The unappreciated legacy of African-American inventors

History-making black scientists and inventors should be honored as much for the lives they lived as for the things they invented.

Each February, in observance of Black History Month in the United States, we revisit the stories of notable African Americans. Lists of these prominent individuals and their contributions serve as powerful testimonials to black ingenuity. And within this impressive group, African-American scientists and inventors hold a special place.

They are a particular interest of mine, as a scholar studying the intersection of African-American history and the history of science. They also were exceptional in their time. Succeeding in science and technology in 19th- and 20th-century America despite the long odds imposed by racial oppression, black inventors represented the epitome of intellectual achievement.

By the early 19th century, James Forten of Philadelphia is believed to have invented a device that improved sailing and was running his own prosperous sailmaking business. He used his wealth to campaign for the abolition of slavery. By the early 21st century, engineer Lonnie Johnson had worked for the Air Force on the stealth bomber program and for NASA on missions to Saturn and Jupiter, and had obtained dozens of patents—including one for the Super Soaker water gun. In the decades bracketed by those two inventors, scientific discoveries by black Americans have helped make this nation and its people what we are today.

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