In honor of Black History Month, we are spotlighting ten inventions that would not exist without the effort, persistence and dedication of these Black women. From science to creative industries, many of the common amenities we have to date are a result of the hard work of Black women. It is thought-provoking that these women were able to focus on creating new inventions with the many factors that derail them each day like inequality and sheer patriarchy. Today, we acknowledge and honor ten Black women who have made life easier and far more exciting.
1. 3D Movies
Dr. Valerie Thomas is a physicist, inventor and NASA data analyst who went on to create three-dimensional movies. Dr. Thomas imagined a world of television and film that lived beyond the simple bounds of a two-dimensional picture. The basic ideology behind this invention can be traced back to the year 1976 when Dr. Thomas was working on a NASA project where she discovered how to make concave mirrors create an illusion of three-dimensional objects. In 3D movies, the picture appears to have height, width and depth. Society has made even greater strides since her creation of the 3D movie with 4D experiences featuring sensor-equipped motion seats, wind, strobe, fog, rain and scents.
Your imagination can take you far.
Mathematician, Dr. Gladys West, helped develop the global positioning systems (GPS). Dr. West is known for her contributions to the mathematical modeling of the shape of the Earth, and it wasn’t until most recently that she would actually be recognized for the important work that led to one of the most essential tools we use to navigate our lives on the daily. Throughout the mid-70s and 80s, she programmed an IBM computer to provide tremendously precise calculations to model the shape of the Earth, a geoid, optimized for what eventually became the GPS orbit we utilize today.
There simply would be know navigating the world without Dr. Gladys West who is fortunately still alive to receive her flowers and be acknowledged for her commendable contributions at 91 years old.
3. Home Security Systems
Marie Van Brittan Brown was an inventor and nurse. She invented the home security system in 1966 alongside her husband Albert Brown. They jointly applied for a patent, which was granted three years later in 1969. Marie Van Brittan Brown is also credited with the invention of the first closed circuit television.
Though she made great strides creating a useful tool for people across the world, being a Black woman inventor came with all of the struggles one could imagine during that time. People doubted that she, a Black woman in the 60s, could invent something as massive as a Home Security System. In turn, people’s remarks made her feel hopeless and insecure about herself, but she still pressed forward.
We can thank Marie Van Brittan Brown for feeling safe and secure in our homes.
4. Caller ID and Call Waiting
Shirley Ann Jackson is responsible for screening calls and putting people on hold. She is an inventor, physicist and the first Black woman to ever earn a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Jackson broke many barriers to invent caller ID and call waiting technology. Her invention of the technology stems from her days at AT&T Bell Labs where she conducted research in theoretical physics, solid state and quantum physics, and optical physics. She has since been awarded 53 honorary doctoral degrees for her contributions to the industry.
Ms. Jackson is certainly one smart woman with years of knowledge and creativity to offer the world. We are thankful for her contributions, because we don’t have to answer if we don’t want to.
5. Central Heating
Inventor Alice H. Parker said she was tired of being cold each winter. Growing up in Morristown, New Jersey for most of her life, Parker realized the ineffectiveness of her fireplace in the cold New Jersey winters inspired her to make a better heating solution thus creating the patent for a gas furnace.
Little is known about Parker’s life, and most of the information discovered about her stems from Howard University’s records of her attendance and her patent. She attended the university and graduated with honors in 1910. Parker’s heating system used independently controlled burner units that drew in cold air and transferred the hat through a heat exchanger. The air was then fed into individual ducts to control the amount of heat in different areas. Though her gas patent was filed in 1919, it was not the first gas patent to be filed but instead, the first to contain individually controlled air ducts to transfer to different parts of a building.
Alice Parker’s idea of a furnace used with modifications to eliminate safety concerns, inspired and led the way for features that later came such as thermostats, zone heating, forced air furnaces and model day central heating.
Her filing a patent, which antedates both the Civil Rights movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement, is impressive and it ultimately broke down barriers for Black women of her generation and beyond.
6. The Ironing Board
Though many of us guiltily opt for a bed or even the floor to iron our clothes today, if it weren’t for Sarah Boone there would be no option to use an ironing board. The inventor saw a need for something to crease those slacks and slap the wrinkles out of each garment.
