Our World, Improved
Light bulbs, ironing boards, traffic signals. These seem like everyday fixtures of regular life…but can you imagine living without them?
These items were once just ideas in the heads of frustrated people who saw a problem and formulated a solution. Think of the naysayers. The scoffers. The “It’s Always Been Done This Way”-ers. In a world of skeptics, a few bold inventors dared to walk a different path—and our world has been shaped for the better because of it.
Do you have an idea that seems too crazy to work? And if so…what’s stopping you from making it a reality?
The next time you’re getting ready for a job interview, you can credit Sarah Boone for helping you press that stubborn wrinkle out of your shirt. Born enslaved in North Carolina in 1832, she moved with her husband to Connecticut where she attained freed status and worked as a dressmaker. Quickly, Boone noticed that the current ironing board of the time wasn’t ergonomic and didn’t quite get the job done.
Boone got to work sketching out a design for an improved ironing board. Because of her previously enslaved status, Boone was uneducated and illiterate, but also undeterred. Getting the patent itself was no small feat for a woman (let alone a Black woman) but understanding the paperwork involved meant that Boone had significant hurdles just accomplishing what, for a white man, would be considered the bare minimum. Nevertheless, she persisted.
Boone’s patent for an improved ironing board was granted in 1892, which not only made her one of the first Black women to receive a patent in the United States, but one of the first women in general. In a time when women were considered second-class citizens, this invention spoke volumes.
Sarah Boone died 12 years after her patent was granted, and little is known about whether her improved ironing board design brought her the financial success she deserved during her lifetime. However, what is known for certain is that Boone’s innovation became a worldwide household item. Her ironing board has helped people look their best before they land their dream jobs, win well-deserved internships, and fall in love. Though she may not have profited directly, her inventive spirit has touched all our lives.
Garrett A. Morgan
Born at the start of the Jim Crow era in Kentucky, Garrett Morgan managed to complete school only until sixth grade. However, driven by an inventive mind and an entrepreneurial spirit, he was able to hire a private tutor to supplement his education on the side. As a young man, Morgan worked odd jobs to support himself; most famously as a sewing machine repairman.
As Morgan understood more about how the sewing machines worked, he paved the way to his own financial freedom by patenting an improved sewing machine and opening up his own sewing machine repair shop—a rarity for a Black man in the early 1900s. As needles from the sewing machines scorched the garments, Morgan treated the wool with a chemical solution which, he noticed, straightened the fibers. Soon after his discovery, Morgan tested the chemical on his own hair and patented his solution as one of the first conditioners to straighten hair.
With the financial security from his sewing machine and hair product, Morgan was able to continue inventing. He moved along to the “safety hood,” which allowed the wearer to breathe filtered air and was a precursor to the modern gas mask. In selling his product to investors, Morgan typically hired a white actor to accompany him and play the role of the inventor in order to make the sale, which proved successful in many places in the Southern U.S.
At a dig site under Lake Erie two years later, workers hit a pocket of gas that exploded, trapping them under a pile of rubble. Morgan and his brother caught wind of the news and quickly deployed to the site with their safety hoods to find survivors, rescuing two men and recovering four bodies. Morgan was never properly commended for his heroic efforts, and in fact, the publicity he received for his actions revealed that a Black man was the true inventor of the safety hood—which hurt its sales in some racially-segregated areas.
Due to Morgan’s previous business savvy, though, he was the first Black man in his town of Cleveland, Ohio, to own a car. In 1923, after witnessing a traffic accident, Morgan developed one of the most widespread and utile inventions of our society: the three-light traffic signal.
Throughout Garrett Morgan’s life, his curiosity and intellectual dexterity reigned supreme, which not only gives us some of our most useful inventions—but has saved an untold amount of lives in the last century.
Though Lewis Latimer’s parents were enslaved people, he was born with free status in Massachusetts in 1848. As a teen, he lied about his age in order to enlist in the U.S. Navy and fight in the Civil War. After his honorable discharge from military service, Lewis went to work as a low-paying office boy in a patent law office in Boston, where he taught himself how to use everything in the office.
A new inventor needed help with a patent for an unprecedented communication device, and Lewis worked closely with him to sketch the designs. Before Alexander Graham Bell rose to prominence for producing the telephone, it was Lewis Latimer who helped draft the original patent.
As post-Civil War technology boomed, Lewis tinkered with his own ideas—sometimes competing against the industry leader. Thomas Edison is associated with the invention of the light bulb due to his filing of its patent in 1880, but Edison’s light bulb came with a glaring flaw: its filaments were made of paper. This was not only costly to produce, but caused the bulbs to burn out quickly. Lewis, on the other hand, patented a better bulb with filaments made from cheaper, more durable carbon.
Though they began as industry rivals, Thomas Edison and Lewis Latimer reportedly worked together in order to improve lighting technology across the United States. As his invention soared, Lewis patented other designs, including a prototype for an air conditioning machine, and the first-ever toilet stall for trains.
Through Lewis Latimer’s self-education, the world at large gained an innovative piece of indispensable technology. His carbon filaments set the stage for the tungsten-filament bulbs which are still in use to this day.
