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  • Writer's pictureAlanna Grayce

#43: Black Inventors you've probably never heard of

Guys I’m not gonna lie, I dropped the ball a little bit on planning a Black History Month episode. It just completely slipped my mind. But thank GOD with the advice of my dear friend and sister Katie Harris, shoutout to you Katie, I was able to pull together something really cool- and honestly, I think it’s perfect.

There are so many things that we take for granted in our everyday lives. Incredible inventions that make modern life so easy, ya know? So for Black History Month, Katie had the idea that I should cover Black inventors whose names we often don’t know. Like, we all know George Washington Carver like invented the peanut, but who else? I got you covered. I’m going to tell you about some of the most influential Black inventors that you may not have heard of. I’m going to tell you about their lives, their accomplishments, and how they have affected the world as we know it today.

Born in Circleville, Ohio in May 1838, Alexander Miles grew up to become an inventor. He is best known for patenting his design for improving the automatic open and close elevator doors in 1887- he was inspired when he was on an elevator with his little daughter, and he was like hold up, they forgot to close the inside door, this is dangerous. So this idea drastically improved the safety of elevators, because people were now protected from the elevator shaft. His invention made electric elevator doors widely accepted around the world, and the influence of his patent is still present in modern automatic elevator design. Elevator design is honestly something I’ve never thought much about- but knowing the story behind it is really sweet, and really cool I think.

In addition to being an inspired and innovative inventor, Miles was known as a businessman. Using the earnings from his barbershop in the St. Louis Hotel, he was able to purchase a real estate office, which made Miles the first Black member of the Duluth Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. In 1884 he had a three story brownstone building built in Duluth, andthe area became known as Miles Block. In 1899, he and his family relocated to Chicago, Illinois, where he founded a life insurance company which primarily sold to Black patrons who couldn’t get coverage from many white life insurance firms. Lastly, the family moved to Seattle, Washington- by the time of his death in 1918, Alexander Miles was known as the wealthiest African American in the Pacific Northwest.

Frederick McKinley Jones was born in Cincinnati Ohio in May of 1893 to a white father and a black mother. His mother actually left them when he was a little boy, and his father tried but struggled to raise him as a single dad. At 7 he sent him off to life with a priest in Kentucky, and two years later his father died. At 11 he ran away, back to Cincinnati to find work- and it was at this point that he realized he had a knack for mechanics. And like- he studied it, reading about it in addition to working daily as a mechanic. He was in the Army in World War 1, and he often made repairs to equipment during his service. Back at home finally, he also was able to learn electronics, and after making a few handy inventions he was hired to improve sound equipment for the film industry.

During the 1930s, he designed and patented an air-cooling unit for trucks- aka, inventing refrigerated trucks. Jones partnered up with the businessman he had been working with on the sound equipment, and they founded the U.S. Thermo Control Company. This was especially valuable during World War II, as refrigerated trucks helped preserve food, medicine, and BLOOD needed at hospitals and on the front lines. Jones received more than 60 patents over the course of his career, mostly related to his refrigeration technologies, but also related to sound equipment, engines, and X RAY MACHINES. Where did that one come from pal

Jones was recognized for his contributions during his life and after- he was the first Black man elected to the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers in 1944. In 1991, he was posthumously awarded the National Medal of Technology by President George HW Bush, making him the first African American to receive the award, even though he unfortunately wasn’t alive to receive it.

Very little is known about Alice H Parker’s life, but we do know that she was born in 1895, grew up in Morristown, New Jersey, and attended highschool classes at the Howard University Academy in Washington DC. Alice filed for a patent in December 1919 for her heating system invention, which drew cool air into a furnace, which then heated the air and delivered warm air through ducts to individual rooms of a house. Sound familiar? The concept of central heating actually existed before even her birth in 1895, but Alice’s design was so unique because it used natural gas, rather than coal or wood, which conserved energy. She paved the way for the central heating that we have in our homes today. Isn’t that wild?

