Valerie Thomas

Valerie Thomas - blackinventor.comAs a child, Valerie Thomas became fascinated with the mysteries of technology, tinkering with electronics with her father and reading books on electronics written for adolescent boys. The likelihood of her enjoying a career in science seemed bleak, as her all-girls high school did not push her to take advanced science or math classes or encourage her in that direction. Nonetheless, her curiosity was piqued and upon her graduation from high school, she set out on the path to become a scientist.

[ad name=”336×280″]Thomas enrolled at Morgan State University and performed exceedingly well as a student, graduating with a degree in physics (one of only two women in her class to do so). She accepted a position with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), serving as a data analyst. After establishing herself within the agency, she was asked to manage the “Landsat” project, an image processing system that would allow a satellite to transmit images from space.

In 1976 Thomas attended a scientific seminar where she viewed an exhibit demonstrating an illusion. The exhibit used concave mirrors to fool the viewer into believing that a light bulb was glowing even after it had been unscrewed from its socket. Thomas was fascinated by what she saw, and imagined the commercial opportunities for creating illusions in this manner.

In 1977 she began experimenting with flat mirrors and concave mirrors. Flat mirrors, of course, provide a reflection of an object which appear to lie behind the glass surface. A concave mirror, on the other hand, presents a reflection that appears to exist in front of the glass, thereby providing the illusion that they exist in a three-dimensional manner. Thomas believed that images, presented in this way could provide a more accurate, if not more interesting, manner of representing video data. She not only viewed the process as a potential breakthrough for commercial television, but also as scientific tool for NASA and its image delivery system.

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Thomas applied for a patent for her process on December 28, 1978 and the patent was issued on October 21, 1980. The invention was similar to the technique of holographic production of image recording which uses coherent radiation and employs front wave reconstruction techniques which render the process unfeasible due to the enormous expense and complicated setup. Parabolic mirrors, however, can render these optical illusions with the use use of a concave mirror near the subject image and a second concave mirror at a remote site. In the description of her patent, the process is explained. “Optical illusions may be produced by parabolic mirrors wherein such images produced thereby are possessed with three dimensional attributes. The optical effect may be explained by the fact that the human eyes see an object from two view points separated laterally by about six centimeters. The two views show slightly different spatial relationships between near and near distant objects and the visual process fuses these stereoscopic views to a single three dimensional impression. The same parallax view of an object may be experienced upon reflection of an object seen from a concave mirror.” (http://www.freepatentsonline.com/4229761.html). The Illusion Transmitter would thus enable the users to render three-dimensional illusions in real-time.

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Valerie Thomas continued working for NASA until 1995 when she retired. In addition to her work with the Illusion Transmitter she designed programs to research Halley’s comet and ozone holes. She received numerous awards for her service, including the GSFC Award of Merit and the NASA Equal Opportunity Medal. In her career, she showed that the magic of fascination can often lead to concrete scientific applications for real-world problem-solving.

Marjorie Joyner - blackinventor.com

Marjorie Joyner

Marjorie Joyner - blackinventor.comMarjorie Stewart Joyner was born in Monterey, Virginia on October 24, 1896, the granddaughter of a slave and a slave-owner. In 1912, an eager Marjorie moved to Chicago, Illinois to pursue a career in cosmetology. She enrolled in the A.B. Molar Beauty School and in 1916 became the first Black women to graduate from the school. Following graduation, the 20 year old married podiatrist Robert E. Joyner and opened a beauty salon.

[ad name=”336×280″]She was introduced to Madame C.J. Walker, a well-known Black businesswoman, specializing in beauty products and services. Walker supplied beauty products to a number of the most prominent Black figures of the time, including singer Josephine Baker. With her fame, Ms. Walker was able to open over 200 beauty salon shops across the United States. After Madame Walker’s death in 1919, Marjorie was hired to oversee the Madame C.J. Walker Beauty Colleges as national supervisor.

A dilemma existed for Black women in the 1920’s. In order to straighten tightly-curled hair, they could so so only by using a stove-heated curling iron. This was very time-consuming and frustrating as only one iron could be used at a time. In 1926, Joyner set out to make this process faster, easier and more efficient. She imagined that if a number of curling irons could be arranged above a women’s head, they could work at the same time to straighten her hair all at once. According to the Smithsonian Institute, Joyner remembered that “It all came to me in the kitchen when I was making a pot roast one day, looking at these long, thin rods that held the pot roast together and heated it up from the inside. I figured you could use them like hair rollers, then heat them up to cook a permanent curl into the hair.” Thus, she sought a solution to not only straighten but also provide a curl in a convenient manner.

