African-American Inventors

Garrett Morgan
Garrett Morgan, born into poverty in Reconstruction Kentucky, used his inventive genius to improve his own life and save others. His life-saving inventions included the “breathing mask” and the automatic traffic signal. His “breathing mask” would save countless firemans’s lives and become a mainstay of rescue workers.

Granville Woods, known as the “Black Edison,” was a prolific inventor. The total number of his inventions is unknown, but he had 28 “letters of patent” from New York state alone. The “third rail” used in modern subway systems is one his devices.

Jan Ernst Matzeliger, a nineteenth century inventor, revolutionized the shoe industry. He created a greatly improved shoe-lasting machine. (Lasting is the step where you join the bottom part of the shoe to the top.) Before Matzeliger’s invention, workers could put together at most “50 shoes a day.” Matzeliger’s machine could produce anywhere from “150-700 pairs of shoes a day.”

In January and February a great many local schools look at the contributions African-Americans have made through the years. I know that many students write papers about African-American inventors. I wrote the above thumbnail biographies as small teasers of what you can find using the library’s African American databases. These databases, and many more, are available at your local library or at home. One of my favorite databases, the Biography Resource Center, allows you to search by occupation, ethnicity, or even gender.

Some teachers require reports to be accompanied with a picture of the inventor or an image of the invention. If our databases don’t include a picture, try the website This is a reliable site with biographies, patents, and, in some cases, pictures of the inventors.

If you still can’t find the particular inventor your teacher assigned you, try coming on down to the library. We have a lot of printed material on this and other Black History topics.