16 Things That Simply Would Not Exist Without Black Women
It shouldn't be news anymore that women have invented everything from beer and coffee to wifi and disposable diapers. But what's more is that black women specifically have offered their ingenuity, innovation, and creativity to the world in ways you wouldn't believe. I take it you ran a brush through your hair this morning? You can thank Lyda Newman for keeping your locks sleek and shiny.
Black women's incredible contributions have been largely overlooked in modern society, even though they were able to make them against all odds. After the Civil War, it was nearly impossible for African-American women to be accepted to universities, take jobs in STEM, or be granted patents for their creations; intersectional discrimination kept many women from being taken seriously as inventors and entrepreneurs. Despite those hurdles, black women were able to fight for patents and, in many cases, sell their inventions to the masses. Keep reading for 16 things that wouldn't exist without the brain of a black woman.
While it's still unclear who invented the original brush or comb, it was Lyda Newman, a black woman living in Manhattan, who first patented the hairbrush in 1898. Newman's brush was the first to feature synthetic bristles (rather than animal hair, such as boar), and was also specially designed to provide ventilation and storage for excess hair, making it far more sanitary and easier to clean.
According to her patent, Newman's design aimed to "provide a new and improved hair brush which is simple and durable in construction, very effective when in use, and arranged to permit of conveniently cleaning the brush whenever desired." Bless you, Lyda Newman! Our follicles thank you.
The Curling Iron
Black women know hair, people! In 1980, Theora Stephens was granted a patent for "a more efficient pressing and curling iron." There isn't much information available about Stephens, other than she was a black hairdresser who was apparently fed up enough with lackluster hair curling products that she decided to swoop in and save us all.
If you're like me and consider GIFs a form of communication, give a round of applause to Lisa Gelobter, the computer scientist who developed the animation used to create GIFs as well as other pioneering video technology like Shockwave, Brightcove, Joost, and even Hulu. The Brown University graduate is now the chief digital service officer for the US Department of Education, so we owe her a lot, guys.
The Home Security System
Marie Van Brittan Brown was a full-time nurse from NYC who, feeling unsafe in her home due to rising crime rates, invented a complex system to protect it. Brown's original invention had everything: a camera, monitors, two-way mic, peepholes, and even an alarm button that would immediately call the police. In 1969, she and her husband, electronics technician Albert Brown, were granted a patent. Brown's initial device paved the way for both home and business security systems, not to mention the closed-circuit television systems we use for surveillance around the world today.
The Ironing Board
Sarah Boone was a former slave who, in April 1892, patented a new-and-improved version of the ironing board that made it way easier to smooth out women's garments. The original ironing board was fine for straight sleeves and pant legs, but it wasn't very effective for pressing blouses and dresses (and guess who was wearing most of the blouses and dresses?!).
But then boom, Sarah Boone steps in the room! Her board was more narrow, curved, and also reversible, making it "particularly adapted to be used in ironing the sleeves and bodies of ladies' garments." Good looking out, sis.
The Clothes Wringer
In the late 1880s, a housekeeper named Ellen Elgin invented a clothes-wringing machine to help make washing and drying a faster process. Clothes would be fed between two rollers connected to a crank, and as the crank turned the water would be wrung out, making them easier to hang and dry. At the time of Elgin's invention, there weren't many ways to clean clothing other than using your hands, so it was a big deal.
In order to have the best chances at success, Eglin made the choice to sell her patent to "a white person interested in manufacturing the product" for $18. She explained the decision in an April 1890 issue of Woman Inventor, saying, "I am black and if it was known that a Negro woman patented the invention, white ladies would not buy the wringer. I was afraid to be known because of my color in having it introduced into the market that is the only reason." The buyer of the patent, of course, went on to make a lot of money from Elgin's invention.
Is there anything to be more thankful for than a warm home? New Jersey-native Alice H. Parker knew this, and in 1919 invented a furnace that provided central heating for entire homes and buildings, rather than one concentrated area. The design used natural gas rather than coal or firewood, and featured complex air ducts that allowed heat to travel through larger structures.
Parker's idea was considered to be revolutionary, as it enabled people to keep their homes warm without having to use a wood-burning fireplace and laid the groundwork for the elaborate heating and cooling systems we use today.
Conditioner For Black Hair
Remember a few scrolls ago, when I said "black women know hair?" Well, few black women knew hair like Madam C. J. Walker, who was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867. In the 1890s, Walker began suffering from a scalp ailment that resulted in her losing most of her (very long, very gorgeous) hair. After consulting others for advice and experimenting with multiple homemade remedies and store-bought products, Walker founded her own hair-care business, changed her name to "Madam" C. J. Walker, and began selling her namesake Wonderful Hair Grower, a conditioning treatment and healing scalp formula.
Not only did Madam Walker change the game for black women's hair-care products, but she also used her wealth and success to advocate for civil rights and the advancement of black Americans. Walker was considered to be the first self-made African-American businesswoman in history; at the time of her death in 1919, she was worth over $1 million — a major achievement for any woman, but especially for one whose parents were slaves. She was basically the Beyoncé of the black beauty world.
Voice Over Internet Protocol
Voice over Internet Protocol, commonly known as VoIP, is the technology that allows us to use the internet to make phone calls — and if you've ever chatted long-distance over Skype or used Google Hangouts to connect with coworkers, you have Marian Croak to thank.
