African American inventors are responsible for a number of items, ranging from toys to everyday essentials. These are some of the most important and popular.
The gas mask
Patented in 1912 by Garrett Morgan, the ‘safety hood’ was intended to allow firemen to enter smoke-filled buildings without danger of suffocation. With America’s entry into the First World War, these early gas masks became standard issue in the army, and proved a literal lifesaver to thousands of troops.
Morgan was a prolific inventor – as well as the gas mask, he invented the first traffic signals. Having seen a collision between a horse and a car at a junction, he devised an automated signaling device to safely regulate the flow of traffic. Sold to the General Electric Company, Morgan’s invention became standard throughout the US, and is the direct ancestor of modern traffic lights.
One of the most popular snack foods of all time was invented by George Crum, son of an African American father and a Native American mother. According to legend, he was working as a chef in 1853 when a customer criticized his French fries for not being thin enough. Crum cut them as thin as he possibly could, seemingly to try to annoy the customer, but to his surprise, his thin sliced fried potato was a huge hit, and went on to take the world by storm. While Crum never patented the idea, he did set up his own successful restaurant to serve his invention,
Dr Charles Drew discovered that if blood plasma and red blood cells were separated, they could be stored for longer periods than had previously been possible. He set up the first blood banks and organized the first blood drives, his invention having a decisive impact on Second World War medicine. Dr Drew himself was killed in a car accident in 1950; sadly, although he received a transfusion, he could not be saved.
Automatic oil lubricator for steam engines
Although a trained engineer, Elijah McCoy was only able to get work on the railroad as a fireman and oiler due to racial prejudice. He ultimately invented many new ways to make trains more efficient, the chief being a device which could automatically drip oil into the parts of engines that needed it. While not the most resonant invention today, it is notable for spawning the phrase ‘the real McCoy’ – train companies rejected second-rate imitations and insisted that they would only accept McCoy’s invention. So the inventor has entered the English language, even if his invention is largely forgotten.
The Super Soaker
Lonnie G Johnson had worked for the US Air Force and NASA as an engineer. He invented a new type of nozzle while working on a new heat pump design, and seeing the potential for a popular new toy, he and his partner Bruce D’Andrade created the Super Soaker. First marketed in 1991, more than 200 million Super Soakers have been sold.