Joyner developed her concept by connecting 16 rods to a single electric cord inside of a standard drying hood. A women would thus wear the hood for the prescribed period of time and her hair would be straightened or curled. After two years Joyner completed her invention and patented it in 1928, calling it the “Permanent Waving Machine.” She thus became the first Black woman to receive a patent and her device enjoyed enormous and immediate success. It performed even better than anticipated as the curl that it added would often stay in place for several days, whereas curls from standard curling iron would generally last only one day.

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In addition to the success found in Madame Walker’s salons, the device was a hit in white salons as well, allowing white patrons to enjoy the beauty of their “permanent curl” or “perm” for days. Although popular, the process could be painful as well, so Marjorie patented a scalp protector that could be used to make the experience more pleasant. This too proved to be a major success. Despite her accomplishments and success, Marjorie received none of the proceeds of her inventions as the patents were created within the scope of her employment with Madame Walker’s company, which therefore received all patent rights and royalties. Undeterred,in 1945 Joyner co-founded the United Beauty School Owners and Teachers Association along with Mary Bethune McLeod. She tirelessly helped to raise money for Black colleges and founded the Alpha Chi Pi Omega Sorority and Fraternity in an effort to raise professional standards for beauticians. In 1973, at the age of 77, she was awarded a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Marjorie Joyner died on December 7, 1994 at the age of 98. She left behind her a legacy of creativity, ingenuity and selflessness that served to inspire many generations.

Sarah Goode

[ad name=”336×280″]Sarah E. Goode was the owner of a furniture store in Chicago, Illinois. Her claim to fame is that she was the first Black Woman to receive a patent.

In an effort to help people maximize their limited space, Goode invented a Folding Cabinet Bed. The Cabinet Bed when folded up resembled a desk which included compartments for stationary and writing instruments. Goode received her patent on July 14, 1885.

Female Inventor - blackinventor.com

Sarah Boone

Sarah Boone's Patent

[ad name=”336×280″]Sarah Boone received a patent on April 26, 1892 for a device which would help to neatly iron clothing. This device, the predecessor to our modern ironing board was made of a narrow wooden board, with collapsible legs and a padded cover and was specifically designed for the fitted clothing worn during that time period.

Prior to her inventions, people were forced to resort to simply using a table or being creative in laying a plank of wood across two chairs or small tables.

Miriam Benjamin

Miriam Benjamin - blackinventor.com

[ad name=”336×280″]Miriam E. Benjamin was a school teacher living in Washington D.C. In 1888, Ms. Benjamin received a patent for an invention she called a Gong and Signal Chair for Hotels. Her chair, as she stated in her patent application would “reduce the expenses of hotels by decreasing the number of waiters and attendants, to add to the convenience and comfort of guests and to obviate the necessity of hand clapping or calling aloud to obtain the services of pages.”

Miriam Benjamin - blackinventor.comThe system worked by pressing a small button on the back of a chair which would relay a signal to a waiting attendant. At the same time a light would illuminate on the chair allowing the attendant to see which guest was in need of assistance. The system was adopted and installed within the United States House of Representatives and was the predecessor of the methods used today on airplanes to signal stewardesses.

Ms. Benjamin was the second Black woman to receive a patent.

Patricia Bath

Patricia Bath - blackinventor.comWhen Patricia Era Bath was born on November 4, 1942, she could have succumbed to the pressures and stresses associated with growing up in Harlem, New York. With the uncertainty present because of World War II and the challenges for members of Black communities in the 1940’s, one might little expect that a top flight scientist would emerge from their midst. Patricia Bath, however, saw only excitement and opportunity in her future, sentiments instilled by her parents. Her father, Rupert, was well-educated and an eclectic spirit. He was the first Black motorman for the New York City subway system, served as a merchant seaman, traveling abroad and wrote a newspaper column. Her mother Gladys, was the descendant of African slaves and Cherokee Native Americans. She worked as a housewife and domestic, saving money for her children’s education. Rupert was able to tell his daughter stories about his travels around the world, deepening her curiosity about people in other countries and their struggles. Her mother encouraged her to read constantly and broadened Patricia’s interest in science by buying her a chemistry set. With the direction and encouragement offered by her parents, Patricia quickly proved worthy of their efforts.

