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10 Black Thinkers, Makers, and Creators Who Changed the World

Our ongoing celebration of Black lives continues! For week three, we’re paying homage to Black thinkers, makers, and creators whose thoughts and inventions have changed countless lives for the better!

Daniel Fernandez · 7 months ago

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These ten Black thinkers, makers, and world-shaping icons brought their ideas to life in unexpected ways in the face of adversity and seemingly insurmountable odds. Prepare to be inspired and surprised by these innovators!

1. Madam C.J. Walker, Black Hair Care Pioneer

Madam C.J. Walker found herself frustrated by hair products manufactured by White businesses that treated all hair types the same. After losing much of her hair due to a scalp disorder, Walker was inspired to create her hair care products specifically designed for Black women and their hair care needs.

She invented the Walker system, a unique combination of lotions, combs, and scalp preparations designed for Black women. She also sold her homemade pomade and other hair care products directly to Black women in her community. Through a combination of hard work, business savvy, and a product that resonated with the Black community, Madam C.J. Walker would go on to found Madam C.J. Walker Laboratories, where she manufactured cosmetics and trained thousands of beauticians.

As an entrepreneur, hair care pioneer, and one of the first African American women to become a millionaire, Madam C.J. Walker’s story is truly an inspiration, especially when you consider that she was a part of the first generation of African Americans born free from slavery. Don’t just take my word for it; watch Self Made and see for yourself

2. George Crum, Inventor of Potato Chips

Do you know those delicious potato things that come in all different kinds of flavors? Those fried discs of heavenly crispiness that make for the perfect afternoon (or midnight) snack and make every sandwich better? I’m talking about potato chips, which coincidentally wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the second figure on this list.

In 1853, George worked as a cook at a restaurant in upstate New York when a customer (who also happened to be the pickiest eater ever) complained that his french fries were too thick and demanded another batch. Frustrated by this customer, George decided to slice some potatoes super thin, fry them, season them with salt and serve them to this irksome guest.

Long story short, the customer loved them, word spread, and now lunchtimes worldwide are forever changed for the better. George would go on to open up his own restaurant and continue refining his famous potato chip method. If only every story about a disgruntled customer ended like this! Today, honor Mr. Crum by making homemade potato chips!

3. George Washington Carver, Agricultural Scientist and Popularizer of Peanut Butter

Even though there’s evidence that peanut butter may have existed in ancient Aztec and Incan civilizations, it was agricultural scientist George Washington Carver, a.k.a the Peanut Man, who is famous for making peanut butter as popular as it is today. But George Washington Carver’s most significant contribution to the world wasn’t just making grape jelly’s soulmate. Carver also introduced sustainable farming practices to Black farmers in America.

While teaching at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Carver noticed that the soil in that region was dangerously depleted because of all of the cotton farmed and harvested in that area. Though cotton was a lucrative crop for the farmers, Carver realized that this farming method wasn’t sustainable and would do more harm than good in the long run. Through his research, he discovered that peanuts could be grown in the same fields as cotton and that peanuts could also restore nutrients to the dried-out soil. Talk about a double whammy!

Carver also encouraged Black farmers to grow their own vegetables, make their own paint from clay and soybeans, and promoted the use of compost rather than fertilizer. George Washington Carver’s excellent recommendations helped Black farmers battle poverty and live more healthy and sustainable lives. As you enjoy a PB&J today, honor Carver by engaging in some of your own sustainable farming!

4. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Pioneer of Rock and Roll Music

Way back in the 1930s, before the Stones were Rolling or Zeppelins were made of Led, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was tearing up the scene as a musician who combined gospel music with elements of blues, folk, and swing.

A child music prodigy who was already performing by the time she was six years old and signed to a music label by the age of 23, Rosetta Tharpe was known for her electric guitar skills, powerful voice, and electrifying stage presence.

She released countless records, played all over the United States, and her music and live performances would go on to inspire some of the greatest greats like Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry.

Some of your favorite bands, songs, and rock n’ roll music itself wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Sister Rosetta Tharpe, so channel your inner rockstar and make her proud!

5. Garrett Morgan, Inventor of the Gas Mask and Traffic Lights

The son of two freed slaves, Garrett Morgan was committed to earning a living in America after the Civil War when African Americans were still subject to discrimination and fewer opportunities. In search of work, he moved from Kentucky to Ohio when he was just 14 years old and began repairing sewing machines.

His work as a repairman sparked an interest in tinkering and inventing. In 1916, Garrett Morgan helped save the lives of workers trapped inside a collapsed tunnel under Lake Erie using his very own invention, the “smoke hood.” This invention would evolve into the gas mask and be used to save lives during World War II.