Supposedly, she was inspired to invent this because she didn’t think her fireplace was effective in warming her home during the cold winters. Plus, it meant that people didn’t have to go outside to chop wood AND it decreased the risk of fire because you didn’t have to leave a fireplace burning through the night.

I also want to highlight how important her receiving a patent was- a Black woman in the early 20th century, receiving a patent. This preceded both the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement. Outstanding.

Philip Bell Downing was born in Providence, Rhode Island in March 1857. Unlike some of the other inventors on our list, Downing came from a prominent family. His father was a well-known abolitionist and business mother, and his mother came from an established New York City family that dated back to the mid 1600s. Hi s grandfather had been born to emancipated parents in Virginia, and was also a successful businessman in Manhattan, as well as playing an important role in anti-slavery.

Downing received a patent for improving railway switches in 1890, which was like a huge improvement apparently. I don’t know much about railway switches. But then in 1891, he got approved for two patents for a street letter box- aka, the first version of our now ubiquitous tall blue metal box with a hinged door for letters. Until this point, you had to go to the post office to send a letter. This concept allowed convenience, security, and protection from the elements. In 1917, he received a patent for an envelope moistener, and in 1918 he patented an easily accessible desktop notepad. These are all things that like, just make life so much easier.

Garrett Morgan was born in Paris, Kentucky, in March of 1877. He was the seventh son of Elizabeth Reed, a woman of Native and African descent. His father was a former slave, freed in 1863, and the son of John Hunt Morgan, the Confederate colonel. In Morgan's teenage years he moved to Cinicinnati for work, and was able to pay for a private tutor to build upon his elementary school education. He started to get jobs at sewing machine factories, and this is where he learned about his fascination with machinery. He received a patent for an improved sewing machine, and opened his own repair business. His business was a success, and he and his family established themselves in Cleveland Ohio.

Funnily enough, his success with sewing machines led him and his wife to open a tailoring shop, but he found that it was a very common problem that fabric would get scorched by the friction of the sewing machine needle running too fast. He experimented with a chemical solution to try to reduce the friction- and inadvertently discovered a cream that could be used to smooth hair. This allowed him the financial security he needed to continue pursuing inventions.

In 1914, he patented a “safety hood” breathing device, which he marketed to fire departments especially. His patent became the prototype for the gas masks used during World War I. It also earned him first prize and the Second International Exposition of Safety and Sanitation in New York City, which is a very niche event but very cool.

In the south, where racial tensions remained high in spite of advancements in rights for Black people, Morgan hired a white actor to pose as the inventor during presentations of his breathing device, and he would pose as a Native American sidekick. This was wildly successful, apparently. Awful he had to do it, but what a hilarious and resourceful way to still make your money and pull the wool over the white man ya know what I’m saying

In a wild turn of events, there was a massive explosion in a tunnel under Lake Erie, trapping workers inside the noxious fumes. So, Morgan and his brother threw on their safety hoods and got inside that tunnel, bringing out two survivors and recovering four dead bodies. This heroism actually hurt his sales, though, because the news was out that the inventor was Black. Plus, to throw salt on the wound, he and his brother were never even fully recognized for the efforts to save lives. This didn’t stop Morgan, though, and he continued inventing.

Morgan was the first Black man in Cleveland to own a car, and he developed a friction drive clutch for it. Probably his best known invention came in 1923, when he created a traffic signal with a warning light to alert drivers they needed to stop soon. This is the rudimentary version of the traffic light we know today. Before his death in 1963, he was honored by the United States government for his traffic signal invention, and he was recognized as a hero of the Lake Erie explosion.

He was also a huge supporter of the Black community throughout his life, was active in associations formed for improving the lives of colored people, donated to Black colleges, launched a Black newspaper and opened a Black country club. This man was busy.

What incredible stories! I hope you've enjoyed learning about these incredible innovators as much as I have.


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