[ad name=”336×280″]Bath was enrolled in Charles Evans Hughes High School in New York where she served as the editor of the school’s science paper. In 1959, she was selected from a vast number of students across the country for a summer program at Yeshiva University (New York City) sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Only 16 years old she worked in the field of cancer research under the tutelage of Dr. Robert Bernard and Rabbi Moses D. Tendler. During the program she developed a number of theories about cancer growth and at the end of the summer she offered a mathematical equation that could be used to predict the rate of the growth of a cancer. So impressed with her was Dr. Bernard that he incorporated parts of her research into a joint scientific paper that he presented at a conference in Washington, DC. Due to the resulting publicity about her work, Mademoiselle magazine presented Patricia with its 1960 Merit Award. The award was presented annually to ten young women demonstrating the promise of great achievement. In only 2 1/2 years of study she was able to graduate from high school and set out for college.

Patricia Bath - blackinventor.comPatricia BathIn 1964, Bath graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Hunter College in New York. Soon thereafter, she enrolled in medical school at Howard University in Washington, DC. Her exposure to Black professors and administrators had a great impact on her belief in Black leadership in society. While in medical school, she took part in a summer program in Yugoslavia, focused on pediatrics research. The program, sponsored by a government fellowship, allowed her to travel abroad for the first time and to gain experience internationally. She graduated with honors from Howard in 1968.

Patricia returned to New York in the fall of 1968 to work as an intern at Harlem Hospital and accepted a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University a year later. In working in the two distinct atmospheres, she was able to make a clear and alarming observation. In the Eye Clinic in Harlem she noticed that many of the patients suffered blindness while few at the Columbia Eye Clinic did. After further research she concluded in a well-received report that Blacks were twice as likely to suffer from blindness as the general population. Further research would reveal that Blacks were eight times more likely to suffer blindness as a result of glaucoma than whites. Bath believed that the main explanation for this disparity was the lack of access to ophthalmic care for Blacks and other poor people. This would eventually lead to her promoting the concept of Community Ophthalmology, which would work as an outreach programs, sending volunteers out into the community to provide vision, cataracts and glaucoma screening. This would help to provide treatment that could save the vision of elderly people and provide glasses that would help children in school and prevent vision problems in the future. She implored many of the professors at Columbia to donate their time and perform pro bono services for Harlem Hospital’s Eye Clinic.

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From 1970 to 1973 Patricia moved on to New York University where she became the first Black person to complete a residency in ophthalmology. In addition to her professional success, she enjoyed personal happiness as well, as she got married and had a daughter. In 1974, Bath moved to California and became a faculty member at UCLA and the Charles R. Drew University. Over the next nine years, she would serve in various capacities, and in 1983, co-founded and chaired the Opthalmology Residency Training Program at Drew/UCLA. The fact that she was the first woman in the country to hold such a position would be noteworthy, if not for the fact that Bath was the first to achieve so many distinctions in her life. In 1976, she co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness based on the principle that “eyesight is a basic human right.”

Patricia Bath - blackinventor.comAfter traveling around the world offering her services and bringing awareness to vision issues, Bath settled back into her research at UCLA. She pondered the problems associated with addressing cataracts disease in the United States. Cataracts is characterized by a cloudiness that occurs within the lens of an eye, causing blurred vision and often blindness. Standard treatment called for using traditional surgical methods to remove the damaged lens (one method employed the use of a mechanical drill-like mechanical device that would grind away the cataracts and could only be used for secondary cataract surgery). Bath devised safer, faster and more accurate approach to cataracts surgery.

In 1981 she began work on her most well-known invention which she would call a “Laserphaco Probe.” The device employed a laser as well as two tubes, one for irrigation and one for aspiration (suction). The laser would be used to make a small incision in the eye and the laser energy would vaporize the cataracts within a couple of minutes. The damaged lens would then be flushed with liquids and then gently extracted by the suction tube. With the liquids still being washed into the eye, a new lens could be easily inserted. Additionally, this procedure could be used for initial cataract surgery and could eliminate much of the discomfort expected, while increasing the accuracy of the surgery. Unfortunately, though her concept was sound, she was unable to find any lasers within the United States that could be adapted for the procedure (the majority of laser technology in the United States was dedicated to military purposes).

Patricia Bath - blackinventor.com

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She was able to find the laser probe she needed in Berlin, Germany and successfully tested the device which she described as an “apparatus for ablating and removing cataract lenses” and later dubbed it the “Laserphaco Probe.” Bath sought patent protection for her device and received patents in several countries around the world. She intends to use the proceeds of her patent licenses to benefit the AIPB.

Patricia Bath retired from UCLA in 1993 and continues to advocate vision care outreach and calls for attention to vision issues. Her remarkable achievements as a Black woman make her proud, but racial and gender-based obstacles do not consume her. “Yes, I’m interested in equal opportunities, but my battles are in science.”

Video Profile of Patricia Bath