So much of the contemporary world has resulted from the exploitation of Black women – but much more of it has flourished through their ingenuity.
Every day, you probably use something that Black female inventors either first created or heavily contributed. From security systems to indoor heating, the fingerprints of Black women are all over modern technology, and reflecting on those achievements is a great way to celebrate Black excellence.
It would be impressive enough to become the first Black woman to complete a residency program in ophthalmology, but Dr. Patricia Bath took that achievement to the next level: she invented an effective and efficient way to remove cataracts.
That wasn’t her only accomplishment either. While she was interning in ophthalmology, she became one of the first people to discover that Black patients suffered from nearly twice as much glaucoma as non-Black ones, hypothesizing that this was due to a lack of ophthalmological care.
She is also the co-founder of the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness and the founder of UCLA’s Ophthalmic Assistant Training Program. Even further, Bath has had significant achievements in academic publishing – she proposed a whole new discipline of Community Ophthalmology in the 1970s, an immensely influential paper.
Bath has been honored countless times in countless ways for her achievements – she has received honors from institutions like the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the American Academy of Ophthalmology Museum of Vision & Ophthalmic Heritage.
Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner
Having successfully filed five different patents throughout her career while also owning and operating a series of burgeoning florist businesses in Washington, D.C. Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner is one of the most fascinating figures of 20th-century ingenuity.
Her three best-known inventions are still used today by millions of people across the world, and we should all be grateful for them.
Before there were tampons or modern menstrual pads there were “sanitary napkins.” These were absorbent pieces of cloth, but there was no good way to attach them to the location of period emissions beyond stuffing them into your underwear.
But that all started to change in 1957 when Mary Kenner filed a patent for the sanitary belt. This would hold the sanitary napkin close to your body in a way that maximized comfort and absorption – it changed the game for menstruators worldwide and led to the later invention of the maxi pad.
Kenner was also behind two more incredibly useful inventions – the toilet paper dispenser and the walker. Walkers allowed cane users to experience a whole new dimension of support and mobility, while toilet paper dispensers just made the bathroom experience more clean and efficient for everyone.
If you have a washing machine, remember Ellen Eglin every time you use it. This Black female inventor is famous for inventing the hand-cranked clothes wringer that originally inspired and still undergirds contemporary washing machines. Her design is still directly used to wring out mops in mop buckets.
Because she lived primarily in the 1800s, Eglin is another figure about whom we know very little. We know that she expected that white women wouldn’t purchase her invention, so she sold the idea to a white businessman for only $18. The idea became quite lucrative for his business.
She lived out the rest of her life in Washington, D.C., working as a part-time maid in the U.S. Census Department. Even though she had a new idea for something to invent close to the end of her life, something she planned to take credit for, she was not able to submit the patent application before her death in the late 1910s.
Marie Van Brittan Brown
Closed-Circuit TV Cameras (CCTV) are a staple presence of modern life – they line streets, they greet bodega customers, they’re everywhere. And even though they’ve evolved into a symbol of the surveillance state for some, they started with wholesome origins.
Marie Van Brittan Brown was working as a nurse when she became frustrated with the police’s slow response times in her neighborhood. So she set out a way to make her home safer, establishing the world’s first-ever modern home security system, including a CCTV camera.
This system also proved foundational for the security of many apartment buildings, as it included a form of remote, two-way communication with the person at the front door.
Brown lived in the Queens borough of New York City for all 77 years of her life. Since she first patented her home security system in 1966, it has been referenced by thirteen other patents – that is to say, thirteen other inventions expressly credited hers as an inspiration.
Until 2022, the National Inventors Hall of Fame had never inducted a Black woman. The first two to be inducted were Marian Croak and Dr. Patricia Bath, who we’ll get to next.
Marian Croak has over 200 patents under her name, all focused on the world of voice communication software. As a member of AT&T’s Bell Labs and head of Google’s Research Center for Responsible A.I. and Human-Centered Technology, she has left an indelible impact on how we communicate over the internet today.
It was not so long ago that long-distance voice communication was exclusively limited to telephones, but the work of Marian Croak has transformed the landscape, enabling the popularity of technologies like Zoom, Google Voice, and Discord.
Today, Croak works for Google, and she isn’t just limiting herself to innovation. She is also heading up racial justice efforts at the company while also acting as the leader of a commission to bring broadband internet to developing communities in Asia and Africa.
Bessie Blount started as a humble physical therapist. She had a deep-set heart for helping out people with disabilities and wanted to do everything she could to help them navigate the world effectively.
