Twentieth Century African American Inventors

An ink drawing of Otis Boykin from a U.S. DEPARTMENT of Energy biographical sketch of 1979.

Have you ever ridden in an elevator or bitten into a potato chip and wondered, “Who thought of this?” Gas masks, golf tees, traffic lights and the pencil sharpener are all ideas brought into reality by African Americans.

Otis F. Boykin

He was responsible for inventing the wire precision resistor. This type of resistor is used in radios and televisions. He invented another resistor that was more resilient and inexpensive to manufacture two years later. A list of his other inventions include a chemical air filter, a burglarproof cash register, a control unit for pacemakers, and other types of resistors used in computers and guided missile systems. He was born in Dallas, Texas and graduated from Fisk College in Tennessee. He attended the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago yet did not graduate. This did not; however, deter him from inventing.

Dr. Patricia Bath

Ophthalmologist and inventor are just two names attributed to Mrs. Bath. She is recognized for her development of the Cataract Laserphaco Probe, which uses a laser’s energy to vaporize a cataract and damaged lens and remove it from the eye. The invention was a breakthrough in the world of cataract surgery due to its less invasive means and more accurate results. She currently has four US patents involving the Cataract Laserphaco Probe as well as various other patents internationally.

Percy Julian

Born in Montgomery, Alabama 1899, he attended school at a time when African Americans were only provided restricted public education. After being allowed entry to DePauw University he graduated as class valedictorian and went on to receive a master’s degree from Harvard and then a Ph. D. from the University of Vienna. He invented the foam used in fire-extinguishers and is most renowned for his synthesizing of cortisone and physostigmine, which is used to treat glaucoma, counter nerve gas and improve memory of Alzheimer’s patients.

George Edward Alcorn, Jr.

In 1984, while working as a physicist for NASA he won the Goddard Space Flight Center Inventor of the Year Award for inventing the imaging x-ray spectrometer. He holds eight patents in the US and in Europe for semiconductor technology. George Alcorn, Jr. is a professor at Howard University as well as the University of the District of Columbia in their electrical engineering departments. He currently has in excess of twenty inventions.

Valerie Thomas

As a physicist working for NASA, Valerie Thomas patented and invented the illusion transmitter. This secured her a place as one of the most outstanding African American inventors of all time. The illusion transmitter allows the viewing audience to see projected images in a three dimensional view. One example, in a scene from, Star Wars, the Jedi’s image being seen as a hologram in the center of the room. Her work has many possibilities and has potential to be used for commercial use in televisions as well as by NASA.


  1.,*”Otis Boykin”
  2.,*”Percy Lavon Julian”
  3.,*”Percy Lavon Julian”
  4.,*”George Alcorn”
  5., *”Valerie Thomas”
  6., *”Innovative Lives, The Right to Sight”