Benjamin Banneker (1731 to 1806)
Benjamin Banneker was probably the best-known black person in early US history. He was an astronomer, farmer, mathematician, and surveyor.
When he was 22 he showed his abilities by making a clock from wood using a pocket watch he had borrowed as a model. He became famous in his local community - Baltimore, Maryland. He also acquired a reputation for his skill of making and solving mathematical puzzles.
In 1791, Banneker was an assistant to Major Andrew Ellicott, the surveyor appointed by President George Washington to lay out the boundaries of the District of Columbia. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson had recommended Banneker.
According to some sites on the World Wide Web, after a year of work, the Frenchman hired by George Washington to design the capital stormed off the job, taking all the plans. Banneker, placed on the planning committee
at Thomas Jefferson's request, saved the project by reproducing from memory, in
two days, a complete layout of the streets, parks, and major buildings.
Charles R. Drew (1904 to 1950):
Charles Drew developed the blood bank and became the first director of the American Red Cross blood bank.
A renowned surgeon, teacher, and researcher, Dr. Drew was responsible for founding two of the world's largest blood banks. He conducted extensive research into the storage and shipment of blood plasma (blood without cells), and was credited with saving the lives of hundreds of Britons during World War II.
He was director of the first American Red Cross effort to collect and bank blood on a large scale. In 1942, a year after he was made a diplomat of surgery by the American Board of Surgery at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, he became the first African American surgeon to serve as an examiner on the board.
Garrett Morgan (1873 to 1963):
Garrett Augustus Morgan, was an African American businessman and inventor whose curiosity and innovation led to the development of many useful and helpful products. A practical man of humble beginnings, Morgan devoted his life to creating things that made the lives of other people safer and more convenient.
Among his inventions was an early traffic signal which greatly improved street safety. Morgan's technology was the basis for modern traffic signal systems and was an early example of what we know today as Intelligent Transportation Systems.
The son of former slaves, he was born in Paris, Kentucky on March 4. He spent his early childhood attending school and working on the family farm with his brothers and sisters. He left Kentucky to move north to Cincinnati, Ohio, when he was a teenager.
Morgan never went beyond primary school but he hired a tutor while living in Cincinnati and continued his studies in English grammar.
George Washington Carver (1860 to 1943):
Agricultural chemist George Washington Carver developed crop rotation methods for conserving nutrients in soil and discovered hundreds of new uses for crops such as the peanut, which created new markets for farmers, especially in the southern US.
Born of slave parents in Diamond Grove, Missouri, Carver was rescued from Confederate kidnappers as an infant. He began his education in Newton County in southwest Missouri, where he worked as a farm hand and studied in a one-room schoolhouse. He went on to excel at Minneapolis High School in Kansas. He was denied admission to Highland University because he was black. Later, however, he was accepted to several other universities, including the Tuskegee Institute founded by Booker T. Washington.
At Tuskegee, Carver developed his crop rotation method. He later developed 325 different ways (from cooking oil to ink) to use excess peanuts. He also found a variety of uses for sweet potato and pecan.
Elijah McCoy (1844 - 1929):
The son of former slaves who fled Kentucky before the U.S. Civil War, Elijah McCoy was born in Colchester, Ontario, Canada.
Educated in Scotland as a mechanical engineer, McCoy returned to the US and settled in Detroit, Michigan. He began experimenting with a cup that would regulate the flow of oil onto moving parts of industrial machines.
His first invention was a lubricator for steam engines in 1872. The invention allowed machines to remain in motion to be oiled. The device revolutionised the industrial machine industry. McCoy established his own firm and was responsible for a total of 57 patents.
The term 'real McCoy' refers to the oiling device used for industrial machinery. His contribution to the lubricating device became so popular that people inspecting new equipment would ask is the device contained the real McCoy. This helped popularise the American expression, meaning the real thing. His other inventions included an ironing board and lawn sprinkler.
Lewis H. Latimer (1848 - 1928):
Along with Granville T. Woods, Latimer was one of the first major African American inventors. He first worked as an assistant to Alexander Graham Bell.
Some have claimed that it was Latimer, not Bell, who actually invented the telephone. However, Latimer has often defended Bell's claims to first inventions in court.
Later, Latimer became a member of Thomas Edison's elite research team, Edison's Pioneers. During this period Latimer made his most important scientific contributions, by improving the light bulb invented by Edison.
Edison's prototypical light bulb burnt out quickly. Latimer's improvements allowed the bulb to burn for a longer period. He sold his patent to the United States Electric Company in 1881 and went on to patent other improvements and inventions to the bulb such as the now familiar threaded socket (though his was wooden).
Latimer's other patented inventions includes such diverse items as the first water closet (i.e., toilet) for railroad cars (1874) and a forerunner of the air conditioner (1886).