Noteworthy inventions by African-Americans range from the potato chip to the 1-gigahertz chip.

Thomas Jennings didn’t just defy the odds; he worked to change them. The first African-American to be granted a patent, Jennings was born in 1791 a free man during the peak of slavery on the Atlantic Coast. He amassed great wealth as a tailor in the early 1800s despite the fact that the U.S. economy was primarily agricultural during that time.

The holder of U.S. Patent No. 3306x—issued on March 3, 1821, for “dry scouring,” a process that we now call dry cleaning—may have had even greater historic impact later in his life.

Not content to sit back and enjoy the considerable fruits of his labor, he spent much of his earnings promoting abolitionist causes in the Northeast. In 1831, he became the assistant secretary for the First Annual Convention of the People of Color in Philadelphia. Years later, when his daughter Elizabeth was forced off a public bus in New York City because of the color of her skin, his wealth and influence helped her hire premier legal representation by a firm that included future President Chester Arthur. She won her case in 1855.

In the roughly 200 years since Jennings’ landmark patent, inventions by African-Americans have been as diverse as the world he envisioned—from the potato chip to the 1-gigahertz chip. In honor of Black History Month, here’s a short list of those countless innovations that have improved life and our enjoyment of it.

Potato chip (1853) – George Crum

George Crum isn’t nearly as well known as the potato chip, but maybe he should be. The legend starts with his name.
Born George Speck, he reportedly adopted the name Crum from his dad’s racing horse … or the name his father used as a jockey … or maybe you prefer the version that says he took the name after a patron mistakenly called him Crum. Either way, he reasoned that “A crumb is bigger than a speck.”
A cook of Mohawk ancestry, Crum frequently cooked french fries that were a regular source of complaints from a customer (some reports say it was Cornelius Vanderbilt, a railroad mogul and regular at Moon’s Lake House on Saratoga Lake in Saratoga Springs, New York). The story has it that every time Crum made another batch, the customer demanded they be cooked thinner—so the exasperated chef ultimately sliced the potatoes extremely thin, fried them to a crisp and added a lot of salt. To everyone’s surprise, the “Saratoga chips” were a hit.
Although this tale seems widely assumed to be true and Crum is largely acknowledged as the inventor, salient footnotes abound. Crum had no patent for the potato chip; he never mentioned the potato chip in his commissioned biography; a recipe for fried potato “shavings” appeared in a U.S. cookbook as early as 1832; and some sources claim that Mrs. Catherine Wicks, Crum’s sister and also a cook, was the real inventor of the Saratoga chips.

Automatic lubricator (1872) – Elijah McCoy

McCoy’s first of 57 patents was arguably his most significant, if for nothing more than the popular saying it spawned. He developed an automatic lubricator that spread oil evenly over a train’s engine while it was still moving, which allowed trains to run for long periods without stopping.

As happens frequently with a popular invention, it didn’t take long before copycats of inferior quality sprang up. Railway engineers made sure to ask for “the real McCoy.”

McCoy said his greatest invention was a graphite lubricator, patented in 1916, that used powdered graphite suspended in oil to lubricate cylinders of “superheater” train engines.

Carbon-filament bulb (1881) – Lewis Latimer

Although Thomas Edison is routinely referred to as the inventor of the light bulb, electric streetlights were already in existence when he tested the bulb he’s famous for in 1879. In that same spirit of improvement, Latimer’s patented method for the production of carbon filaments for the incandescent light bulb was an improvement on Edison’s bulb—which had a paper filament that burned out quickly.

Latimer encased the filament within a cardboard envelope, which prevented the carbon from breaking and provided a much longer life for the bulb. Before long, he was helping to install the first electric plants in New York City, Philadelphia and Montreal, and oversaw the installation of lighting in railroad stations, government building and major thoroughfares in Canada, New England and London.

Latimer, who had seven patents, also worked with Alexander Graham Bell and helped draft the patent for Bell’s design of the telephone.

Crop rotation (early 1900s) – George Washington Carver

Hired to lead the agricultural department at the African-American Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1896, Carver helped revive flagging cotton production in the South by developing crop-rotation methods to improve soils that were depleted by repeated plantings of tobacco and cotton (year unknown). His teams taught farmers how to restore nitrogen by alternating plantings of peanuts, soybeans and sweet potatoes.

Born into slavery, Carver is most associated with the peanut, though it’s not true that he invented peanut butter. He invented more than 300 products involving the peanut that included milk, paint, soap, cosmetics, plastics, dyes, cooking oil, printer’s ink and a type of gasoline.

As Carver’s department achieved national renown, he became known as a scientific expert and one of the most prominent African-Americans of his time.

Gas mask (1912) – Garrett Morgan

Morgan’s invention was a safety hood that was patented in 1912 as a breathing device, later to be known as the gas mask. The hood had two long tubes; one allowed clean incoming air, and the other let the user exhale out of the hood. The device, which became popular with police and fire departments, saved the lives of thousands of soldiers during World War I when dealing with poisonous gases.

Even the device’s life-saving properties weren’t enough to prevent racial obstacles—particularly in the South, where some people resisted buying his product. According to, Morgan hired a white actor to act as the inventor during presentations of his device. The inventor himself posed as a Native American man named “Big Chief Mason” who wore his hood to enter areas otherwise unsafe for breathing.

Morgan wasn’t just an inventor and publisher. He was a hero. In the early hours of July 24, 1916, an explosion in a tunnel being built under Lake Erie by Cleveland Water Works trapped 32 workers. Morgan and his brother, Frank, entered the tunnel wearing the safety hood and emerged with a survivor on their back. Many of the workers, though not all, were saved.

Morgan also had patents for a hair-straightening product, a revamped sewing machine and an improved traffic signal.

Laserphaco Probe (1988) – Patricia E. Bath

Dr. Bath’s idea was so far ahead of the technology that was then available, it needed nearly five years of research, development and trials. The laser vaporizes cataracts and lens material with a 1-millimeter insertion into the patient’s eye, where a replacement lens is inserted. The probe has helped restore the sight of people who had been blinded by cataracts for up to 30 years.

In 1988, Dr. Bath became the first African-American female doctor in U.S. history to receive a patent for a medical invention. The holder of four patents, she is also the first woman to chair an ophthalmology residence program in the United States.

1-gigahertz chip (1999) – Mark Dean

In 1999, Dean led a team of engineers at IBM’s Austin, Texas, lab to create a gigahertz chip that performs a billion calculations or cycles per second. (Some sources say it was the first such chip, although at least one other computer giant claims that distinction.)
Possibly the most accomplished living inventor you’ve never heard of, Dean has been an important figure in the development of the personal computer. He owns three of IBM’s original nine patents; helped develop the color PC monitor; and with engineer Dennis Moeller invented the Industry Standard Architecture system bus, which allows for computer plug-ins such as disk drives and printers.