In celebration of Black History Month, we're featuring four scientists and their life-changing inventions. Below is a brief introduction to these innovators and their stories of creation. Be sure to check out last year's post about fearless change-makers too. Let’s celebrate their accomplishments this month and all year round.
Image of G.W. Carver: Library of Congress, LC-J601-302
George Washington Carver was a scientist who broke barriers to revolutionize agriculture. He was born into slavery in Missouri and gained his freedom at a young age. Growing up, Carver gardened and worked on a farm—learning about crops and nursing dying plants back to life. When he finished college, he began his research on peanuts, sweet potatoes, and soybeans. Carver wrote about plants, ways to grow them, and recipes for healthy meals. He invented farming equipment to help small farms work more efficiently and developed hundreds of uses for peanuts like peanut milk, chili sauce, and chocolate covered peanuts. So next time you crunch a peanut, remember George Washington Carver’s contributions to your pantry!
Image of Madam C.J. Walker: Wikimedia | Image of Walker's hair and scalp preparation:
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Madam C.J. Walker built a beauty empire, but that's not where this millionaire’s story began. As a young girl, she worked in cotton fields and got married when she was just 14 years old. At age 20, Walker lost her husband and became a single mother searching for a way out of poverty. After years of hard labor, Walker struggled with hair loss and dreamed of making a product that would change her life—in more ways than one. Walker began selling her own hair products and realized she could start a business of her own. The business was called Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower. Not only did it revolutionize the hair care industry, it also provided employment opportunities for thousands of Black Americans. Her legacy lives on in the beauty industry to this day.
Garrett Morgan, a young entrepreneur of white, Black, and Native descent, funded his own education and built a sewing machine repair business in the early 1900s. He later invented a type of gas mask used by hundreds of fire stations across the U.S. Already a life-saving inventor, Morgan created a new traffic signal to prevent accidents in 1923. Earlier traffic signals went from “Go” to “Stop” without a break in between. Morgan’s new signal provided a pause between “Go” and “Stop”, which allowed drivers time to slow down or clear the intersection before the light changed. Morgan’s work protected firefighters, drivers, and pedestrians around the country. When you’re stuck at a red light and in a hurry, be thankful to Garrett Morgan for that pause to protect you.
Image of Valerie Thomas: NASA
Valerie Thomas was interested in mechanics and electronics at a very early age. Her passion for science and math helped her to graduate with honors from Morgan State University and become a data analyst for NASA. She learned about computing, began writing programs, and translated satellite data. Thomas took her passion a step further by becoming an inventor. She designed an illusion transmitter that had two curved mirrors, each observed by a video camera. Using this original set up, the observer ultimately sees the image three-dimensionally. The illusion transmitter is still used by NASA and can be applied to videos, television, and surgical imagining. We can thank Valerie Thomas for the ability to watch movies in 3D!
Looking for inspiring stories for your classroom or home library? We recommend our kids magazine. Issue 8 | The Spirit of the Games and Issue 13 | The Golden Rule are our top picks for Black History Month. And if you want to learn more about the history of invention, check out Honest History's book History Is Inventive.
Higgins, Hanusia. “Meet Valerie Thomas, the inventor and scientist who launched the longest-running satellite program imaging Earth’s surface.” Massive Science. September 16, 2021. https://massivesci.com/articles/valerie-thomas-science-hero-nasa-landsat/
Michael, Debra. “Madam C.J. Walker.” National Women’s History Museum. 2015. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/madam-cj-walker
Smith, Monica M. “Diverse Voices: Inventor Garrett Morgan.” February 21, 2022. https://invention.si.edu/diverse-voices-inventor-garrett-morgan
St. Fleur, Nicholas. “George Washington Carver.” National Geographic Kids. https://kids.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/george-washington-carver#:~:text=Carver%20was%20a%20scientist%20and,gasoline%E2%80%94though%20not%20peanut%20butter!
“The Legacy of Dr. George Washington Carver.” Tuskegee University. https://www.tuskegee.edu/support-tu/george-washington-carver