Miriam Benjamin

Miriam Benjamin - blackinventor.com

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.

Norbert Rillieux

Norbert Rillieux - blackinventor.comSafety, efficiency and profitability – these are the major reasons for the success of an invention. As well, an even greater qualification is when the invention revolutionizes an industry and an overwhelming effect on society. Norbert Rillieux can certainly be seen to have achieved all of these goals

Norbert Rillieux was born on March 17, 1806 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Norbert was born a free man, although his mother was a slave. His father was a wealthy White engineer involved in the cotton industry. As a child Norbert was educated in the Catholic school system in New Orleans but was sent to Paris, France for advanced schooling. He studied at the L’Ecole Centrale, the top engineering school in the country and at age 24 became an instructor of applied mechanics at the school, the youngest person to achieve this position. He published a series of papers related to “the Functions and Economic Implications of the Steam Engine.” Eventually, in 1834, Rillieux returned home to his father’s plantation which was now also being used to process and refine sugar.

Sugarcane had become the dominant crop within Louisiana, but the sugar refining process employed at that time was extremely dangerous and very inefficient. Known as the “Jamaica Train”, the process called for sugarcane to be boiled in huge open kettles and then strained to allow the juice to be separated from the cane. The juice was then evaporated by boiling it at extreme temperatures, resulting in granules being left over in the form of sugar. The danger stemmed from the fact that workers were forced to transport the boiling juice from one one kettle to another, chancing the possibility of suffering severe burns. It was also a very costly process considering the large amount of fuel needed to heat the various kettles.

During the 1830s, France witnessed the introduction of the steam-operated single pan vacuum . The vacuum pan was enclosed in an area with the air removed (this was necessary because liquids can boil at a lower temperature in the absence of air than with air present, thus costing less). Rillieux decided to improve greatly on this efficiency by including a second and later a third pan, with each getting heating by its predecessor.

In 1833, Rillieux was approached by a New Orleans sugar manufacturer named Edmund Forstall. Because numerous sugar producers had received complaints about product quality, Forstall persuaded Norbert to become the Chief Engineer of the Louisiana Sugar Refinery. Unfortunately, almost as soon as Norbert took the job, an intense feud developed between Forstall and his father, Vincent Rillieux. Out of loyalty to his father, Norbert left his position with the company. A few years later, Norbert was hired by Theodore Packwood to improve his Myrtle Grove Plantation refinery. In doing so he employed his triple evaporation pan system which he patented in 1843. It was an enormous success and revolutionized the sugar refining industry improving efficiency, quality and safety.

In the 1850s, New Orleans was suffering from an outbreak of Yellow Fever, caused by disease-carrying mosquitos. Rillieux devised an elaborate plan for eliminating the outbreak by draining the swamplands surrounding the city and improving the existing sewer system, thus removing the breeding ground for the insects and therefore the ability for them to pass on the disease. Unfortunately, Edmund Forstall, Norbert’s former employer was a member of the state legislature and spoke out against the plan. Forstall was able to turn sentiment against Rillieux and the plan was rejected. Norbert RillieuxDisgusted will the racism prevalent in the south as well as the frustration of local politics Rillieux eventually left New Orleans and moved back to France (ironically, after a number of years in which time the Yellow Fever continued to devastate New Orleans, the state legislature was forced to implement an almost identical plan introduced by white engineers.

After returning to France, Rillieux spent much of his time creating new inventions and defending his patents as well as traveling abroad. Rillieux died on October 8, 1894 and left behind a legacy of having revolutionized the sugar industry and therefore changing the way the world would eat.


  • The Inventive Spirit of African Americans (Patricia Carter Sluby).

Norbert Rillieux

Otis Boykin

Otis Boykin - blackinventor.comOtis F. Boykin was born on August 29, 1920 in Dallas, Texas. After graduating high school, he attended Fisk College in Nashville, Tennessee. He graduated in 1941 and took a job as a laboratory assistant with the Majestic Radio and TV Corporation in Chicago, Illinois. He undertook various tasks but excelled at testing automatic aircraft controls, ultimately serving as a supervisor. Three years laster he left Majestic and took a position as a research engineer with the P.J. Nilsen Reseach Laboratories. Soon thereafter, he decided to try to develop a business of his own a founded Boykin-Fruth, Incorporated. At the same time, he decided to continue his education, pursuing graduate studies at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, Illinois. He attended classes in 1946 and 1947 but was forced to drop out because he lacked the funds to pay the next year’s tuition.