Sarah Boone was a 19th century African American dressmaker who was awarded a patent for her improved ironing board. In her patent application, she wrote that the purpose of her invention was “to produce a cheap, simple, convenient and highly effective device, particularly adapted to be used in ironing the sleeves and bodies of ladies’ garments.”
The patent was approved April 26, 1892 and Boone became one of the first African American women to be awarded a patent. Boone’s ironing board was designed very narrow, curved and made of wood. Her model is still used in common ironing boards today, but they’re often made with other materials like metal.
7. Voice Over Internet Protocol
Vice President of Engineering at Google, Dr. Marian Croak, is responsible for the inventing the technology that allows us to use the Internet to make phone calls over Skype, Zoom or Google Hangouts. She advocated for switching over from wired phone technology to Internet protocol during her time at AT&T at Bell Labs.
Dr. Croak holds over two hundred patents, including more than one hundred in relation to Voice over IP. She pioneered the use of phone network services making it easier for the public to donate to crisis appeals. For instance, when AT&T partnered with American Idol to use a text message voting system, 22% of viewers discovered how to text to take part int he show. Dr. Croak went on to file the patent for text-based donations to charity in 2005 after that discovery through such a unique partnership.
This capability revolutionized the way people donate money to charitable organizations such as we saw after the 2020 Haiti earthquake where $22 million was pledged to the cause of rebuilding the country.
Thank you Dr. Croak for being a pioneer!
Thanks to computer scientist and CEO and CO-founder of tEQuitable, Lisa Gelobter, text and social media conversations are far more entertaining. Gelobter is responsible for inventing the GIF animation technology used casually today. Her efforts contributed to developing animated GIF’s and Shockwave technology, which paved the way for internet animation. Her work also helped create a pathway for online video.
We appreciate Lisa’s dedication to making the Internet far more interesting. Now, people can express themselves with more than a 120 character limit on Twitter. GIF’s create a sense of emotion that otherwise would not be felt without Gelobter’s invention.
9. Menstrual Pads
Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner helped lead women to a better menstrual cycle with her invention of the sanitary belt, which later led to what we known now as menstrual pads.
Kenner patented multiple inventions in her 40s, however, she began inventing at age six when she attempted to invent a self-oiling door hinge. Apparently, invention ran in the family. Her maternal grandfather Robert Phromeberger’s most notable inventions were a tricolor light signal for trains and a stretcher with wheels for ambulances. In 1914, her father patented a clothes presser that could fit in a suitcase. In 1980, her sister invented “Family Treedition,” a family board game.
Kenner’s invention ideas as a child were far and wide including a convertible roof that would go over the folding rumble seat of the car, a sponge tip at the end of an umbrella that would soak up rainwater, and a portable ashtray that would attach itself to a cigarette pack.
Mary Kenner’s first patent was in 1957 for the sanitary belt. She initially invented the belt in the 1920s, but she could not afford a patent at the time. The purpose of her invention aimed to prevent the leakage of menstrual blood on clothing, which was a common problem for women at the time. The Sonn-Nap-Pack Company learned of this invention in 1957 and contacted her to begin marketing her invention until they later discovered she was Black.
Beltless pads were invented in the 70s and as tampons became trendy, women eventually stopped using sanitary belts.
Though Kenner’s inventions and contributions helped establish subsequent innovations, she was never formally recognized for her work. She does hold the record for the greatest number of patents awarded to a Black woman by the U.S. government at five patents.
10. Hair Conditioner
This invention is probably one of the more common Black facts throughout history. Entrepreneur, political and social activist, and the first self-made millionaire in America was a Black woman. Madame C.J. Walker created a number of hair products for Black people including her invention of hair conditioner.
She started her own business selling a product she developed “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” It was designed as a scalp healer and hair conditioner that has since transcended to several hair care lines for Black people.
Madame C.J. Walker was the first to create an opportunity for more Black women to create products to aid in hair growth for Black people. Without her contributions, the hair care industry would look far different. There are hundreds of hair care lines to choose from now including a host of celebrities like Tracee Ellis Ross and Taraji P. Henson who have established their own line of hair care products.
Thanks to these wonderful Black women for staying the course to create a world of limitless opportunities for the next generation of inventors and discoverers. Hopefully, this short list of amazingly talented creators inspires the next class of inventors and thought leaders to do the same. Happy Black History Month!