Her physical therapy caseload increased immensely after the end of World War II when she took care of many different veterans who had suffered significant injuries during the war. Specifically, she worked very frequently with amputees, helping them in the process of navigating daily tasks without the limbs they were used to.
In this process, Blount grew especially concerned about the difficulties that many amputees faced in eating food. She dedicated her natural intelligence to solving the problem, leading to her first patent: a device that took advantage of tubes to allow amputees to eat much more easily.
She then refined the design later in life and tried to start trying to get the American Veterans Association on board with it, though her efforts there found little purchase. In the end, many of her inventions were more widely appreciated abroad than they were in the US.
Pictures of outer space are more important than you might expect. They help us to study other planets more directly and figure out our place in the wider, vaster world of the planets and stars.
Well, the incredible achievements of intergalactic cameras like the Hubble Space Telescope would not be possible if not for the first illusion transmitter created by a Black woman, Valerie Thomas.
Thomas had always been interested in tinkering around with electronics. But her environment was never supportive of this burgeoning passion – even though it was something she got from her father, he refused to engage with her on it.
But none of that stopped Thomas from majoring in Physics at Morgan State University and graduating with an excellent academic record. That led her to a job at NASA, where her mathematical prowess pushed her up through the organization quite quickly.
The height of her accomplishments at NASA came when she created a whole new way to take pictures of space – the illusion transmitter. Her design used mirrors and complex computing in totally new ways to make this happen, and the technology is still in use by NASA’s imaging work today.
Also, modern surgical research has attempted to take advantage of her research to fuel innovative medical procedures that can make people’s lives better all over the world.
Madam C.J. Walker
People know Madam C.J. Walker less for her inventiveness than for her business acumen, but the latter would never have been successful without the former. She got her start as the child of sharecroppers in the American South, then spent time working as a washwoman.
Her life would begin to change when she started losing most of her hair in the 1890s. This caused her to look for a hair-growth scalp treatment that would work to bring her hair back. She tried everything: home remedies, herbal pastes, experimental treatments, and more.
After a long period of exploration, she finally found a formula that worked. She quickly patented it and got hard to work selling it door to door across the American South.
Her hard work and ingenuity led her to become the first Black female millionaire in the US.
Do you like the feeling of a well-ironed dress? Sarah Boone is the person you have to thank – her work in creating a specialized ironing board for the de-wrinkling of women’s clothing was one of the first existing prototypes for the contemporary ironing board.
Boone was a dressmaker, and she was frustrated with how traditional “ironing boards” (a simple slab of wood laid across two chairs) were inconvenient, especially for ironing dresses. Not only was the shape sub-optimal, but the wood would also often leave burns in the dress.
So she took up the task of learning to read and write through her church then applied for a patent on her new ironing board design. It had padding to avoid the coarseness of the wood from damaging the fabrics, and it had a special shape to accommodate different clothing types.
Even though she never made any money on this, she was awarded the patent on this design. People then used it for the ironing board found in many homes across the world today.
Alice H. Parker
In December 1919, something happened that would forever change how much of the world views cold weather. In that month, Alice H. Parker patented the design for the central heating furnace – a revolutionary innovation that would use natural gas to heat homes vastly more safely, effectively, and efficiently than fire- and coal-based models.
In her design, the furnace would draw in cold air from outside and convert it into hot air using a gas-powered heat exchanger. This design also involved a great deal of complexity and customizability that no one else at the time had managed to figure out. Her advancements laid the groundwork for the contemporary luxury of thermostats.
Because of all this, many circles know her as the Mother of Modern Heating.
But also, due to her status as a Black woman living long before the height of the civil rights and women’s liberation movements, she received very little recognition in her own time.
There is thus tragically equally little data that was recorded about her life. We know that she graduated from Howard University and that she died in 1920 at the young age of 35, very shortly after filing her patent.
Most of the “perm” hairstyles that became popular during the 20th century stemmed from the unique (and dominant) design for the permanent hair-wave machine that Marjorie Joyner, a Black female inventor, created in 1928.
Joyner began working under Madam C.J. Walker, who worked to promote and support her entrepreneurial efforts as a mentor.
Best Black Female Inventors, Final Thoughts
Black women have done incredible things for the construction of the contemporary world. Home security systems, central heating, hairstyles, walkers, the Hubble telescope, and much more – they all bear the indelible fingerprint of the ingenuity of Black female inventors. With the list above, you can explore more about just how much black female inventors have impacted the world we know.