Despite this setback, Boykin realized that a Masters Degree was not a pre-requisite for inventive competence. He set out to work on project that he had contemplated while in school. Otis BoykinAt the time, the field of electronics was very popular among the science community and Boykin took a special interest in working with resistors. A resistor is an electronic component that slows the flow of an electrical current. This is necessary to prevent too much electricity from passing through a component than is necessary or even safe. Boykin sought and received a patent for a wire precision resistor on June 16, 1959. This resistor allowed for a specific amounts of current to flow through for a specific purpose and would be used in radios and televisions. Two years later, he created another resistor that could be manufactured very inexpensively. It was a breakthrough device as it could withstand extreme changes in temperature and tolerate and withstand various levels of pressure and physical trauma without impairing its effectiveness. The chip was cheaper and more reliable than others on the market. Not surprisingly, it was in great demand as he received orders from consumer electronics manufacturers, the United States military and electronics behemoth IBM.

Otis Boykin - blackinventor.comIn 1964, Boykin moved to Paris, creating electronic innovations for a new market of customers. Most of these creations involved electrical resistance components (including small component thick-film resistors used in computers and variable resistors used in guided missile systems) but he also created other important products including a chemical air filter and a burglarproof cash register. His most famous invention, however, was a control unit for the pacemaker, which used electrical impulses to stimulate the heart and create a steady heartbeat. In a tragic irony, Boykin died in 1982 as a result of heart failure.

Otis Boykin proved that the setback of having to drop out of school was not enough to deter him from his dream of becoming an inventor and having a long-lasting effect on the world.


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.

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.

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

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

Philip Emeagwali

Philip Emeagwali - blackinventor.comThe early life of Philip Emeagwali seemed destined for poverty in his native land of Nigeria. He was the oldest of nine children and his father, who worked as a nurse’s aide, earned only a modest income. As a result, at age 14, Philip was forced to drop out of school in Onitsha. Because he had shown such great promise in mathematics, his father encouraged him to continue learning at home. Every evening, Philip’s father would quiz him in math as well as other subjects. He would ask these questions in a rapid-fire manner, prompting Philip to think quickly on his feet. Eventually, Philip was tasked to answer 100 question in an hour, which to his father’s delight, he succeeded in. Unable to attend school, Philip instead journeyed to the public library, spending most of his day there. He sped through books appropriate for his age and moved up to college-level material, studying mathematics, chemistry, physics and English. After a period of study, he applied to take the General Certificate of Education exam (a high-school equivalency exam) through the University of London and he passed it easily.

Having achieved this success, he decided to apply to colleges in Europe and the United States and at age 17 was offered a scholarship by Oregon State University in the United States. He began his studies at Oregon State in 1974 and received a Bachelor Degree in Mathematics in 1977. He then moved to the Washington, D.C. area and received a Master’s Degree in Environmental Engineering from George Washington University in 1981 and a second Master’s Degree in Applied Mathematics from the University of Maryland in 1986. During the same period of time he received another Master’s Degree from George Washington University, this time in Ocean, Coastal and Marine Engineering. He worked for a period of time as a civil engineer in Maryland and Wyoming, but his real success was yet to come.

In 1987, the Emeagwali was accepted into the University of Michigan’s Civil Engineering doctoral program and received a doctoral fellowship. At the time, in the United States, the government and many in academia contended that there were 20 Grand Challenges that faced the world in the areas of science and engineering. One of these challenges was petroleum reservoir simulation. In the petroleum industry, oil is generally found within underground rocks in reservoirs. The oil is extracted by drilling down into the rock and extracting the oil but because of the uncertainties of locating the pocket of oil, industry experts could only confidently hope to extract 10 percent of the oil within a known reservoir and that was done by utilizing supercomputers (which could cost upwards of $30 million) to simulate oil fields and anticipate the flow of the oil therein. In order to extract the oil, water or gas must be pumped into the field to force it upwards. Unfortunately, if done incorrectly, the oil could be forced into an inaccessible pocket and the natural oil flow could be interrupted, thus forcing the oil company to commence drilling again, at considerable expense. Emeagwali, having grown up in Nigeria which boasted grand oil reservoirs., understood that at the time, with oil selling for $20.00 per barrel, just a one percent increase in production from a 20 billion barrel field would result in another $400 million yield, a staggering amount. As part of his doctoral dissertation, he decided to take on the challenge.

Emeagwali had read a 1922 science fiction article written by Lewis Fry Richardson entitled “Weather prediction by numerical processes” which suggested using 64,000 mathematicians do weather forecasting for the entire planet. Based on this article and on the work of German mathematician Paul Fillunger and Russian mathematician B. K. Risenkampf (in partial differential equations), Emeagwali determined that rather than using a supercomputer that used 8 processors, he would instead use 65,536 microprocessors (a microprocessor is basically what is found in desktop computers) to work the necessary computations. He based his decision on an old premise that a large number of chickens, if coordinated in strength and efficiency, will be able to do a better job than a small number of oxen.

