By Bailey Meyers
Our lives have been made easier by countless inventions, but we seldom appreciate the people behind them who have saved us so much time, energy, and money, and introduced us to new wonders. This Black History Month, we want to highlight how much Black inventors and entrepreneurs have affected our lives for the better.
You wake up. You start towards the bathroom and grab a hold of the doorknob, an invention from 1878 patented by Osbourn Dorsey. You turn the handle and enter. An evolution of George T Sampson’s automatic clothes dryer (patented 1892) stands in the corner. You reach in and pull out a sweater, snuggling into the warmth. Around the room are several other life-changing inventions. Beside the folding ironing board (thanks, Elijah McCoy and Sarah Boone), there is a box of pads (the successor to Mary Kenner’s sanitary belt), and a collection of makeup and hair products. You reflect on Madam CJ Walker, the first African American woman to become a self-made millionaire, and the richest black woman in America at the time of her death. She built an empire from products designed for black hair and employed thousands of sales representatives in the second decade of the 1900s. As she gained wealth and fame, Madam CJ Walker worked to support black communities through public advocacy, lecturing, fundraising, and philanthropic donations. When Walker pledged $5,000 to the NAACP‘s anti-lynching fund in 1919 (over $86,000 today), she broke the record for the largest individual gift the organization had ever received.
As you go into the kitchen you head towards the refrigerator. Frederick McKinley Jones’s pioneering work in mobile refrigeration in 1938 allowed food products to be shipped fresh to grocery stores, changing the way we shop and filling our home fridges with diverse produce. But you have to get to work; there’s no time to cook. You slap together a peanut butter sandwich (big thank you to George Washington Carver for America’s favorite spread) and grab a bag of potato chips (George Speck’s 1853 culinary creation) for the road.
As you step into the elevator of your building, which is now much safer with the automatic doors developed by Alexander Miles in 1887, you pull out your cell phone. The Gamma-Electric cell was patented in 1971 by Henry T. Sampson, and was crucial in the development of the first cell phone by 1973. Just as you step outside the elevator you get a call. Caller ID says it's your ex. You thank Shirley Jackson for letting you know which calls you should ignore. The phone goes back in your pocket. You exit your apartment building, passing by the camera/mic security system affixed to the door (Marie Van Brittan Brown’s 1966 invention), and hop in your car. As you drive, you speed through yellow lights. Maybe not what Garett Morgan intended with the invention of the traffic light, but you’re grateful for the extra minute off your commute and it makes you feel like you’re living life on the edge. The car automatically shifts to give you the extra boost. You say thanks to Richard Spikes for making driving easy as you race past the modern version of Charles Brooks’s 1896 street sweeper.
At work, Shirley Jackson’s creations again abound: touch tone phones beep in the background, portable fax machines are strewn on desks, and fiber optic cables snake towards the computers. You approach your computer, and remember that Mark Dean was a co-creator of the original IBM personal computer in 1981. You think about how far computers have developed in the past 40 years, and you can’t decide if it's been a good invention or not as you settle into your desk for a day of typing away on your own PC.
After work, you pick up your dry cleaning. Thomas L Jennings received the first patent granted to an African American in 1821, for dry scouring, a technique which paved the way for the modern dry cleaning process. Jennings, like Madam CJ Walker, amassed a fortune and dedicated himself to advocacy for the black community. He was an active abolitionist and created the Legal Rights Association in 1855, which challenged discrimination and segregation in court. Ten years later, slavery was outlawed.
As you pull in to your lot, you notice some kids next door playing with Lonnie Johnson’s super soaker. You smile. What would we do without the pinnacle of water guns? One of them is sitting in a folding chair (John Purdy, 1889) with his mouth open, and the other is seeing the distance from which he can make him drink without drenching him with the spray. You turn away to say hello again to Marie Van Brittan Brown’s security camera and you’re let into the building. At home, you collapse on the couch. You cue up Hulu and thank God for Lisa Gelobter, a senior manager who launched the streaming service.
Your eyes begin to droop and you contemplate the blackness behind your eyelids. It looks like outer space. You wish you could go to space someday. Maybe you’ll be able to soon, on some type of commercial spaceship. There will be more people to thank when you do. You think about NASA. Katherine Johnson calculated flight trajectories for the astronauts as a “human computer” before NASA switched to electronic computing and made space travel possible. Christine Darden was another “human computer” who used her raw skill and finesse to break through the gendered barriers NASA placed in her path, eventually leading her to advisory and directorial positions. Patricia Cowings developed programs for astronauts to understand and combat space sickness. You hope you won’t get sick in space, when you finally get around to going. You resolve to dig into Patricia Cowings’s methods in the morning, for reference, and you gently slip into dreams of flight.