patents. These women had to face many hurdles to reach their goal.
This book, African and African American Women of Science: Biographies, Experiments, and Hands-On Activities by Leonard Bernstein, Alan Winkler, and Linda Zierdt-Warshaw, contains two-page biographies for fifteen black women (listed below) in various science and engineering fields. Each biography is followed by two pages of activities designed for middle and junior high school students. In addition, there are one-paragraph biographies for twenty-two other black women scientists near the end of the book. This is a great reference to use to add examples of women of color to science courses, and to be inspired by these women’s determination and accomplishments.
- Caroline Anderson Physician and teacher
- Dorothy Brown Surgeon and legislator
- May Chinn Physician, cancer researcher, and musician
- Jewel Cobb Cell biologist, professor, dean, and college president
- Christine Darden Aeronautical engineer
- Lena Edwards Physician and teacher
- Joycelyn Elders Physician, Army veteran, professor, and former U.S. surgeon general
- Dorothy Ferebee Physician and community leader
- Shirley Jackson Physicist, professor, and university trustee
- Mae Jemison Physician, chemical engineer, astronaut, and technology firm founder
- Myra Logan Heart surgeon, breast cancer researcher, and musician
- Wangari Maathai Kenyan biologist, veterinary professor, and environmentalist
- Jennie Patrick-Yeboah Chemical engineer, industrial researcher and manager, and professor
- Ella Stewart Pharmacist, businesswoman, and civic leader
- Jane Wright Physician, cancer researcher, and professor