Celebrating African American History Month: 8 Inventors, Engineers and Manufacturers

These Stories of African Americans Who Reached for the Stars Will Inspire the Future Generation in STEM.

When you see it, you believe it.

Representation makes a difference when young people consider what they want to be when they grow up. They want to see role models who looks like themselves.

With more opportunities blooming in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), it’s important to show success stories of diverse people. That way, all children and young adults believe they can have a future in STEM careers.

To celebrate African American History Month, we highlighted African Americans from history and today’s STEM field who made a difference. Take a look at these 8 inventors, engineers and manufacturers who’s achievements inspire the future generation of young people.

1. Walter Braithwaite – Boeing CAD engineer

After graduating with a degree in engineering, Braithwaite took a job with Boeing in 1966. There, his team developed a computer-aided design/manufacturing system, which allowed Boeing to design airplanes and other products solely through software.

He became the highest-ranking African American executive at Boeing and served as president of Boeing Africa for three years before retiring in 2003.

2. Janet Bashen – Software Inventor

Inventor, entrepreneur and businesswoman, Bashen became the First African-American woman to receive a patent for a software invention.

Her invention, LinkLine, is a case management and tracking software that assists with web-based equal employment opportunity investigations. But her success did not come easily. She founded her business, Bashen Corporation, from her kitchen table with one client, no office and no money. She continues grow her company, and has received several awards for it, including the prestigious Crystal Award for her business achievements.

3. Ursula Burns – CEO of Xerox

After graduating with her master’s in mechanical engineering, Burns began her career as an intern for Xerox and did what few people could do. She climbed the ladder and became CEO of the Fortune 500 company. She served as CEO for six years and oversaw the Xerox’s split into two separate companies.

In the past decade, Forbes listed her as one of the 100 most powerful women in the world. Additionally, she helped lead the White House National STEM program from 2009 to 2016 and served on the US Olympic Committee.

4. Elijah McCoy – the “real McCoy”

When someone says they want the “real McCoy” – they want the best. However, they might not know this phrase originated from the high-quality lubricators invented by this African American engineer.

McCoy was born in Canada in 1844 after his parents fled slavery in the US via the Underground Railroad. The family later returned to the US and sent McCoy to train in Scotland as an engineer. Unable to find an engineering job in the US, McCoy took a job working on a railroad.

There, he received a patent for his first and most-famous invention: a lubrication device that made railroad operations more efficient. He received over 60 patents throughout his life, many relating to the lubrication system.

5. Thomas L. Jennings – Dry cleaning

Jennings was the first African American to receive a patent in the US, which laid the stones for future African Americans to receive patents and gain the rights to their own inventions. After years working in New York as a tailor and dry cleaner, Jennings patented his unique cleaning style in 1821, “dry scouring,” one of the earliest dry-cleaning methods in modern history.

Back then, enslaved persons couldn’t obtain a patent. However, Jennings was a free man. Congress eventually extended the law to allow African Americans freed or enslaved to receive a patent. Jennings used his patent money to free the rest of his family and to help fund abolition groups.

6. The Women of Hidden Figures

If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, you probably don’t know these historic African American women. Hidden Figures tells the story of Kathrine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, NASA mathematicians during the Space Race.

Despite their importance in several NASA missions, their value went largely unappreciated. Johnson calculated the flight trajectories for Project Mercury, Apollo 11 and other space missions. Dorothy taught herself programming and was promoted to supervising roles in NASA. Jackson gained her engineering degree and became NASA’s first black female engineer.

Celebrating African American History Month: 8 Inventors, Engineers and Manufacturers

7. Mark E. Dean – IBM Computer Scientist/Engineer

If you’ve ever used a personal computer in a business setting, you can thank Dean for that. Dean worked as a computer scientist/engineer for IBM and lead the team that created the ISA bus – a hardware interface for connecting devices to a PC (think: printers and keyboards). This invention eventually lead to personal computers linking to business devices. He also helped develop the first color computer monitor and the world’s first gigahertz chip. Today, he’s a computer science professor at the University of Tennessee.

8. Jan Ernst Matzeliger – Shoe Automation

Not everyone in the 1800s could afford shoes. That all changed when this Dutch Suriname immigrant came to Massachusetts. Working as an apprentice in a shoe factory, Matzeliger invented an automated shoemaking machine. The machine boosted shoe production from 50 to 700 pairs each day.

With more shoes in the market, shoe prices fell within reach of the average American.


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Adam Beck

Director of Marketing at CADENAS PARTsolutions | A Marketing graduate from the Miami University, Farmer School of Business in Oxford Ohio, Adam has years of experience in marketing and design for a variety of industries.