Hidden Figures: 10 Black Pioneers of Science Who Changed the World | History Hit

Hidden Figures: 10 Black Pioneers of Science Who Changed the World

Peta Stamper

06 Oct 2021
Annie Easley was, like Dorothy Johnson Vaughn, a 'human computer' working for NASA in 1955.
Image Credit: NASA / Public Domain

From Thomas Edison’s light bulb to Florence Nightingale‘s leading light in nursing, scientific pioneers have made waves in medicine and technology that are still felt today. However, countless black pioneers and inventors have had their contributions to science and technology largely overlooked, thanks to centuries of institutional racism.

Celebrating innovation in the face of adversity, here are 10 black pioneers of science who, along with their inventions and innovations, have changed the world.

1. Mary Seacole

Born in Jamaica, Seacole became interested in her mother’s healing work and later took the chance to cultivate her medical expertise while nursing patients during cholera epidemics in Jamaica and Panama during the 1840s and early 50s.

When she heard about the war in Crimea, she raced to England to offer her help. Despite being rebuffed by Florence Nightingale’s nursing team, Mary left for the Crimean front on her own. With money from officers and those who could afford it, she provided food and medicine for all.

Revered for her courage and pioneering nursing, Seacole even became a masseuse for the Princess of Wales after moving to London in 1869.

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2. Lewis Latimer

While the light bulb was famously created by Edison, his invention was improved by lesser-known Lewis Latimer, who devised a long-lasting filament made of carbon in 1881. Latimer applied his inventive talents working for the US Lighting Company in 1880 – in direct competition with Edison.

Latimer’s carbon filament light bulbs lasted longer than earlier models, which were typically made of bamboo or other quickly burnt materials and often only lasted for a few days. In 1884, he was invited to work alongside Edison at the Edison Lighting Company.

The Edison Pioneers – a group of former employees of the Edison Company – included Lewis Latimer (front row, second on the left) and Thomas Edison (front and centre with a cane), 1920.

Image Credit: The Latimer-Norman Family Collection / Public Domain

3. George Washington Carver

Born into slavery a year before it was ended, George left home at a young age for school and earned a master’s degree in agricultural science in 1894, becoming the first black American to earn a science degree.

Yet it was his work as an agricultural chemist that demonstrated his innovative mind. Carver experimented with peanuts to find alternative solutions for making soap, face powder, shampoo, mayonnaise, metal polish and glues.

4. Alice Parker

Central heating was not a new idea when Alice submitted a patent for her design during the cold December of 1919. However, existing heating systems relied on burning coal and wood which risked causing house fires and meant leaving your house to gather fuel.

Alice’s revolutionary design used natural gas instead, conserving energy and paving the way for the central heating we use in our homes today. On top of her invention, Alice successfully gained a patent at a time before both the Civil Rights movement and Women’s Liberation.

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5. Madame C. J. Walker

Walker was a cosmetics manufacturer and businesswoman who not only became the first female self-made millionaire, but one of the largest employers of black American women in the early 20th century.

She suffered from a scalp condition as a child and, after learning chemistry working for a pharmacist, devised a popular hair-softening cream and shampoo. These products helped heal dry skin and other maladies common at the time because indoor plumbing wasn’t widely available.

Madame C. J. Walker’s company hired and trained thousands of black women to sell her products in shops, by mail and door-to-door. This helped many become more independent when job opportunities were limited for women.

6. Garrett Morgan

Morgan was out driving one day when he saw a terrible car accident. He was already a known inventor, having devised a ‘smoke hood’ to help rescuers breathe in tunnels or smoky conditions. Seeing the road accident prompted him to design a new traffic light.

Garrett Morgan’s traffic light patent, 1923.

Image Credit: US Patent and Trademark Office / Public Domain

While traffic lights had existed since the early 1920s, Morgan’s design included a ‘yield’ or amber light. The additional light would warn drivers of the coming red ‘stop’ light. In 1923, he took out a patent for the new tricolour traffic light, which is still widely used today.

7. Charles Drew

As a physician, surgeon and medical researcher, Drew worked at the Red Cross on ground-breaking developments in blood transfusions. During World War Two, he had a major role in implementing the first large-scale blood banks and donation programs such as ‘Blood for Britain’, which shipped blood from New York to London. He was also responsible for devising the bloodmobile to safely transport donations.

Drew resigned from the American Red Cross after they refused to lift the segregation of blood donation, which only happened in 1950.

8. Dorothy Johnson Vaughn

Vaughn was a ‘human computer’, employed at NASA to complete the calculations of wind and gravity that launched satellites and eventually humans into space. When she was hired, Vaughn’s department was racially segregated.

After 6 years she became the first black manager of her division. A decade later, the department desegregated, allowing Vaughn to join the Analysis and Computation team where she worked on the program that launched John Glenn into space for the first time.

A ‘human computer’ for NASA, Melba Roy, with an IBM computer in 1964.

Image Credit: NASA / Public Domain

9. Shirley Jackson

In 1973, Jackson became the first black American woman to earn a doctorate in nuclear physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her breakthroughs in theoretical physics allowed numerous inventions in telecommunication, including the touch-tone telephone, portable fax and caller ID, as well as the fibre-optic cable.

Today, she is the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the United States’ oldest technological research university.

10. Mark Dean

In the 1980s, Dean worked for the computer engineering company IBM. As chief engineer, he led the team that created IBM’s first personal computer (PC), which soon became one of the worlds’ most popular models and the blueprint for future PC designs.

Mark also went on to create a colour monitor for PC screens that had previously only displayed in black and white. He then developed the first gigahertz processor in 1999 that allowed PCs to work faster and harder at a pivotal time in computing history. 

Peta Stamper