Croak joined AT&T in 1982 and developed the core technology that makes it possible to communicate through audio and video over the internet. Croak holds over 200 patents, including one for text-based donation services. It's true: Marian Croak is also the reason why we can now give money to charitable organizations just by texting a code. Croak left AT&T in 2014, and is now a vice president of engineering at Google, where she oversees reliability engineering for YouTube.
The Sanitary Belt
If you thought talking about menstruation was taboo now, you wouldn't believe how hush-hush women had to be about it back in the 1950s. While the earliest version of disposable pads were on the market, they were expensive and cumbersome to wear, often slipping back and forth — plus, the majority of women were generally too embarrassed to ask for them directly at a store, so they were still using less sanitary methods like cloth pads and rags during their period. Tampons were around too, but because of various warnings — for instance, religious leaders said they were "evil," and would make young girls "prone to erotic feelings" — they were not widely used.
Enter Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner, who knew there had to be a better way. In 1954, she filed a patent for her invention: an adjustable belt for sanitary napkins with a moisture-proof pocket to keep the pad in place, made to be worn under women's garments. It was a brilliant idea that garnered attention from major companies, but Kenner's invention didn't come without its fair share of racism. "One day I was contacted by a company that expressed an interest in marketing my idea. I was so jubilant," Kenner said. "Sorry to say, when they found out I was black, their interest dropped. The representative went back to New York and informed me the company was no longer interested."
Three years later, in May 1957, Kenner was finally granted a patent for her sanitary belt, which was widely used until we finally decided to add an adhesive strip to the bottom of menstrual pads to secure them to underwear. This (obviously) became the new method of choice, and the sanitary belt went out of favor during the early '80s. In addition to changing the game with her sanitary belt, Kenner also went on to invent a bathroom tissue holder, a mounted shower back washer, and a carrier attachment for walkers. Of her historic creations, Kenner said, "My inventions were never about money. I just want to help make life easier for people." How often do you hear that anymore?
The Pastry Fork
In March 1892, Anna Magrin was awarded a patent for her pastry fork invention; not the small, special fork for eating pie and cake, but instead a utensil used to mix dough for pie crust, cookies, and pastries, as well as make it easier to beat eggs and mash potatoes. This helpful tool was a precursor to electric mixers, and made combining ingredients while cooking and baking far less of a challenge (and less of a mess).
The Fruit Press
Madeline Turner, an Oakland, CA woman who was presumably tired of squeezing juice by hand every morning, created an elaborate machine that could extract juice from fruit like oranges, apples, and lemons. In April 1916 Turner was granted a patent for her invention, which she named Turner's Fruit-Press; a patent review committee member is said to have called the machine "ingenious," and Turner also exhibited it at the Panama–California Exposition.
Without Madeline Turner's fruit-press invention, there would likely be no smoothie chains or overpriced juice bars — and what would I force myself to chug after a night of drinking?
In 1986, Harlem-born ophthalmologist Dr. Patricia Bath invented a solution to harmful cataracts (cloudy eye blemishes that can lead to blindness) with the Laserphaco Probe, a surgical tool that uses a laser and 1-millimeter insertion to dissolve the blemish, so the patient's eye lens can then be replaced. OK, my eyes are already watering.
Dr. Bath conceived of the idea in the early 1980s after working at Harlem Hospital and discovering that African Americans suffer from blindness at nearly double the rate of white people, and are eight times more likely to develop glaucoma. She attributed this to the lack of accessible ophthalmic services for black people, and began a community ophthalmology system that provided care to those who were normally unable to afford it. She also cofounded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, which declares that "eyesight is a basic human right."
Not only did Dr. Bath make history with her invention — she became the first African-American woman doctor to receive a patent for a medical purpose — but she also holds four patents related to the Laserphaco and continues to make improvements to it to this day.
The Feeding Tube
Bessie Blount Griffin was a Virginia-born physical therapist who spent time caring for World War II veterans, helping them use their teeth and feet in place of the hands that they lost in combat. Blount invented a device that would help amputees feed themselves and give them an increased sense of self-confidence.
Blount's invention consisted of an electronic tube that delivered small bites of food to a patient at their own pace; it allowed the patient to bite down on the tube for another serving, which would be delivered via a mouthpiece attached to a machine. If you can believe it, the American Veterans Administration declined Blount's invention (despite the fact that it would, you know, make it easier for people to eat), so instead, she donated the rights to the French government. Blount took pride in the fact that her feeding machine proved "that a black woman can invent something for the benefit of humankind."
Whether you live in a small space or just love dual-purpose furniture, you'll want to know this: the precursor to what we now know as the Murphy bed was actually invented by an entrepreneur named Sarah Goode. In July 1885, Goode became the first African-American woman to receive a US patent for her ingenious cabinet bed, which was adapted to be "folded together when not in use, so as to occupy less space, and made generally to resemble some article of furniture when so folded." When the bed was folded, it could be used as a desk — amazing, right? Goode's design paved the way not just for the Murphy bed, but also sofa beds and other convertible furniture.
The Illusion Transmitter
Valerie Thomas is a scientist who began working at NASA as a data analyst in 1964. While there, she managed a project for NASA's image processing systems and oversaw the development of "Landsat," which was the first satellite to ever send images from space. In 1977, Thomas began researching and experimenting on an "illusion transmitter," which would essentially create the appearance of a 3D image using concave mirrors and rays of light. She patented it in 1980, and NASA still uses her invention to this day.