When she was a small child, Mary Kenner heard a door squeak and, instead of complaining, she figured out how to fix it. Her self-oiling door hinge never got patented (at six years old, she was more concerned about fixing the door than anything else), but throughout her life, Mary went on to dream up countless solutions to everyday problems.
Mary graduated from high school in 1931, and even went on to attend university, but was forced to withdraw due to financial concerns. Despite her lack of university education, Mary still managed to work for the U.S. Government, positions in the Census Bureau, and then in the General Accounting Office.
Throughout the years, Mary drew up prototypes to make life easier for people across the board. Her most famous invention was the sanitary belt: a forerunner to today’s maxi pad. For women, this was a watershed moment, and clients were interested. However, upon meeting Mary face-to-face, her investment opportunities fizzled out one by one, all citing her “unexpected” skin tone.
Undeterred, Mary invented other products designed to improve life, particularly for those with disabilities. She patented the toilet paper holder, a back washer that could mount directly to a shower wall, and an attachment for a walking device that could hold a basket. Mary’s sister, stricken with multiple sclerosis, was the catalyst for these inventions.
Though discrimination kept Mary from achieving the recognition and fortune that may have been afforded to her under different circumstances, her inventions have prevailed throughout the years. Not only have her products drastically improved the lives of disabled people and women around the world, but her selfless drive to create teaches us that greed has no place in changing the world.
Dr. Charles Drew
With lackluster grades, Charles Drew was recruited to Amherst College in Massachusetts based purely on his ability to play sports. He was among only 13 Black students in a class of 600, which exposed him to microaggressions and outright hostility in school. Throughout his college years, he became passionate about medicine, which was also a limited field for Black Americans during this time period. Circumventing this struggle, Dr. Drew trained as a physician in Montréal, where he was less hindered by racism.
Dr. Drew worked in Montréal for two years with transfusion therapy before transferring to Howard University College of Medicine to join the faculty. In addition, Dr. Drew won a fellowship to train with a prominent surgeon of the time named Allen Whipple; it was during this training that Dr. Drew was afforded the opportunities normally given only to his white colleagues.
As Dr. Drew worked during his fellowship, his research became key to understand how blood and plasma could be stored for optimal transfusion. As war broke out overseas and the need for donated blood was at an all-time high, Dr. Drew invented what we understand today as the modern Blood Bank as well as the storage vehicle known as the bloodmobile.
Dr. Drew worked with the American Red Cross to separate plasma from blood, coordinate donations on a mass scale, and send blood and plasma overseas in the 1940s. Still no stranger to racism, the American Red Cross discriminated against Black people, refusing their blood donations and rendering Dr. Drew ineligible to donate to the program he helped to start. Eventually, the Red Cross did allow for donations from Black Americans, but their blood was segregated from the blood of white people—a stab of racism that drove Dr. Drew to remove himself from the organization entirely.
Because of Dr. Drew’s relentless work in the field of blood collection and storage, countless lives have been saved around the world, and continue to prosper.
Dr. Shirley Jackson
After graduating at the top of her high school class, Shirley Jackson went on to become the first Black woman to earn a doctorate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In addition, Dr. Jackson was the second Black woman in the United States to earn a doctorate in physics.
Following her education, the scope of Dr. Jackson’s career is almost difficult to conceptualize; as she managed to break down wall after metaphorical wall. She became a visiting scientist at Switzerland’s European Organization for Nuclear Research as well as a scientist at Bell Laboratories, simultaneously serving on the faculty of Rutgers University. While working at Bell Labs, Dr. Jackson blazed the trail for research in telecommunications, helping to lay the groundwork for inventions like the fax machine, call waiting, caller ID, and touchtone phones.
Dr. Jackson was appointed by President Bill Clinton to chair the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1995, during which time she instituted safer nuclear protocols in the United States and abroad. Under President Barack Obama, Dr. Jackson was appointed not only as a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) but also as a member of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board.
Dr. Jackson returned to the academic world in 1999 to serve as President of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a position she still holds as of this writing.
Dr. James E. West
When he was a child, James West liked to take his toys apart just for the thrill of putting them back together again. A dangerous encounter at eight years old with a broken radio, a metal bed frame, and a surge of electricity might have scared other kids away, but the young Dr. West grew ever curious instead.
Though he was born in a rural and racially-segregated community of Virginia, Dr. West went on to study physics at Temple University after being drafted to fight in the Korean War. Dr. West began a decades-long career with Bell Laboratories after his studies, where he further defied conventions as he pioneered research in the field of acoustical science.
Dr. West is the holder of over 60 U.S. patents and more than 200 foreign patents, but he is most widely known for his joint venture with German colleague Gerhard Sessler: the electret microphone. In 1962, the pair finished production on the prototype, and by 1968, it was mass-produced. This microphone has become an industry-standard in nearly every type of electronic device used today, from smartphones to hearing aids.
At the time of this writing, Dr. West is not only still alive, but still inventing. In 2018, in his late eighties, he announced that he is tinkering with a device to detect pneumonia in the lungs of babies.