10 Living Black Inventors You Need to Know

You may not have heard of them, but these African-American achievers have shaped our world.

Black Inventors

It’s Black History Month, which means that famous black inventors like Benjamin Banneker, Madam CJ Walker, and George Washington Carver will be name-dropped often over the next couple of weeks. It’s important to remember the legends of the past, but it’s also important to acknowledge the men and women who have done great things and are still around to receive the praise. Here are 10 black inventors you may never have heard of, but should definitely know.

Valerie Thomas

NASA_photo_of_data_scientist_Valerie_L._Thomas.jpg
Image via NASA

A graduate of Morgan State University, where she was one of two women to major in physics, Valerie Thomas started her career as a data analyst at NASA. She went on to hold various positions at the agency, and along the way received a patent for a real-time illusion transmitter. She also helped develop important computer programs and received several awards for her work. Thomas retired in the mid 1990s, but her illusion transmitter is still in use at NASA nearly four decades later.

Lonnie Johnson

File:Lonnie Johnson, Office of Naval Research.jpg
Image via The Office of Naval Research

A graduate of Tuskegee University, Lonnie Johnson has an impressive resumé as a nuclear engineer and a NASA scientist. He has nearly 100 patents for everything from batteries to wet diaper detectors, but the Super Soaker is arguably his most famous invention. Johnson developed the idea while experimenting with a heat pump that used water instead of the colorless gas Freon. The water guns were licensed to Larami Corp., which Hasbro later purchased.

Mark Dean

Screen Shot 2017-02-14 at 1.39.06 AM.png
Image via YouTube

A member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame and an elected member of the National Academy of Engineers, Mark Dean was the chief engineer of the team that gave the world the first IBM personal computer back in 1984. With his colleague Dennis Moeller, Dean co-created the ISA systems bus (Industry Standard Architecture), which allowed for multiple peripherals (modems, printers, etc.) to be connected to a single PC.

Dr. Patricia Bath


Image via Wikimedia Commons

In 1973, Patricia Bath became the first African-American to complete a residency in ophthalmology. She later became the first female faculty member at the Department of Ophthalmology at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute, but that was still just the tip of the iceberg. In 1986, Bath invented a device called the Laserphaco Probe, which allowed for more accurate and less painful removal of cataracts in the eye. Adding to her list of firsts, Bath patented the device in 1988 and became the first African-American female doctor in United States history to receive a patent for a medical device.

James Edward Maceo West

File:James West.JPG
Image via Wikimedia Commons

James West, who recently turned 86 years old, has made the most of his time on this planet. Also a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, West holds over 250 patents, including one for the co-creation of the foil electret microphone with his former Bell Laboratories colleague Gerhard Sessler. Invented in 1960, the technology is still widely used in audio and acoustic measuring devices.

Shirley Ann Jackson, PhD


Image via Wikimedia Commons

Students at RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) now call her President, but before that, physicist Shirley Jackson was the first black woman to earn a PhD from MIT. She was also the first woman and first African-American to be appointed Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Dr. Jackson is recognized as one of the key players in telecommunications research, with her work enabling others to invent solar cells, fiber-optic cables, touch-tone telephones, and the tech behind call-waiting and caller ID.

George Edward Alcorn Jr.

George Alcorn.png
Image via YouTube

In the late 1970s, after years at IBM, George Alcorn Jr. went to work for NASA, where he invented something called an imaging X-ray spectrometer. In the decades that followed, Alcorn Jr. received more than 20 patents for other inventions and became recognized as a pioneer in the world of plasma semiconductors. In 2015, the physicist was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Andre McCarter

Andre McCarter spoke at Pauley Pavilion Saturday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the passing of John Wooden.
Image via Tiffany Cheng/Daily Bruin

Former NBA player Andre McCarter hasn’t played in the league since 1981, but he has continued to give back to the sport at every level with his invention, the Touch Glove. Introduced in 1999, the lightweight athletic device uses padding to insulate sections of the wearer’s hands so they learn to have more control with their fingertips.

William Wayne “Billy” Blanks

File:Billy Blanks 2006.jpg
Image via Wikimedia Commons

An actor and martial artist, Billy Blanks is best known by the world as the inventor of Tae Bo, a workout that blends of Taekwondo, boxing, and a bit of dance. Blanks dominated the 1990s with his high-intensity workout, selling over a million and a half videotapes to motivate people to get active and improve their health.

George Carruthers

Dr. George Carruthers at right and William Conway with small gold-plated science instrument on tripod
Image via NASA/ U.S. Naval Research Laboratory

The son of civil engineer and a homemaker, George Carruthers attended the University of Illinois, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering, a Master’s in Nuclear Engineering a year later, and a PhD in Aeronautical and Astronomical Engineering two years after that. In 1969, Carruthers was awarded a patent for the Image Converter, which could detect electromagnetic radiation in short wave lengths. The following year, his invention was used to record the first molecular hydrogen in outer space. Carruthers later invented the Far Ultraviolet Camera/Spectrograph, which was used to take ultraviolet photos during the Apollo 16 mission.

Written on February 16, 2017 by

Andrew LaSane

Andrew LaSane is a South Carolina-born writer based in Brooklyn. His work has appeared on Mental Floss, Complex, Paint or Thread, and Thrillist. Find him sharing stream of consciousness thoughts and horror movie GIFs on Twitter at @laptop_lasane.