Department

Trailblazers

Giving credit where credit is due

This month we celebrate the contributions of African Americans who left their imprint, as well as their voices, in our society. This sample was compiled by editorial assessment coordinator, Marvene Thorpe Baptiste. —Editors.


In 1891 anyone interested in mailing a letter would have to make the long trip to the post office. Philip B. Downing (1871-1961) designed a metal box with four legs and a hinged door that closed to protect the mail, which he patented on October 27, 1891. He called his device a street letter box, and it is the predecessor of today’s mailbox.

One year earlier Downing patented an electrical switch for railroads that allowed railroad workers to supply or shut off power to trains at appropriate times. Based on this design, innovators would later create the electrical switches we use in our homes.

Marc Hannah (1956- ) is a computer scientist, a cofounder of Silicon Graphics, and one of the creators of modern graphic processing (3-D effects). Many Hollywood movie directors used Silicon Graphics engines to make special effects in movies such as Jurassic Park and Beauty and the Beast. His program also helped build Nintendo’s N64. In fact, Hannah’s work may have led to the evolution of GPU processing .

On November 20, 1923, Garrett Morgan (1877-1963) received a patent for the invention of the three-signal traffic light, improving on the basic “stop and go” designs of the time. His patent had this description: “This invention relates to traffic signals, and particularly to those which are adapted to be positioned adjacent the intersection of two or more streets and are manually operable for directing the flow of traffic. . . . My invention contemplates the provision of a signal which may be readily and cheaply manufactured.” Rights to his invention were later purchased by General Electric.

Shirley Ann Jackson (1946- ), a theoretical physicist and inventor, has been credited with making many advances in science. She conducted successful experiments in theoretical physics and used her knowledge of physics to foster advances in telecommunications research while working at Bell Laboratories. Jackson conducted breakthrough research that enabled others to invent the portable fax, touch-tone telephone, solar cells, fiber optic cables, and the technology behind caller ID and call waiting. Jackson is president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the oldest technological research university in the United States.

Frederick McKinley Jones (1893-1961) is credited with transforming the food industry and America’s eating habits. He taught himself electronics, and around 1935 designed a portable air-cooling unit for trucks carrying perishable food. He received a patent for it on July 12, 1940. Portable cooling units designed by Jones were especially important during World War II, preserving blood, medicine, and food for use at Army hospitals and battlefields. He patented more than 60 inventions, but it is his invention of the automatic refrigeration system for long-haul trucks in 1935 for which he is most famous.

Patricia Bath (1942- ) was born in Harlem, New York, to Rupert, an immigrant from Trinidad, and Gladys, a descendant of African slaves and Cherokee Native Americans. Bath holds four patents in the United States. In 1981 she conceived the Laserphaco Probe, a medical device that improves on the use of lasers to remove cataracts, and “for ablating and removing cataract lenses.” The device was completed in 1986 after Bath conducted research on lasers in Berlin. The device, patented in 1988, made her the first African American female doctor to receive a patent for a medical purpose. The device—which quickly and nearly painlessly dissolves cataracts with a laser, irrigates and cleans the eye, and permits the easy insertion of a new lens—is used internationally to treat cataracts. Bath has continued to improve the device and has been responsible for successfully restoring vision to people who have been unable to see for decades.

Snacking wouldn’t be the same if George Speck (also called George Crum) (1824-1914), a cook and restaurateur, hadn’t first cooked up this popular snack: potato chips. To teach picky patrons a lesson when they complained that his french fries were cut too thick, he sliced a batch of potatoes extra-thin, fried them hard and crunchy, and topped them with salt. The dish ended up being a hit. The snacks were originally called “Saratoga Chips.”

Lonnie G. Johnson (1949- ), a former NASA engineer who worked on the stealth bomber program, changed childhoods forever when he created the iconic water gun. In 1982, while working on an enviro-friendly heat pump, he conceived of a novelty water gun powered by air pressure, which led to the development of the Power Drencher, precursor to the Super Soaker. He later started Johnson Research and Development and acquired some 100 patents.

David Crosthwait (1898-1976) was an African American mechanical and electrical engineer, inventor, and writer. Crosthwait’s expertise was on air ventilation, central air-conditioning, and heat transfer systems. He created many heating systems, refrigeration methods, temperature regulating devices, and vacuum pumps. In the 1920s and 1930s Crosthwait invented a vacuum pump, a boiler, and a thermostat control, all for more effective heating systems for large buildings. Some of his greatest accomplishments were for creating the heating systems for the Rockefeller Center and New York’s Radio City Music Hall.

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