African American Inventors You May Not Know

February 2023

Many African American inventors are not widely known, but here are a few examples:

Marjorie Stewart Joyner – Joyner was an African American cosmetologist and inventor born in 1896. She is best known for her invention of the permanent wave machine for hair, which allowed women to have long-lasting curls and waves in their hair. Joyner was also a prominent businesswoman and philanthropist, and she used her platform to empower and support other African American women in the beauty industry. Despite her numerous achievements, Joyner is not widely known outside of the beauty industry, and her contributions to the field of cosmetology are often overlooked.

Granville Woods – Woods was an African American inventor born in 1856. He is often referred to as the “Black Edison” due to his numerous innovations and contributions to electrical engineering. Woods held more than 50 patents, including several telegraph and telephone systems improvements. He was also a successful businessman and was known for his work in developing the multiplex telegraph, which allowed for multiple messages to be transmitted over a single wire. Despite his numerous achievements, Woods is not widely known outside of the fields of engineering and inventronics, and his contributions to the development of modern communication technology are often overlooked.

Elijah McCoy – McCoy was an African Canadian inventor born in 1843. He is best known for his numerous inventions related to lubrication, including an automatic lubricating cup for steam engines. This invention revolutionized the railroad industry, allowing trains to run longer without needing manual lubrication, leading to the phrase “the real McCoy” as a synonym for something authentic and high-quality. Despite his numerous achievements, McCoy is not widely known outside of the field of engineering, and his contributions to the development of modern machinery and transportation are often overlooked.

Sarah Breedlove (Madam C.J. Walker) – Breedlove, also known as Madam C.J. Walker, was an African American entrepreneur, philanthropist, and inventor. She was born in 1867 and became the first female self-made millionaire in America, mainly through her work in the beauty and hair care industry. Breedlove was known for her innovations in hair care products and processes. She used her wealth and platform to support various causes, including the advancement of African American women and the anti-lynching movement. Despite her numerous achievements, Breedlove is not widely known outside the beauty industry, and her contributions to entrepreneurship, philanthropy and African American history are often overlooked.

William Purvis – Purvis was an African American inventor and businessman born in 1810. He is best known for his invention of the desk pencil sharpener, which was patented in 1855. Purvis was also involved in several other businesses, including a successful catering company and a real estate investment company. Despite his numerous achievements, Purvis is not widely known outside of the history of African American entrepreneurship, and his contributions to the development of office technology are often overlooked.


George Washington Carver – Carver was an African American agricultural scientist and inventor born in 1864. He is best known for his work with peanuts, which he transformed into over 300 valuable products, including dyes, fuels, soaps, and food products. Carver’s innovations revolutionized agriculture and had a significant impact on the rural economy of the southern United States. Despite his numerous achievements, Carver is not widely known outside of the fields of agriculture and botany, and his contributions to the development of sustainable agriculture are often overlooked.

Julian Harmon – Harmon was an African American inventor and engineer born in 1917. He is best known for his innovations in the field of electronics, including his work on developing the first digital computer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Harmon was also involved in several other technological projects, including developing Telstar’s first commercial satellite. Despite his numerous achievements, Harmon is not widely known outside of the fields of engineering and computer science, and his contributions to the development of modern technology are often overlooked.

Lonnie Johnson – Johnson is an African American inventor, engineer, and entrepreneur. He was born in 1949 and has made numerous
contributions to energy and technology throughout his career. Johnson is best known for inventing the Super Soaker, a high-powered water gun that uses air pressure to shoot water over long distances. This invention became an instant
success and has become one of the most popular toys in the world, with millions of units sold each year.

Johnson is also known for his work in the energy field,
particularly his research on advanced battery technology. He has been awarded over 80 patents for his inventions, which include improvements to air conditioning systems, refrigerators, and other consumer products. Johnson has received numerous awards and honors for his contributions to science and technology, including being inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

In addition to his work as an inventor, Johnson is also an advocate for science education. He has actively promoted STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education to young people,
particularly those from underrepresented communities. Through his work and numerous
achievements, Johnson has inspired countless people to pursue careers in science and technology and left a lasting legacy in these fields.


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