American Inventors

Benjamin Franklin

One of the founders of the country, Benjamin Franklin was a man of many talents. He was a diplomat, writer, postmaster and businessman. One of his most lasting legacies is the skill he had as one of the most famous American inventors. Perhaps the most famous image of Ben Franklin is of him flying the kite up into a storm with a key at the end of the line. His many experiments with electricity led him to invent the lighting rod, which is one of the most widely used inventions in the world. Franklin also invented bifocals, which is another invention that is ubiquitous. Other inventions that Franklin came up with include the Franklin stove, an odometer, a flexible urinary catheter and a glass harmonica.

Samuel F.B. Morse

Morse was born in 1791 and for most of his life communication in the United States was very slow. Letters carried by horse and train made getting information disseminated quickly nearly impossible. Morse changed that with his invention of the telegraph. He created his first working telegraph line from Baltimore to Washington, DC in 1844. Within 10 years, more than 23,000 miles of telegraph lines were strung throughout the country. This invention changed the nature of communication and made distance no longer an obstacle in communicating.

Thomas Alva Edison

Edison is one of the most prolific American inventors in the history of the country. He held hundreds of patents at the time of his death. His most famous invention was the incandescent light bulb, which he invented in 1880. Edison also came up with the fluoroscope, which was the earliest machine that could take X-ray pictures. Music lovers everywhere should thank Edison for his invention of the phonograph, the first device capable of playing recorded sounds.

Orville and Wilbur Wright

These two famous brothers created one of the most important inventions in human history, the airplane. They made the first airplane flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903. As well as inventing the first airplane, they also invented the three-axis control system for aircraft. This control system is the same one that every pilot uses to control an airplane today.

Alexander Graham Bell

Bell was one of the most prolific American inventors who is most famous for his invention of the first practical telephone. In 1875, he designed a device that could use the existing telegraph lines to carry human speech. He also invented the metal detector as well as the hydrofoil. Bell also was a major innovator in the field of aeronautics. He invented the aileron, which is a flap on the wing that allows an aircraft to roll.

Vladimir Kozmich Zworykin

Zworkyin is not a name that many Americans know, but they sure love using the device that was created with his inventions, the television. Zworkyin was born in Russia in 1888. He came to the United States after World War I and shortly thereafter came up with a television system that employed cathode ray tubes. This was the start of his continued work developing the television throughout the 1920s and 1930s. He also is famous for inventing the electron microscope.

Dr. Jonas Salk

Before Salk invented the first polio vaccine; polio was one of the most terrifying diseases in the world. Epidemics broke out yearly, crippling and killing many victims. Many of the victims were children. Salk’s vaccine that was introduced in 1955 has saved millions of lives.

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Eli Whitney

Eli Whitney was among famous inventors born in the United States in 1765. He spent his life creating things but is best known for inventing the cotton gin during a notable era in American history, the Industrial Revolution. Whitney’s invention was instrumental in revitalizing the economy in the South, which had taken a downward spiral.

The cotton gin, gin being short for engine, eased the laborious manual task of removing seeds from cotton. Since the Southern states were a prime region for growing cotton, this gem among famous inventors had a hit on his hands when it was discovered up to 55 pounds of cotton could be cleaned on a daily basis. This invention strengthened the South’s waning economy and transformed cotton into a profitable crop.

Whitney’s farm machine impacted the South very favorably but the inventor was faced with numerous challenges regarding the cotton gin. Whitney never intended to sell the gin. Instead he thought it would be profitable to charge farmers to clean their cotton on a case-by-case basis. Other enterprising businessmen, hoping also to become famous inventors, saw the potential of Whitney’s invention and made their own versions to sell to the farmers.

The competition got ahead. Ongoing legal battles alleging patent infringements of the machine were costly. Instead of enjoying profits from his invention, Whitney was forced out of business.
Meanwhile, the cotton gin was being lauded for being a time saver for cotton pickers. The cotton industry swelled to economic proportions in the United States. The country became a sought after exporter. Cotton was able to survive long storage periods and could travel long distances without threat of spoilage, making European distribution possible. The cotton gin’s efficiency continued to improve and in a few years went from separating half a million pounds of cotton to over 90 million pounds during a short period. Not long afterward, cotton became the major United States export.

