By Lesli Baker
Black History Month is an annual celebration of achievements by African Americans and a time for recognizing their central role in U.S. history. Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month. Other countries around the world, including Canada and the United Kingdom, also devote a month to celebrating Black history. Every February brings the opportunity to focus our appreciation on African American voices, lives, and accomplishments—both past and present. The theme for the 2023 Black History Month celebration is “Black Innovation.” In honor of that fact, here are some amazing Black American Inventors and Innovators that you may not know about!
Lewis Howard Latimer
Lewis Howard Latimer (1848-1928) was an African American inventor, electrical pioneer, and a son of two formerly enslaved Virginians who self-liberated. With no access to formal education, Latimer taught himself mechanical drawing while in the Union Navy, and eventually became a chief draftsman, patent expert, and inventor.
Latimer worked with three of the most celebrated scientific inventors in American history, Alexander Graham Bell, Hiram S. Maxim, and Thomas Alva Edison. He played a critical role in the development of the telephone, significantly improved the production of carbon filament, and made important contributions to the commercialization of the incandescent light bulb.
Dr. Patricia Bath, PhD
Dr. Patricia Bath was an ophthalmologist known for inventing the Laserphaco Probe, a tool used in cataract surgery. After obtaining a medical degree from Howard University, she attended Columbia University and was the first African American to complete an ophthalmology residency program (1973). She was the first woman to chair an ophthalmology residency program (1983). For 5 years, Bath worked on the Laserphaco Probe, a device that was able to precisely treat cataracts and even restore the sight of people who had been unable to see for 30 years. In 1988, she received a patent for the Laserphaco Probe, becoming the first African American female doctor to receive a medical patent. She continued her work in ophthalmology until 1993, when she retired from UCLA Medical Center.
Dr. Mae Jemison
US astronaut, doctor and engineer Mae Jemison became the first Black woman to go into space in 1992. She was one of seven crew aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour, on a mission named STS-47. Partly inspired by a love of Star Trek, she aspired to go into space and was sure she would get there. “As a little girl… I always assumed I would go into space,” she said in a 2017 interview “Let me make sure that’s clear: I just always assumed, despite the fact that the US hadn’t sent any women up there, or people of color, that I was going to go.” Little did she know then that she would also one day become the first real astronaut to appear in an episode of Star Trek.
Dr. Lonnie Johnson
In 1989, Lonnie Johnson formed his own engineering firm and licensed his most famous invention, the Super Soaker water gun, to Larami Corporation. Two years later, the Super Soaker generated over $200 million in retail sales, and became the number one selling toy in America. Over the years, Super Soaker® sales have totaled close to one billion dollars. Currently, Lonnie Johnson holds over 100 patents, with over 20 more pending, and is the author of several publications on spacecraft power systems. Two of Johnson’s companies, Excellatron Solid State and Johnson Battery Technologies, Inc. (JBT) are developing revolutionary energy technology.
*If you would like to read more about Black American Innovators, check out; African American Inventors by Sophie Washburn