African Americans in Science and Technology

Photo Essay

Dr. George Washington Carver in his Tuskegee Institute laboratory, Tuskegee, Alabama, date unknown. Courtest of AP Images.

The contributions of George Washington Carver are known to many. As the most famous African American inventor in U.S. history, Carver, it too often seems, is both the beginning and the end of any discussion on black technological innovation. Few are aware that a prototype for the gasmask was invented by a black Chicagoan in 1914; that a wealthy, France-educated Creole engineer patented a sugar-refining process so groundbreaking it was financially backed by Judah P. Benjamin, former Vice President of the Confederacy; or that the expression “the Real McCoy” was reputedly inspired by the handiwork of serial tinkerer Elijah McCoy, a railroad man from Ohio. This is not to say that Carver, a pioneering agriculturist who devised over 500 uses for the peanut and won three patents, should be any less recognized for his momentous advances. It’s only to point out that—as the current Focus On demonstrates—African American innovation simply did not begin or end with him.

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The following entries have been selected to help guide readers who want to learn more about African American scientists and inventors. (Access to the following articles is available only to subscribers).

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