Thus, his 65,536 microprocessors would work together as chickens and theorized that the could outwork the eight processor (eight oxen) supercomputer. He originally theorized that the 64,000 processors could be used instead of mathematicians to predict the Earth’ weather, but then decided to turn his theory towards the petroleum reservoir simulation.The obvious problem was how to gain access to that many computers and how to connect them. Instead he turned to the Connection Machine, a device developed by a company called Thinking Machines.

The machine was designed such that it could contain within it up to 65,536 microprocessors interconnected, each with its own RAM and each processing one bit at a time. Emeagwali found that there was a Connection Machine at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (NANL) in New Mexico. Scientists were having a difficult time programming the computer to simulate nuclear blasts and it sat unused for much of the time. He submitted an application and NANL approved his use the their Connection Machine which he accessed remotely through the Internet from Michigan. After setting the parameters, Emeagwali ran his program and was astounded when the machine was able to perform 3.1 billion calculations per second. The program had also determined the amount of oil in the simulated reservoir, the direction of flow and the speed at which it was flowing at each point. The impact of his experiment was immense. By discovering a practical application for utilizing supercomputers, he opened up a whole new market for them. Just seven years later it was estimated that 10 percent of massively parable computers had been purchased by the petroleum industry. Furthermore, it provided the theory of connecting computers around the world to provide a scalable, network through which to share and process information. Using this concept in conjunction with the existing internet backbone, the world wide web would emerge as an new entity for providing communications and enhancing commerce. In 1989, in acknowledgement of his discovery, Emeagwali was awarded the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Gordon Bell Prize which recognizes outstanding achievement in high-performance computing applications.

Encouraged by his success and newly found status, Emeagwali moved forward with further research and provided new theories and concepts for computer design. Many of these were based on the idea that computers were simply an extension of the function of nature and thus that they should be designed based on nature. One of his theories is aimed at exploring long-term effects of greenhouse gases and global warming. Emeagwali offered a new design for a computer based on honeycombs. Based on the theory of tessellated models, Emeagwali broke the Earth’s atmosphere into sections that resembled honeycombs created by bees. He reasoned that bees are able to use the most efficient methods to develop their honeycombs and that following principles of honeycomb design in a computer will allow it to work in an optimal fashion. He believes that his hyperball computer will allow for weather forecasting far into the future and for simulated global warming trends in order to address the problem.

Philip Emeagwali - blackinventor.com

In addition to the aforementioned concept, Emeagwali has created hundreds more. He has lectured around the world and been lauded by for his achievements. He was named the Pioneer of the Year by the National Society of Black Engineers, as well as Scientist of the Year in 1991, the Computer Scientist of the Year by America’s National Technical Association in 1993 along with dozens of other tributes.

For someone who was born with little, Philip Emeagwali was able to achieve a lot and has served as an inspiration to millions of people, especially in Nigeria. Former United States President Bill Clinton summed up worldwide sentiment by declaring Emeagwali “One of the great minds of the Information Age.”




Black Inventors and Scientists – Philip Emeagwali from Philip Emeagwali on Vimeo.


Richard Spikes

Richard Spikes - blackinventor.comInventors often toil for their entire lifetimes creating devices which have beneficial effects on society for years – yet that inventor might gain recognition only after he or she has passed away. For others, even after they have gone, recognition is slow in coming despite their great contributions. Richard Spikes is such a person.

Little has been written about Richard Spikes in terms of his childhood, education and personal life. What is known is that he was an incredible inventor and the proof of this is in the incredibly diverse number of creations that have had a major impact on the lives of everyday citizens.

Over the course of his lifetime, Spikes developed the following inventions or innovations:

  • railroad semaphore (1906)
  • automatic car washer (1913)
  • automobile directional signals (1913)
  • beer keg tap (1910)
  • self-locking rack for billiard cues (1910)
  • continuous contact trolley pole (1919)
  • combination milk bottle opener and cover (1926)
  • method and apparatus for obtaining average samples and temperature of tank liquids (1931)
  • automatic gear shift (1932)
  • transmission and shifting thereof (1933)
  • automatic shoe shine chair (1939)
  • multiple barrel machine gun (1940)
  • horizontally swinging barber chair (1950)
  • automatic safety brake (1962)

Spikes inventions were welcome to major companies. His beer keg tap was purchased by Milwaukee Brewing Company and the automobile directional signals which were first introduced in the Pierce Arrow, soon became standard in all automobiles. For his innovative designs of transmission and gear-shifting devices, Spikes received over $100,000.00 – an enormous sum for a Black man in the 1930s.

By the time he was creating the automatic safety brake in 1962, Spikes was losing his vision. In order to complete the device, he first created a drafting machine for blind designers – by the time his braking device was completed, he was deemed legally blind. The device would soon be found in almost every school bus in the nation.

Richard Spikes died in 1962 but left behind a lifetime of achievement that few could parallel.