As we bring this year’s Black History Month celebration to an end, I wanted to close with the celebration of innovation, in part because innovation is what enables us to push past that which holds us back as individuals and as a society.
In school, we’re taught that George Washington Carver invented many products, including over 300 products from the peanut plant. (It still blows my mind that peanut butter wasn’t one of them!)
Another known name in Black history is Madam C. J. Walker who invented beauty products for Black women. (Quick side note, did you know her real name was Sarah Breedlove? That’s a fun fact for your back pocket.) In 2022, my colleague Autaum Henderson also highlighted more popular Black inventors such as Sarah E. Goode, known for her invention of the folding cabinet bed (aka the Murphy Bed), and Dr. Lewis Howard Latimer who invented the evaporated air conditioner.
Though I can’t imagine what life would be like for anyone without these inventions – and inventors – today I really want to focus on those Black inventors who are rarely talked about in school or society in general, even though their creations are just as notable.
First up, Dr. Shirley Jackson.
I remember as a kid walking in the door from school and seeing that red light on the phone indicating we missed calls then having the task of listening to the answering machine. I remember being so annoyed to see that we had 10 missed calls, but only four voicemails. I’m nosey by nature, so imagine how irritated and curious I was to know who those other six callers were. Dr. Jackson received her Ph.D. in 1973 from MIT. Her experiments with theoretical physics are the reason we have touch-tone telephones, call waiting, and – you guessed it – caller ID. Could you imagine not having “Scam Likely” pop up on your phone or unknowingly picking up when your ex calls??? What a life hack!! Thanks, Dr. Jackson.
Next up, Otis Boykin.
Nothing motivates us quickly like grief. The cycle of grief can make you go crazy, think you’re crazy, then give you the fuel of excellence. Otis Boykin tapped into his excellence when dealing with the grief of his mother’s passing. Mama Boykin passed due to heart failure, and Otis used that heartache to drastically improve the circuit of pacemakers. In an article posted by Appalachian Regional Healthcare Systems, it was noted that “Since the 1950s, pacemakers have been used to improve the overall quality and longevity of life in many heart patients. According to Livestrong.org, pacemakers even made an impact on mortality, reducing death rates by 22 percent and hospitalizations by 37 percent.” Otis Boykin is a registered owner of 26 patents, of which his most notable inventions are the development of IBM computers, the burglar-proof cash register, and chemical air filters. So, we have many reasons to celebrate his work and life.
Of course, I can’t talk about notable Black innovators without giving a shout out to Lonnie Johnson.
You couldn't watch Saturday morning cartoons in the late 80s and early 90s without seeing a Super Soaker commercial. I remember being a kid in those years and saying to myself “I want that one too!!” You weren’t a cool kid if you didn’t have the latest Super Soaker from KB Toys or your local Walmart. We have Mr. Lonnie Johnson to thank for that nostalgia. He is an Aerospace Engineer by trade, worked for NASA and the U.S. Air Force and has over 40 patents. Yet he had time to come up with the Super Soaker. Amazing!
Now, let’s fast-forward a bit into the digital age to spotlight our next genius innovator: Lisa Gelobter.
Have you ever been texting with a friend or writing a social media post and can’t find the right words to say so you go searching for the perfect animated GIF? Animated GIFs have quickly become a way of communicating. It’s an unspoken language that all have grown to know and understand. We can thank Lisa Gelobter for that. Lisa and a team of others created a technology called Shockwave. While Shockwave did not create graphics interchange format (GIFs), it is the culprit behind automated GIFs. Cheers to Lisa for helping us share that dancing cat or the best part of our favorite movie as a response text; you took the words right out of our mouths.
My last Black History inventor fact is going to be a two-for-one: Mr. Elijah McCoy, who is noted for 50 inventions during his career.
The one most referenced is the lubricating cup he created in 1872. Elijah sought to create efficiency in the railroad industry and reduce the number of stops a train had to make to lubricate the tracks. The lubricating cup brought automation to the process by dripping oil onto the track when needed. This invention sent a shockwave (pun to an earlier noted invention) in the industry and resulted in orders being placed from all around the country. Other inventors caught on to the contraption and tried to make their own. Railroad companies weren’t pleased with the knockoffs and demanded the authentic version created by Mr. McCoy; the phrase “the Real McCoy” was born.
Now, some of these names you might have known while others you might not have. This is the exact reason why Critical Race Theory shouldn’t even be considered. The fact of the matter is that Black History IS American History. There’s beauty in every fact about America, even the parts that are hard to look at, grasp, digest, and understand. You can’t remove pieces of a puzzle simply because you don’t like its shape or color or can’t figure out how it connects. Knowing the facts and the history creates perspectives, and those perspectives create change and invent what’s necessary for the moment and the future. We’ll go deeper on that at a different time. I hope you’ve spent your February intentionally celebrating and educating yourself and others about Black history. Until next time.