Stories about Black History Month frequently center on well-known professional athletes or entertainers. Today, we even the score by shining a light on six Black Americans who aren’t household names but should be. They applied their scientific knowledge to solve problems or achieve a goal. Their work, whether high-tech or low-tech, has improved life on Earth — and beyond.
Until the 1880s, only the wealthy could afford expensive shoes. The hardest part was attaching the sole to the upper shoe, which was done mostly by hand. Only a highly skilled worker could do it, producing approximately 50 pairs per day. Jan Matzeliger, a young South American immigrant with a knack for mechanics, created a machine that did the job much faster. His invention has the potential to produce up to 700 pairs of shoes per day. As a result, shoes are significantly less expensive. Matzeliger was featured on a postage stamp in the United States in 1991.
Patricia Bath’s parents advised her, “Never settle for less than your best.” She was never able to. Bath had a long list of “firsts” in her career as a doctor, research scientist, inventor, and educator. She is best known for her work in preventing blindness in people who do not have access to proper medical care. In 1981, she pioneered the use of a laser to treat cataracts (pronounced CAT-uh-racts), a clouding of the eye’s lens. Her method, which is used all over the world, has been credited with helping millions of people restore or improve their vision.
When George Carruthers built his first telescope at the age of ten, he had no idea that he would one day have a telescope on the moon. Decades later, he led a team that created a complex camera/telescope that was used on the Apollo 16 mission to the moon in 1972. The 50-pound device peered deep into space, capturing images of Earth’s outer atmosphere, multiple stars, and distant galaxies. Carruthers also worked on the Skylab space station and the space shuttle program.
Sandra K. Johnson’s career as an electrical engineer began with a summer program in high school. Her first job was with IBM, a global technology behemoth. She helped design an early version of IBM’s “Deep Blue” chess computer and worked on increasing computer speed. Its ability to handle complex calculations pushed the field of computer science forward. Johnson founded her own company in 2018 after serving as IBM’s chief technology officer in Central, East, and West Africa. Her ambition is to use technology to improve people’s lives in Sub-Saharan African countries.
Garrett Morgan didn’t let the fact that he only finished elementary school hold him back. One of his inventions was a “safety hood” breathing device — an early type of gas mask — to protect firefighters and workers exposed to hazardous substances. After witnessing a carriage accident in 1923, he designed a traffic signal with movable arms to indicate to drivers whether they should stop or proceed. Morgan also created hair-care products, such as a straightening fluid that he tested on a neighbor’s Airedale. The fluid allegedly straightened the dog’s hair so much that its owner didn’t recognize it afterward.
Gladys West followed mathematics from her childhood farm in Virginia 100 miles north to a United States naval facility, where she performed complex calculations and programmed computers for four decades until her retirement in 1998. She led teams on ground-breaking satellite projects that monitored the world’s oceans and created a detailed model of the Earth’s surface, which is a branch of science known as geodesy (gee-ODD-es-see). Her work served as the foundation for the Global Positioning System (GPS). Satellite-based mapping systems are used all over the world, but not in the West. She prefers to use paper maps.