Black women innovators are often overlooked or overshadowed, but they’ve invented all kinds of things that we use in our day-to-day lives and have vastly improved our world. Here are just a few of the incredible inventions Black women have given us.
Dr. Patricia Bath was always passionate about helping others, which is why she became a physician. She was the first African American resident in ophthalmology at New York University where she completed her training in the early ’70s. She noticed that many of the patients in Harlem where she worked were either blind or visually impaired. But in whiter neighborhoods, Bath saw far fewer visually impaired patients. She conducted a study that led her to conclude that many Black people did not have the same access to ophthalmological care. Her study led to better community and public health initiatives that made eye-care more accessible for everyone. Bath went on to invent a device that drastically improved the procedure for removing cataracts.
When asked about what obstacles Bath faced in her career she said, “Sexism, racism, and relative poverty were the obstacles which I faced as a young girl growing up in Harlem. There were no women physicians I knew of and surgery was a male-dominated profession.”
Bessie Blount rewrote the rules, literally. In grade school she was punished for writing with her left hand, so she learned to write with her feet and teeth as an act of defiance against an unfair rule. She went on to become a nurse, wartime inventor, physical therapist, and even a handwriting analyst. As a physical therapist she worked with many World War II veterans who had lost their arms to injury-related amputations. She taught them to write with their own feet and teeth, but they still had trouble feeding themselves. Blount went into her kitchen and used an ice pick and boiling water to mold some old plastic into a prototype of a feeding tube. She perfected the design for years, and eventually presented a stainless-steel version to an audience at a New Jersey hospital where she was given a standing ovation.
At 93 she returned to her hometown to help erect a museum to commemorate her grade school and those who had graduated from it. “I’m gonna live just for spite,” she told a local paper. “’Cause my work is not done.”
You know when you get a text from your crush and it pops up with their name and a little fire emoji? Well, you can thank a Black woman for that. Dr. Shirley Jackson invented the technology that led to caller I.D. and call waiting. Jackson was the first Black woman to earn a doctorate from M.I.T. She had an incredible career and went on to become the first Black woman appointed chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Her research led to developments in touch-tone phones, portable fax machines, and long-distance phone calling.
This time of year you can be extra thankful for Alice H. Parker. Parker grew up in New Jersey, and the cold winters there inspired her to invent a heating system more effective than the fireplace. While most houses were heated using coal or wood at the time, Parker recommended switching to a gas-powered system. The invention was never really implemented because of safety concerns, but it was the precursor to modern indoor heating systems.
Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner created a lot of inventions that improved daily life, but her most revolutionary invention was an improved menstrual pad. Kenner created a belt with a moisture proof pocket to hold the sanitary napkin in place. It was a major improvement to its cumbersome and messy precursor. I think that’s something we can all be thankful for.
Marie Van Brittan Brown filed the very first patent that paved the way for future home security systems like Nest and SimpliSafe. Brown lived with her husband in Queens, where the crime rate was really high. She and her husband worked odd hours – she as a nurse, he as an electrician – and Brown wanted to create something that helped make her home feel safer. Police response was slow and inefficient, so Brown took matters into her own hands. Her device was pretty well ahead of its time. She filed the patent in 1966, and the device was enabled with a speaker, a monitor, and even automatic locks and a button that would directly notify police of an intruder. Her invention is now standard in apartment buildings, office buildings, and many homes.
Rock ’n’ Roll
There is quite a bit of debate over who really discovered rock ’n’ roll music. But way back in the 1930s, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was the first to combine gospel music, blues, and folk music with the rock and roll pulsating swing. Her style is an undeniable precursor to rock ’n’ roll and influenced music legends like Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley.
Valerie Thomas wasn’t exactly encouraged to become a scientist and inventor. She’d always loved science, but there weren’t many options or role models for girls her age. Her father and teachers at her all-girls school discouraged her from tinkering around with electronics or getting into science. So, she picked up a copy of “The Boys’ First Book on Electronics” and paved her own way.
Thomas went on to become a data analyst for NASA. She worked on the technology that helped us visualize and capture Earth from space. In the late ’70s, she discovered that concave mirrors can create the illusion of 3D images. She began experimenting with how to translate her discovery into projected 3D images that would feel like they were jumping out of the screen. That is how we ended up with the Jonas Brothers: the 3D Concert Experience in theaters. We can thank Valerie Thomas for that.