20 Tech Game Changers in Black History

These African-American innovators transformed the way we live, play and eat.

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    Maria J. Avila-López/Mercury News

    Gerald A. Lawson

    Anyone who owns a Playstation, Wii or Xbox should know Lawson’s name. He created the first home video game system that used interchangeable cartridges, offering gamers a chance to play a variety of games and giving video game makers a way to earn profits by selling individual games, a business model that exists today. Lawson, who died last year at age 70, is just beginning to be recognized by the gaming industry for his pioneering work.

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    Wikipedia Commons

    James E. West

    Without West, rappers wouldn’t be able to rock the mic. West, along with Gerhard M. Sessler, helped develop the electroacoustic transducer electret microphone, for which they received a patent in 1962. Their invention was acoustically accurate, lightweight and cost-effective. Ninety percent of microphones in use today — including those in telephones, tape recorders and camcorders — are based on their original concept.

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    National Library of Medicine

    Patricia Bath

    Bath received a patent for her cataract laserphaco probe in 1988. Her device used an innovative method of removing cataract lenses with a laser, which was more accurate than the drill-like instruments that were in common use at the time. The ophthalmologist’s invention helped save the eyesight of millions and even restored sight to people who had been blind for more than 30 years.

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    The Ohio Historical Society

    Granville T. Woods

    Woods was such a prolific inventor, he is often called the black Thomas Edison. Woods holds more than 50 patents for such inventions as the egg incubator and a steam boiler furnace. But his most significant invention, the synchronous multiplex railway telegraph (patented in 1887), allowed railway stations to communicate with moving trains. Because dispatchers were better able to locate trains, rail accidents were significantly reduced.

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    Thomas Jennings

    Fashionistas everywhere have Jennings to thank for inventing a way to clean clothes using a dry-scouring process, what we call dry cleaning today. He received a patent for his process in 1821, a first for an African American.

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    Mark Dean

    Dean is one of technology’s top innovators. The computer engineer helped design the IBM personal computer, introduced in 1981, that became a staple on desktops. He, along with co-inventor and IBM colleague Dennis Moeller, helped develop the interior hardware that would allow computers to connect to printers, monitors and more. Ironically, the man who helped make the PC popular is now using only tablets, noting in a blog post, “When I helped design the PC, I didn’t think I’d live long enough to witness its decline.”

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    The Lightning Research Center

    Lewis Latimer

    Thomas Edison may have invented the electric lightbulb, but Latimer helped make it a common feature in American households. In 1881 he received a patent for inventing a method of producing carbon filaments, which made the bulbs longer-lasting, more efficient and cheaper. Latimer, who at one time worked as a draftsman for inventor Alexander Graham Bell, would eventually be hired by Edison and continue his innovations in electric lighting. Edison’s company would go on to become General Electric.

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    African Scientific Institute

    Marc Hannah

    Anyone awed by the special effects in the films Jurassic Park, Terminator 2 and The Abyss should thank Hannah. The computer scientist is one of the founders, in 1982, of the software firm Silicon Graphics (now SGI), where the special-effects genius developed 3-D graphics technology that would be used in many Hollywood movies. Donkey Kong fans also owe a debt of gratitude to Hannah: He was instrumental in designing the Nintendo 64 gaming system.

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    Bloomberg Business Week

    Shirley A. Jackson

    Jackson is known for her innovative work in theoretical physics and semiconductor theory. In 1985 President Bill Clinton appointed the physicist chairwoman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, making her the first woman and the first African American to hold the position. In 2002 Discover Magazine named her one of the 50 Most Important Women in Science.

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    U.S. Department of Transportation

    Garrett Morgan

    After witnessing an accident between a horse-drawn carriage and an automobile, Morgan had an idea. His three-position traffic signal, patented in 1923, helped save lives at a time when cars, horses and pedestrians all shared the road. But this wasn’t even his most famous invention. Morgan received a patent in 1912 for his safety hood and smoke protector (a precursor to today’s gas mask), which helped save a group of men trapped in a tunnel beneath Lake Erie in 1916.

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    U.S. Department of Energy

    Otis F. Boykin

    Boykin patented a type of resistor in 1959 that is still used today in radios, televisions and computers. Resistors are important in controlling the flow of electricity into components, which made for safer, longer-lasting — and cheaper — products. He also invented a control unit for the pacemaker. In all, Boykin was granted 28 patents for electronic devices, some of which are still having an impact on the military and the consumer market.

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    Lonnie Johnson

    Figures it would take a rocket scientist to invent one of the greatest water guns of all time, the Super Soaker. One day in 1982 Johnson, an aerospace engineer who loved to tinker at home, was working on creating a heat pump that used water to cool down instead of Freon. That device led to one of the most popular toys ever made. The Super Soaker generated $200 million in retail sales and turned Johnson into a millionaire. He’s now using his fortune to develop energy technology.

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    James C. Letton

    Letton made a name for himself at Procter & Gamble by earning several patents for biodegradable soap elements and enzyme stabilizers for laundry detergent in the late 1970s. The scientist, who earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry, has also been granted several patents while working as part of the team exploring uses for fat substitute Olestra.

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    National Academy of Sciences

    George E. Alcorn

    While at NASA, Alcorn invented the imaging X-ray spectrometer, which allowed scientists to examine materials that couldn’t be broken down into smaller parts for study. The physicist received the NASA Inventor of the Year Award in 1984 for his device.

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    Percy L. Julian

    One of the most important scientists of the 20th century, Julian was one of the first to harness the power of plants using the process of synthesis. Synthesis was critical to the medical industry because it allowed scientists to create chemicals that were rare in nature. The chemist’s work led to the birth control pill and improvements in the production of cortisone. In 2007 PBS’s NOVA made a documentary on his life called Forgotten Genius.

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    Silicon Valley Engineering Council

    Roy L. Clay

    Clay helped launch Hewlett-Packard’s computer division in the late 1960s and is known to some as the godfather of black Silicon Valley for helping break down barriers for African Americans in technology. His recruitment and development of talent has helped usher in the next generation of black technology innovators.

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    Lou-t Fresh Toast

    Frederick M. Jones

    In the mid-1930s, Jones designed a mobile refrigeration unit that could be used in trucks, trains, ships and airplanes. His invention allowed the transportation of perishable foods such as produce and meats, which changed eating habits across the country. Thermo King, the company he co-founded, became a leading manufacturer of refrigerated transportation.

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    National Space Science Data Center

    Valerie Thomas

    In an era when girls weren’t even encouraged to study math and science (a problem that persists today), Thomas eagerly sought information about technology. She would eventually earn a degree in physics and land a job at NASA in the mid-1960s, where she would work into the 1990s. In 1980 she received a patent for the illusion transmitter, an early form of 3-D technology. Uses for the technology have yet to be fully realized, but with the increased interest in 3-D, her work will surely be an integral part of the future.

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    Black Money

    Eric Williams

    Williams didn’t invent the cardiac stent, but his design for it has helped change the lives of millions who suffer from heart disease. With the use of stent technology, patients can avoid the arduous process of open-heart surgery, which can be particularly detrimental to older patients. Stent surgery is less invasive, and patients can usually go home the next day.

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    George R. Carruthers

    As a 9-year-old in 1948, Carruthers (pdf) became interested in astronomy from reading books on the subject and science fiction comics. After earning a doctorate in aeronautical engineering in 1964, he went to work for NASA, where he headed the team that invented the ultraviolet camera spectrograph. The camera traveled to the moon with Apollo 16 in 1972. From the moon, researchers were able to study Earth’s atmosphere.