The Big Idea: 7 Groundbreaking Black Female Inventors
America is known for her spirit of inventiveness, and black women have been major contributors in our country’s history of ingenuity. From the resourcefulness of women who rose from the ashes of slavery to the brilliant creativity of modern day geniuses, our lives are immeasurably better because of these 7 sisters and their big ideas.
Marie Van Brittan Brown
Born in 1922, Marie Van Brittan Brown was the first person to develop the patent for closed circuit television security. Her mechanism consisted of a motorized camera and four peepholes. The camera could be moved from one peephole to the next, and the camera’s images were displayed on a monitor. The door could also be unlocked remotely using an electrical switch. Brown’s invention was patented in 1969, and became the framework for the modern closed circuit television system that is widely used for surveillance, crime prevention, and traffic monitoring.
Dr. Shirley Jackson
Dr. Shirley Jackson was the first black female to receive a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and is the first black female president of a major technological institute (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute). However, she also has a staggering list of inventions to her credit. Her experiments with theoretical physics are responsible for many telecommunications developments including the touch tone telephone, the portable fax, caller ID, call waiting, and the fiber optic cables that make overseas phone calls crystal clear.
Dr. Patricia Bath
In 1981, Dr. Patricia Bath invented the Laserphaco Probe, which is used to remove cataracts. By 1988, she perfected the invention and received the first of four patents pertaining to the device. Cataracts are an eye disease that can lead to blindness, but previous surgical procedures had many negative side effects. Dr. Bath’s laser probe made cataracts surgery faster and more accurate, and has been credited with saving thousands from losing their sight.
Dr. Betty Harris
After earning her Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico, Dr. Betty Harris became a research chemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. She worked extensively in the area of explosives, and in 1986, she obtained a patent for identifying and determining the sensitivity level of explosives. Her contributions were so significant that in1996, Dr. Harris was one of only eight people selected for inclusion in the National Science Foundation’s “Women in Science” profile.
Born in 1912, Mary Kenner’s creativity and ingenuity was evidenced by the five different patents she received during a 21-year time frame. In 1956, Kenner received a patent for inventing the Sanitary Belt. Three years later, she received another patent for inventing a sanitary belt with a moisture-resistant pocket. In 1976, Kenner invented an attachment for an invalid walker. In 1982, she invented the toilet-tissue holder, and in 1987, she received a patent for a backwash that was mounted on a bathtub and shower wall. While these inventions did not make her rich, Kenner stated that she enjoyed the idea of making life more convenient for other people.
Natalie R. Love
In 1992, Natalie R. Love created a removable cover for T-top convertible cars. The cover has removable male and female fasteners to attach and detach it from the vehicle, and seals on each side provide a secure, interlocked barrier to wind, rain and other environmental concerns. This invention replaced glass roof panels that were heavy and inconvenient to maneuver, allowing owners of convertible T-top automobiles to quickly attach or remove and store their covers.
Madame C J Walker
Undoubtedly the most famous inventor on the list, Madame C.J. Walker was also the first black female self-made millionaire. Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, Madame Walker suffered from a scalp condition that caused hair loss. As an adult, she experimented with several types of homemade remedies developed by Annie Malone, another black female entrepreneur. However, Walker soon conducted independent experiments and developed her own hair care system. After marrying Charles Walker in 1905, she began selling Madame Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower. This led to the development of the Walker System, which included healthier alternatives for black women who wanted to straighten their hair, and it also included other products designed to condition black hair and skin. She also set up schools, where she provided employment for over 3,000 people, and trained them as licensed Walker Agents.