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patent diagram of nailing device

Black History Month:
African American Inventors

February 2016

In honor of Black History month, the February 2016 exhibit featured inventions and scientific discoveries by African Americans inventors from the early 1800s to the late 1990s.

Scientific advances include research into pharmacology and chemistry. One of these inventions was a process to preserve blood plasma, allowing it to be used for blood transfusions, invented by Charles Drew in the late 1930s. Dr. Drew became medical director of the Red Cross during World War II.

left display case

Inventions include items which are in common use, such as an original model for a pencil sharpener, an early traffic signal, and an overshoe. These inventions were all patented.


center display case

A patent for an invention is the grant of a property right to the inventor. Patents are granted for new, useful and non-obvious inventions for a period of 20 years from the filing date of a patent application, and provide the right to exclude others from exploiting the invention during that period.


right display case

Other examples of patents include an improvement in the pacemaker by Otis Boykin, improvements in nailing, lighting, record keeping, hair dressing and computers. In 1914, Garrett Morgan invented an early version of the gas mask used in World War I. Morgan also patented a traffic signal, which he sold to GE for $40,000.


The following books were used in preparing the exhibit:

  • Austin, Gail T.  African-American women in the sciences and related disciplines. Science Reference Section, Science and Technology Division, Library of Congress,1993.
    New York State Library call number:  US Doc. LC 33.10:93-4
  • Barber, John T.  The black digital elite : African American leaders of the information revolution.  Praeger, 2006.
    New York State Library call number:  C 305.52309 B234, 207-3482
  • Brodie, James Michael.  Created equal : the lives and ideas of Black American innovators.  W. Morrow, 1993.
    New York State Library call number:  C 509.2273, B864, 94-76489
  • Cerami, Charles A.  Benjamin Banneker : surveyor, astronomer, publisher, patriot.  J. Wiley, 2002.
    New York State Library call number:  C 520.92, B219, 203-3550
  • Haber, Louis.  Black pioneers of science and invention.  Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970.
    New York State Library call number:  Z 509.2, Ah12
  • Hardwick, Richard.  Charles Richard Drew, pioneer in blood research.  New York, Scribner, 1967.
    New York State Library call number:  Z 610.92, D776h2
  • Lewis Research Center.  African American contributions to science and engineering.  National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Lewis Research Center, 1992.
    New York State Library call number:  US Docs. NAS, 1.2:AF 4
  • Ovington, Mary White.  Portraits in color.  New York, The Viking Press, 1927.
    New York State Library call number:  C 325.26, O96
  • Strasser, Theresa C.  An African-American bibliography : science, medicine, and allied fields : selected sources from the collections of the New York State Library.  University of the State of New York, State Education Dept., New York State Library, 1991.
    New York State Library call number:  D-NYS-DOC 132-4 AFRAB, 92-3988
  • Webster, Raymond B.  African American firsts in science and technology. Gale Group, 1999.
    New York State Library call number:  R 508.99607, W383, 202-1961
  • Williams, James C.  At last recognition in America : a reference handbook of unknown Black inventors and their contributions to America.  B.C.A. Pub. Corp., 1978.
    New York State Library call number:  C 608.778, W724 82-24801, V.1
  • Wilson, Francille Rusan.  The segregated scholars : Black social scientists and the creation of Black labor studies, 1890-1950. University of Virginia Press, 2006.
    New York State Library call number:  C 331.6396, W748, 207-6231
  • Yount, Lisa.  A to Z of women in science and math.  Facts on File, 1999.
    New York State Library call number:  R 509.22, Y81, 201-8341

Exhibit curated by Stephanie Barrett.

Last Updated: November 12, 2021