In the era of the late 1700’s rice, tobacco and indigo were the primary markets but none was particularly profitable. Cotton farming and exportation transformed the industry and is said to have also revitalized a fledgling slave market. Whitney was famous but he had achieved no wealth from his invention.

Refusing to give up on his invention, Whitney found other means to make a living while continuing his legal fight. In the ensuing years, Whitney secured government contracts to manufacture arms for a start-up continental army.

Whitney received a patent for the cotton gin in 1794 but it was well over a decade before the cotton gin was validated. After years of court appearances, the design of Whitney’s cotton gin was scrutinized and discovered to have had design flaws. These were later corrected and in 1807, 13 years after its initial introduction, the cotton gin was recognized as Whitney’s.
Whitney lived to have the satisfaction of seeing how his invention helped bring the South out of its economic struggles as well as to help the whole United States with its own skirmishes. He died in 1825.

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African-American Inventors

Many African-American inventors have been credited with the creation of devices, concepts and procedures that are still in use today; whether they are in their original form, or modernized with changes in available technology.

Daniel Williams – Cardiologist

Williams earned the distinction of being the first African-American cardiologist, as well as performing the first successful open heart surgery. He created Provident Hospital, which provided other African-American medical professionals the opportunity to practice medicine and nursing, when they were not allowed to work in other hospitals. Furthermore, Provident Hospital gave African-American citizens access to medical care that was otherwise unavailable.

George Washington Carver – Agricultural Inventor

Perhaps one of the most widely known African-American inventors, Carver is credited with discovering many uses for the peanut. However, much of Carver’s significance extends beyond the peanut as a consumable product. Cotton was a common cash crop throughout much of the United States, but it, like other crops, depletes the soil of valuable nutrients if redundantly planted. Carver brought awareness to individuals about the significance of rotating cotton plants with other useful plants such as peanuts and soybeans to add nutrients back to the soil for future cotton crops, and continuing to profit from other types of harvests.

Patricia Bath – Ophthalmologist

Bath’s invention, the Laserphaco Probe, streamlined the process of cataract removal and earned her the distinction of being the first African-American woman to be granted a patent for a medical device. The Laserphaco Probe is designed to dissolve cataracts using lasers. Using one device, the dissolved tissue can be flushed and suctioned out of the eye, and a new lens inserted. Bath’s invention decreased pain for patients, improved surgical outcomes and made cataract removal possible for more patients.

Marjorie Joyner – Beautician

Joyner is credited with being granted one of the first patents by an African-American woman. Her invention of a Permanent Waving Machine helped to streamline the process many African-American women faced when straightening their hair. Instead of heating an iron and applying heat to one section at a time, the entire head of hair could be attached to heated rods to create wavy hair. This method of hair styling also lasted longer. Joyner’s invention extended beyond African-American women, and women of various racial backgrounds enjoyed the styling results.

Charles Drew – Surgeon

Blood and plasma donations have saved the lives of many individuals. Drew’s discoveries included preserving donated blood and the differences regarding transfusion of plasma versus blood. Initially, donated blood needed to be transfused within a couple of days because there was no method of preserving blood longer. Drew discovered that separating blood into its plasma and red blood cell components, before refrigeration, allowed donated blood to be preserved longer. His contributions to medicine are observed in the modern handling and preservation of blood and plasma, and the creation of blood banks.

Otis Boykin – Engineer

Pacemakers have saved countless lives for those living with fatal heart arrhythmias, and those waiting for heart transplants. Boykin is one of several African-American inventors known for technological innovations, with his most notable invention being the control unit for pacemakers. The electrical impulses from a pacemaker are vital in maintaining a normal heart rate in some individuals. Boykin’s interest in electrical components led to his resistor chips being incorporated into many products such as computers and televisions.

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