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African-American Inventors of Our Times

Continued successes, improving opportunities

African-Americans are still underrepresented in technology and the sciences; but great progress has been made since the 1960s, especially in the realm of higher education. Today, many universities, such as U. Cal. Berkeley and Purdue, have programs which aid and encourage minorities to become involved in science and invention.

The greatest progress has come in medicine, thanks to battles against discrimination fought by Drs. Daniel Hale Williams (1856-1931), Louis Tompkins Wright (1891-1952), and Charles Richard Drew (1904-1950), among others. Drew, the first black American to earn a Doctor of Science degree (Columbia U., 1940), pioneered the use of blood plasma in transfusions, co-founded one of the first U.S. blood banks, and standardized international blood donation and storage---this saved thousands of lives during World War II. Recently, inventor and educator Dr. Patricia E. Bath of Los Angeles, a renowned ophthalmologist, has patented (1988) an apparatus that efficiently removes cataracts.

African-American inventors have also improved the lives of the physically challenged. Bessie J. (Griffin) Blount, a physical therapist who worked with soldiers injured in World War II, patented a device (1951) that allows those who have lost the use of their limbs to feed themselves without assistance. More recently, Rufus J. Weaver patented a wheelchair that climbs stairs.

In technology, W. Lincoln Hawkins, Ph.D. stands out, with 18 U.S. and 129 foreign patents. The first African-American scientist to work for Bell Labs, Hawkins made universal telephone service possible by co-inventing a chemical additive that prevents the plastic coating on telecommunications cables from deteriorating. He won the National Medal of Technology in the year of his death (1992).

African-American engineers have also taken the tradition of domestic inventions to a high-tech level. David Crosthwait (died 1976, with 34 U.S. and 80 foreign patents) designed the heating system of New York's Rockefeller Center (1931). Marie Van Brittain Brown and Albert L. Brown co-patented (1969) an audio-visual door-monitor / home security system. Today, engineer and entrepreneur Clarence L. Elder of Baltimore has earned a number of patents (1975- ) for his energy-saving "Occustat" system, which uses motion detectors to allow thermostats to be lowered in a building's unoccupied rooms.

Today one can find African-Americans in top technical and administrative positions in industry, academia, and government. Thanks especially to these leaders, opportunities for black aspiring inventors are increasing each year. It is certain that the tradition of African-American invention that began with Benjamin Banneker will continue, and expand, through the 21st century.

[Feb. 1997]

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