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African-American Scientists and Inventors

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Scientists and inventors improve everyday life.
Scientists and inventors improve everyday life.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Imagine a world without traffic lights, elevators, or even something as common as peanut butter. What would life be like with no lawnmowers, refrigerators, or ice cream? In these times, how would millions of people get through the average day without a cellular phone to help them keep in touch with others?

Throughout history, African-American men and women have used their creative talents to improve the lives of people all over the world. Their inventions continue to make life a more healthy and enjoyable experience and also make work less dangerous and more fulfilling.

Back in the 1800s, an African-American named Henry Blair looked for a better way to plant corn and cotton. He went on to invent planting machines that helped to change farming in this country.

In 1834, Blair became the first African-American inventor to be issued a patent. A patent is an official document that gives an inventor the exclusive right to produce and sell his inventions for a certain number of years.

About 50 years later, Sarah Boone made housework a little easier when she created the ironing board. And in 1905, Sarah Breedlove Walker, best known as Madame C.J. Walker, gave women a new way to groom their hair when she invented the straightening comb.

Benjamin Banneker stands out among early inventors. Banneker was born a free man in Ellicott's Mills, Maryland, in 1731. He attended only a few sessions of elementary school and mostly taught himself to read and write.

His studying made a difference. Banneker became a respected mathematician, astronomer, surveyor, and writer. When he was in his early 20s, he became fascinated with a watch that belonged to a friend.

Benjamin Banneker was an early U.S. inventor.
Benjamin Banneker was an early U.S. inventor.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Banneker took the watch apart and put it back together again several times. He borrowed books on geometry and studied them. Then he carved pieces of wood to resemble the watch's gears. Banneker built the first striking wooden clock in colonial America. The clock kept perfect time for many years.

Years later, Banneker became part of a team of surveyors who planned how the streets of Washington, D.C., would be laid out. He also was well-known by scientists throughout the world for his precise predictions of solar eclipses. Banneker also wrote boldly against slavery.

Everyone who enjoys cookies, cakes, and ice cream can say thanks to Norbert Rillieux and Augustus Jackson. Their inventions continue to make life a little sweeter every day.

Norbert Rillieux was born in 1806. He attended school in Paris and became an engineer and inventor. Rillieux created a better way for sugar to be made into the white crystals we use today. His inventions in 1846 made it easier to change sugar cane, the plant from which sugar comes, into sugar crystals. This process made sugar easier to use.

Go to the next page to read about more African-American scientists and inventors.

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