In 1920, after witnessing a terrible accident at an intersection, Morgan also began looking for ways to prevent more traffic accidents. In those days, traffic signs only said “stop” and “go,” and Morgan realized that by adding a third signal to indicate that the signs were changing, accidents would be dramatically reduced. The rest is history.

Play a game of Red Light, Green Light today, and don’t forget to look both ways before you cross the street!

6. Dorothy Johnson Vaughan, NASA Mathematician

Growing up and working during the Jim Crow era in the United States meant that segregation was still legal in Virginia, where Dorothy Johnson Vaughan worked as a math teacher. Not only was Dorothy treated unfairly because of her race, but as a woman, Dorothy faced even more discrimination and obstacles due to her gender.

After taking a job at NASA in 1943, Dorothy worked with and would then lead a team of all-female African American mathematicians who helped NASA engineers design space equipment. After workplaces across the United States were desegregated, Dorothy would be the first African American woman to supervise NASA staff.

While at NASA, Dorothy realized that computers would eventually advance to a point where they would perform calculations faster than humans. She taught herself computer programming and later taught it to her team, contributing to NASA winning the Space Race.

Dorothy Johnson Vaughan wasn’t just a highly-skilled mathematician, teacher, and a human-computer; she became a symbol for Black women worldwide to succeed in STEM. At a time when the world wanted her to keep her head down, she set her sights for the stars.

7. Lisa Gelobter, Helped Invent the Animated GIF and Helped Found Hulu

Regardless of how you pronounce the word “GIF,” you have the GIF-leesi, Mother of all Animations herself, Lisa Gelobter, to thank. And before you binge-watch another show on Hulu, you may also want to thank Lisa. Again.

Lisa Gelobter is a computer scientist and programmer who has helped develop and pioneer technologies that have shaped how we all experience and consume video online. She’s worked on Shockwave animation software, was a founder at Hulu, was the Chief Digital Officer for BET Network and served as the Chief Digital Service Officer with the US Department of Education.

As a Black woman in tech who has faced racism and sexism in the workplace, Lisa also founded her own company called “tEQuitable,” which provides a platform to address issues of discrimination, bias, and harassment in the workplace, and she continues to blaze trails as a Black woman in STEM. Big things can start from a small line of code!

8. Lonnie Johnson, NASA Scientist and Inventor of the Super Soaker

Lonnie Johnson is an African American aerospace engineer who has studied mechanical and nuclear engineering, worked for the U.S. Air Force and NASA and founded two research companies. He also just so happens to be the inventor of one the most well-known and wildly fun toys of all time: the Super Soaker.

Growing up in Alabama, Lonnie was inspired by George Washington Carver to become an inventor, which makes sense as he was known as “the Professor” in his neighborhood because he was always making things. Lonnie would eventually go on to work in NASA’s propulsion lab. Technical terms aside, all you need to know is that while he was developing a heat pump device, he accidentally shot a stream of water at himself during an experiment, and well, the rest is history.

Presently, Lonnie Johnson’s companies are doing work in renewable energy, and he’s still thinking and making. Next time you superly soak your best friend, tell them you’re honoring Lonnie Johnson’s contributions as a Black inventor. 

9. Marie Van Brittan Brown, Inventor of the Closed-Circuit TV Security System

Born in 1922 in Queens, New York, Marie Van Brittan Brown grew up and lived in an area with a very high crime rate. Marie didn’t feel particularly safe in her neighborhood, and she even noticed that the police would take a very long time to arrive whenever they were called.

Once she became a nurse, she would sometimes commute home late at night due to her schedule. To feel safer in her home, Marie set out to create a system to keep her and her husband safe. Her invention was made up of a series of peepholes, a camera, a TV monitor, a microphone, and an alarm button that, if pressed, would contact the police immediately.

Marie Van Brittan Brown invented the first closed-circuit television security system, which laid the groundwork for every other modern security system you see today. It’s because of a Black female inventor’s work that you and your loved ones can sleep peacefully at night. Try it yourself!

10. Kelvin Doe, Engineer, and DJ

Born in an impoverished part of Freetown in Sierra Leone, the electricity in Kelvin Doe’s area frequently went down, which meant the community would go without power for days at a time. Inspired to help his community, Kelvin set off to understand how electronics worked.

He began collecting spare parts when he was 10 years old and taught himself how they worked. By the time he was 13, he had fixed his friends’ electronics and made gadgets like his own battery, a hand-powered generator, and an FM radio transmitter. He even set up his own radio station to play music under the name DJ Focus.

Kelvin would later study at M.I.T., speak at Harvard, and start his own company called KDoe-Tech. Only 24 years old, Kelvin is currently studying in Canada and is a reminder that focus and perseverance are all you need to build something that changes the world. Follow Kelvin’s lead today and blast some of your favorite tunes! I’m sure it’s what DJ Focus would want.

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