You may hear a lot about the inventor of the light bulb, Thomas Edison, or maybe even the concept creator of the iPhone, Steve Jobs. But there are many other inventions that we use in everyday life. Among these inventions are many that were created by Black inventors. Traffic lights, refrigerated trucks, automatic elevator doors, and home security systems, for instance, were invented by Black people.

Some Background

In 1790, the Patent Act was one of the first pieces of legislation passed by the first U.S. Congress. Free Black citizens could obtain patents from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, however, enslaved Black people could not. It wasn’t until 1865 that slavery was abolished, with the adoption of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Before that, Black innovators and their inventions were often claimed by their enslavers or other non-Black people.

According to the American Bar Association, the patent system simply was not available at that time to enslaved people. Unfortunately, they were not considered American citizens, and the rights of the Constitution did not extend to them. Additionally, states enacted laws that prevented enslaved people from owning any kind of property, including patents.

Shortly after President George Washington signed the Patent Act in April 1790, Samuel Hopkins, a man from Philadelphia, got the first U.S. patent for improving how Pot ash and Pearl ash are made. It wasn’t until 1821 that Thomas Jennings, a Black inventor, got a U.S. patent for his dry-cleaning methods. Meanwhile, the first woman received a patent in 1809. Martha Jones, the first known Black woman to get a U.S. patent, didn’t receive a patent for her improvement to the Corn Husker, Sheller, until 1868.

Black innovators and creatives have created numerous everyday items that simplify life. While some Black inventors are well-known, many others remain unrecognized. This could have been due to financial barriers preventing them from obtaining patents or legal support for their ideas. Check out some of these inventions created by Black people below.

  • Potato Chips

    George Speck invented potato chips. According to multiple sources, he invented the snack food by accident. In the mid-1850s while he was working as a chef at a resort in Saratoga Springs, a customer sent their friends back for being cut too thick. Speck sliced the potatoes as thing as possible before frying them to a crisp. Apparently, the customer liked them this way and this style of fried potato caught on.

    Collection of potato chips, isolated on white background

    Marat Musabirov/ Getty Images

  • Pacemaker

    Otis Boykin, an electrical engineer and inventor created nearly 30 electronic devices and received 11 patents. In 1964, he created a control unit for the first successful pacemaker. When implanted in the heart, this device helps regulate the heartbeat. Boykin earned his first patent in 1959 for a wire resistor.

    Close up of a pacemake on Electrocardiograph

    bdspn/ Getty Images

  • Home Security System

    In 1966, Mary Van Brittan Brown received credit for inventing the first-known home security system. She was a nurse who worked odd hours looking for a way to protect herself and her house. She designed a system that used a motorized camera to project images onto a monitor. Additionally, this system allowed homeowners to unlock their doors with a remote to allow access to first respond.

    Young african woman using smart home touch screen iot monitor thermostat technology device on wall. Automatic security surveillance panel energy heating connected appliance system. Smart home concept

    insta_photos/ Getty Images

  • Traffic Lights

    Garret Morgan invented a device that we use every day, the traffic light. Morgan worked out a solution to make driving safer for everyone. His three-light traffic signal included a warning signal to let drivers know to stop. After getting a patent for this invention, he sold it to General Electric for $40,000.

    Traffic light on red, Manhattan, New York, America, USA

    gynane/ Getty Images

  • Super Soaker

    Many of us have used this invention, the Super Soaker. The person behind this creation is Lonnie Johnson. He was a former Air Force and NASA engineer. In 1989, Johnson licensed the water gun to Larami Corporation, eventually bought by Hasbro Corporation. According to the Museum of Play, the first Super Soaker went on sale in 1990, and 27 million water guns were sold a $10 each in the first three years of production.

    Orange plastic water gun, yellow water barrel, green gun tip Equipment for playing water during Songkran Festival, summer, New Year's Day in Thailand Colorful water guns on a white background.

    RungnapaXIII/ Getty Images

  • Automatic Elevator Doors

    Alexander Miles was a barber who owned a shop in a four-story hotel in Duluth, Minnesota. He saw the risks of manually operated shaft doors presented to riders. He invented a way for elevators to open and close automatically using levers and rollers. In 1887, he received a patent for his idea. According to the National Inventors Hall of Fame, the influence of his elevator patent is still seen in modern designs since the automatic opening and closing of elevator and elevator shaft doors is a standard feature.

    Two images of a modern elevator with opened and closed doors

    creisinger/ Getty Images

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