1. Mailbox (1891) – Phillip Downing

As a solution to visiting the post office every time he wanted to mail a letter, Downing invented the first outdoor mailbox that featured a hinged door that kept the letters secure but also kept out rain and snow.

Downing also has a patent for improvements on the Street-Railway System allowing them to switch automatically.


2. Traffic light (1922) – Garrett Morgan

Morgan was an extremely accomplished inventor and is most notable for his invention of the gas mask in 1912 and the three-light traffic system in 1922.

After watching firefighters struggle in smoke, Morgan designed a device that used a wet sponge to filter out smoke and cool the air. It also featured a breathing tube that dangled near the floor which took advantage of the ‘clean air’ near the ground as the smoke would rise.

Morgan witnessed a serious traffic accident that inspired him to update the way traffic lights alerted drivers the light was going to turn red.

The two-light system only featured a red and green light, while Morgan filed a patent for the yellow “warning” light in 1922.

His inventions are still used to this day and have helped save countless lives.


3. Automatic Gear Shift (1932) – Richard Spikes

Richard Spikes was a Texas-born barber, schoolteacher, musician, businessman and inventor.

Spikes received the patent for his automatic gear shifter in 1932 and it was quickly welcomed by major vehicle companies. He then focused his energy on improving the automatic braking system until 1962

Spikes holds several American patents including a beer tap, the billiard cue rack, horizontally swinging barber chair, vehicle turn signals and the automatic gear shifter.


4. Clothes Dryer (1892) – George T. Sampson

Sampson developed the first automatic clothes dryer that used a series of suspension rods over a specifically designed stove to dry clothes. His design was used up until the late 1930s when the use of gas and electric dryers began.

Prior to his invention, clothes were hung over the top of an open flame but often left clothing with the smell of smoke.


5. Automatic Elevator Doors (1887) – Alexander Miles

It is believed that Miles came up with the inspiration for the automatic elevator doors after watching his daughter Grace suffer a life-threatening injury when she fell down an elevator shaft.

The elevator doors prior were opened either by patrons or a dedicated operator but the open shaft often lead to horrific accidents.

He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007.


6. Folding Chairs (1889) – John Purdy

Classified as a camp, traveling, or sports stool, John Purdy and Daniel Sadgwar made significant improvements to the folding chair making it extremely portable.


7. Gas Heating Furnace (1919) – Alice H. Parker

Inspired by the ineffectiveness of her fireplace during cold New Jersey winters, Parker invented a heating system that drew in cold air and conveyed the heat through a heat exchanger.

During her time most buildings were heated with coal or wood. While her invention was not the first gas patent, it was the first to feature individually controlled air ducts that transferred heat to different parts of the building

Parker and her patents are mentioned in the “Black Women in America: Historical Encyclopedia”.


8. Golf Tee (1899) – George Grant

Not only did George Grant create an “improved golf tee” made out of rubber and wood, but he was also a dentist and became the first African American to become a professor at Harvard University.


9. Modern Toilet (1872) – Thomas Elkins

In 1872 Elkins invented the “Chamber Commode,” which is essentially a toilet that featured a mirror, bookrack, washstand, table and easy chair.


10. Home Security Systems (1966) – Mary Van Brittan Brown

Brown along with her husband Albert Brown, an electrician, invented the first home security system in 1966 as a solution to the high crime rate they experienced in the neighborhood of Queens, New York.

Her invention used three peepholes to help her see through the door, a camera that could adjust from each peephole, a microphone system that allowed her to communicate with visitors, a remote control that allowed her to unlatch the door and a button that would contact the police if necessary.

Her invention paved the way for modern video monitoring, remote-controlled locks, push-button alarms, instant messaging to security providers and two-way voice communication.



Pacemaker (1964) – Otis Boykin

Boykin has patented 26 devices but is best known for his electronic control devices used in guided missiles, IBM computers and the pacemaker.

His inventions were inspired by the death of his mother Sarah after she suffered heart failure when he was just one year old.


Potato Chips (1853) – George Speck (aka. George Crum)

George Speck was an American chef, hunter and guide who was noted for his culinary skills at Moon’s Lake House in New York City.

Local legend says that in the summer of 1853, his invention of the potato chip was the result of a returned dinner. After an unhappy customer returned their potatoes to the chef saying they were too thick, Speck then sliced a potato thin, deep-fried them and returned them to the customer.

These ‘crips’ soon became an instant hit and quickly became one of the world’s biggest snacks.


Thermostat / Temperature Control (1935) – Frederick Jones

Jones is an American inventor that received the National Medal of Technology and is an inductee into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

He invented the first automatic refrigeration system for long-haul trucks and railroad cars. This roof-mounted cooling system allowed for better transportation of food and blood.

He also invented a snowmobile and a movie box-office that delivered tickets and change to customers.


Super Soaker (1990) – Lonnie G. Johnson

Lonnie G. Johnson is an aerospace engineer, entrepreneur and inventor whose career includes a 12-year stint at NASA.

Originally called the “Power Drencher,” Johnson accidentally invented the Super Soaker while working with the U.S. Air Force.

Johnson received nearly $73 million in royalties from Hasbro Inc as it became one of the world’s best-selling toys.


Touch-Tone Telephone (1987) – Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson

Jackson was the first African American woman to earn a doctorate in nuclear physics at MIT and experiments paved the way for the fiber-optic cable, caller I.D, portable fax and touch-tone phones.


Filed under: black-history-month