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Have you ever stopped to think about how everything that exists had to be invented by a real live person? Although, technically, that’s changing as a result of A.I. systems capable of creating things like new pharmaceuticals, posing the question, who gets the patent? But that’s a story for another article. For now, it’s Black History Month, so we thought we’d take a look at a few notable Black engineers whose innovative contributions proved to be transformative. How many of these inventors have you heard of?
Engineers today likely take computer-aided design (CAD) software for granted in helping them design everything from automobiles to phones and computers. And for those working in the aerospace industry, you have Jamaican-born American engineer Walt W. Braithwaite to thank for bringing the tool to the industry. Braithwaite joined Boeing in 1966 as an associate tool engineer and by 1975 he was the senior engineer responsible for developing Boeing's use of computer technology in the design of airplanes. He supervised the engineering development of numerous Boeing aircraft including the 777, the first commercial aircraft to be designed entirely with CAD software. In 2000, Braithwaite became President of Boeing Africa, before retiring three years later as the highest-ranking black executive in Boeing's history.
The modern world is, for better or worse, big on CCTVs and home security systems, both of which can be traced back to Marie Van Brittan Brown. The nurse lived in 60s Queens, New York with her electronics technician husband, and didn’t feel safe coming and leaving her apartment at irregular hours. So in 1966 she filed a patent for a closed-circuit security system that would allow her to see what was going on outside her house. The patent filings call for a series of peepholes at various heights, and a camera that slides over said peepholes to broadcast images over monitors. Brown and her husband, Albert, were awarded a patent in 1969 with her name appearing first. But, unsurprisingly, the New York Times reported the story days later listing Albert’s name first, followed by “his wife, Marie.”
Frederick McKinley Jones pretty much changed the way the developed world eats. In 1935, he engineered the first automatic refrigeration system for long-haul trucks and railroad cars. The innovation allowed foods to be transported at great distance without the risk of spoilage. Now, oranges from Orlando could make it to Boston shops and homes with regularity, no matter the season. He would go on to win more than 40 patents in refrigeration and founded the Thermo-King Corporation, a multimillion dollar mobile refrigeration company. If that weren't enough, his technology was also used to transport blood during World War II, helping to save untold lives.
Thomas Edison is credited with creating the electric light bulb, but he had a problem which could’ve kept the invention from ever taking off were it not for the help of Lewis Latimer. Edison’s light bulb relied on an electrified filament made of paper, which burnt out rather quickly. Latminer, as a member of Thomas Edison's elite research team, "Edison's Pioneers," engineered a filament made of carbon that could hold the fiery glow without burning out, making the bulb both efficient and useful. He also patented a process for efficiently manufacturing the carbon filament and created the familiar threaded socket used to screw in bulbs.
If you're a 90s kid, then you probably had a Nintendo system or other game console at some point in your home last century. Well, Jerry Lawson had a hand in your childhood. The self-taught engineer helped create the Fairchild Channel F, the first home video game system that could play interchangeable games. Previously, video arcade machines played just a single game, but Lawson’s work blazed the trail for Atari 2600, Sega, Nintendo, Xbox, and Playstation which could play a variety of entertainment all at home.
Legend says that the son of fugitive slaves, Elijah McCoy, is where the phrase “the real McCoy” comes from. Born in Canada and educated as a mechanical engineer in Scotland, McCoy settled in Michigan with the hope of finding work as an engineer. That was not to be because of, well, racism, and so he got a job as a fireman and oiler for Michigan Central Railroad. While in this position, he patented an invention for a lubricating cup that distributed oil evenly over an engine's moving parts so trains required less maintenance. It's reported that inspectors would ask those running the equipment if they were using "the real McCoy.” The inventor would go on to patent 56 more innovations including an iron board and lawn sprinkler.
The next time it gets chilly in your home and you go to adjust the thermostat, thank Alice H. Parker that you don’t have to venture outside and chop firewood. In 1919, Parker filed a patent for a system of central heating after freezing through a few brutal New Jersey winters with only a fireplace to keep her warm. Her unique design called for the use of natural gas rather than coal or wood, and conveyed heat via an exchanger that pushed warm air through ducts to each room. While Parker never got around to commercializing the system, her patent, notable because it was awarded before both the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement, would influence other inventors who’d bring the concept into our homes.