Black History Month Highlight: Early Black Inventors

Garrett Morgan, inventor of a breathing device or “safety hood,” had to hire a white man to introduce it at public demonstrations while he wore the hood, but the early black inventors largely ignored any discrimination and continued to invent “useful devices.”

The first black to be granted a patent was Thomas Jennings, a free black in New York, in approximately 1832. The patent was for a dry cleaning process.

Permanent Wave Machine
A very prolific black inventor was George Washington Carver. He discovered 300 uses for peanut butter, but he applied for only three patents: one for cosmetics and plant products and two for paints and stains.

Madam C.J. Walker/Sarah Breedlove is perhaps the most famous and successful black female inventor. Sales of her hair care products made her the first American black female millionaire. Also, Marjorie Stewart Joyner invented the “permanent wave machine” and a “scalp protector.” She sold the rights of both patents to Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company.

Among his many other inventions dealing with steam engines, Elijah McCoy invented the “Improvement for Lubricators in Steam Engines.” The phrase “the real McCoy” supposedly originated from the reputation of the quality of McCoy’s products.

You can find other information on black inventors in the library and learn more about their contributions to American innovation.

Carver: Paint and Stain and Process of Producing the Same, Patent #1,541,478

Joyner: Permanent Wave Machine, Patent #1,693,515

McCoy: Improvement for Lubricators in Steam Engines, Patent #129,843

Michelle Andrews
Government Documents Department
Central Library