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Hidden Pioneers

Black Women and Their Impact on Everyday Inventions

By Christine Manneh

An image of a black women with large hoops and red lips. There are three lines green, yellow and red in the background
Courtsey of Unsplash

As Black History Month 2023 unfolds, it's essential to recognize and celebrate the invaluable contributions of black women to society.

While often overlooked or overshadowed, their innovations and inventions have had a profound impact on various aspects of our lives. In this article, we will explore a few remarkable inventions that we wouldn't have without the brilliance and determination of black women.

Our first entrepreneur is Gladys West who we are to thank for The Global Positioning System, or GPS. This has since become an indispensable part of modern life. Gladys West was an African American mathematician and played a pivotal role in its development. Gladys is definitely considered to be a pioneering mathematician and she was born in 1930 in Virginia, USA. Despite facing racial and gender discrimination throughout her life and career she continued to pursue a name for herself in mathematics and joined a team at the Naval Surface Warfare Centre in the early 1960s. Her role in developing the mathematics behind the Global Positioning System (GPS) was pivotal. Without her contributions, our navigation systems, and countless other applications reliant on GPS would not be as reliable as they are today.

Haircare is a daily routine for many people worldwide, and the modern hairbrush is an essential tool. Lyda D. Newman, an African American inventor born in the late 19th century, patented an improved hairbrush design in 1898. Her invention made haircare more accessible and efficient. Her design was the first of its kind to feature synthetic bristles and a ventilated base to avoid debris making its way back into the hair. She received a patent on this design and yet she is rarely credited for this. Newman's innovation was particularly significant for black women, who sought effective ways to manage their hair. Her legacy lives on every time someone picks up a hairbrush.

Marie Van Brittan Brown was a visionary inventor who lived in New York in the 1960s. She recognised the need for improved home security and, along with her husband, developed a closed-circuit television system. Marie Van Brittan Brown's invention of the home security system revolutionized the way we think about safety at home. In 1966, they patented a system that included closed-circuit television, which allowed homeowners to monitor their surroundings remotely. Today, this technology is the foundation of modern home security systems, ensuring the safety of countless families. Nowadays many would associate Ring cameras as one of the first examples of this technology, however the visionary intelligence of a black woman once again sparked the idea and is once again overlooked.

Valerie Thomas is renowned for her pioneering contributions to the realms of optics and entertainment. She began her career in NASA as a data analyst and oversaw the Landsat program which is the longest running project to capture satellite imagery of earth, making a name for herself as an international Landsat expert. She would then go on to develop the illusion transmitter which was sparked from seeing an illusion of a lit lightbulb that was not in its socket. The use of convex mirrors in this exhibit sparked an idea in her mind and hence her groundbreaking invention, the illusion transmitter, became an essential piece of technology in surgery, televisions and video screens. This ingenious device, created by Valerie Thomas, projected 3D images, forming the bedrock for subsequent advancements in virtual reality and holography. Her invention not only permitted the projection of 3D images but also paved the way for the technological marvels of today's virtual reality and holography experiences. The path from wearing your blue and red 3D glasses in the cinema to playing VR games could not have progressed as it did without Valerie Thomas.

Patricia Era Bath, an ophthalmologist, and inventor made a significant impact on eye care. She invented the Laserphaco Probe, a revolutionary tool for cataract surgery that uses lasers to remove cataracts with unprecedented precision. She was an advocate for blindness prevention and for a better quality of life for those who were blind. During her residency she notices that people of colour were experiencing considerably higher rates of blindness and concluded that this was due to a lack of access to ophthalmological care. She instrumented a system called community ophthalmology which included eye care in the national health system. l Her invention has restored clear vision to millions of people worldwide, restoring quality of life.

Ellen Eglin's invention of the mechanical clothes ringer significantly eased the burden of household chores in the late 19th century. A clothes ringer, for those unfamiliar with the term, was a hand-cranked or mechanically operated apparatus used to extract excess water from freshly washed clothes. Before its invention, individuals had to rely on manual wringing by twisting and squeezing wet garments, a physically demanding and time-consuming task. Her innovation helped streamline laundry processes, making it more efficient and less physically taxing, further the convenience and practice of laundromats could not have progressed as it has without this invention.

A hand holding a sign that says 'thank you black women'
Courtesy of Gayatri Malhotra via Unsplash

The ironing board is another household item we owe to a black woman inventor. Sarah Boone patented an improved ironing board design in 1892, featuring a narrower, curved shape that made ironing sleeves and other garments easier. Boone's invention not only simplified the ironing process but also improved the quality of finished garments. By providing a stable and accommodating surface, her ironing board design ensured that clothing items were pressed with the utmost care and attention to detail.

Black women have made remarkable contributions to our world, enriching our lives in countless ways. Often these revolutions are overlooked or accredited to others and it is our duty to keep these truths alive and continue to celebrate black brilliance. From GPS accuracy to the convenience of home security systems and the reliability of hairbrushes, their innovations continue to shape our daily experiences. As we celebrate Black History Month in October 2023, let us remember and honour the legacy of these remarkable inventors whose inventions have touched and improved the lives of people across the globe.


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