The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Black woman invented the home security system, then fell into obscurity

A drawing from the application submitted by Marie Van Brittan Brown and her husband, Albert Brown, for a patent on Aug. 1, 1966, under the title, “Home Security System Utilizing Television Surveillance.” It was approved on Dec. 2, 1969. (U.S. Patent Office)
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With rare exceptions, such as George Washington Carver, few Black inventors have become household names, even if their creations have transformed society. Among those in obscurity is Marie Van Brittan Brown, despite the visible presence of her invention at the front of millions of American homes.

In the mid-1960s the rate of serious crimes was rising in Queens, the New York borough where Brown lived and had been born in 1922. She worked night shifts as a nurse, and she often felt vulnerable in her Jamaica neighborhood.

Brown managed to convert her fear into a viable idea. Enlisting the practical knowledge of her husband, a Black electronics technician named Albert Brown, she designed the country’s first known video home security system. Together, the couple filed U.S. patent 3482037 on Aug. 1, 1966. Bearing her name as principal inventor, the patent described a “home security system utilizing television surveillance.”

The system consisted of a sliding camera connected to a TV monitor, along with four peepholes to assess people of different heights, a remote control door lock and a two-way microphone.

This patent was approved on Dec. 2, 1969. Four days later, the New York Times described the Browns’ “audio-video alarm system” that could “scan and interview” a person outside the door and then either enable entry or sound an alarm. A photo showed the couple with a drawing of their invention.

Brown was “disturbed” by the level of “urban crime,” the Times reported, and the reality that it took “considerable time to dial the police and get action in an emergency.” With this new security system, the paper stated, “a woman alone in the house could alarm the neighborhood immediately by pressing a button.”

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Brown’s invention has been cited 36 times by other patent applicants, including as recently as 2013, according to Google Patents. Neither Brown nor her husband ever filed another patent.

Brown is widely credited with paving the way for today's modern home security systems. The Lemelson-MIT Program, which fosters innovation and entrepreneurship among collegiate inventors, states on its website that she “contributed to a safer society with her invention of the first home security system.” Yet her name remains obscure, and little is known about her beyond the brief publicity she received immediately after her patent was granted.

“Staying off the radar has been rather easy for the African American inventor” for centuries, said James Howard, executive director of the Black Inventors Hall of Fame, a virtual museum celebrating African American innovation. He added, “Ours is a history replete with stories like Brown’s — steeped in anonymity.”

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Apart from worthy individuals “being denied recognition and a full franchise for their inventions,” Howard pointed to broader consequences of this injustice. “Perhaps the greatest damage,” he said, “has been the perception on the part of the general populace of the African American as not being as intelligent or innovative as other cultures, particularly in the fields of medicine, engineering and technology.”

Howard traced this neglect back to the time of Onesimus, an African-born enslaved man in Boston who helped save lives during a 1721 smallpox outbreak by pioneering inoculation techniques based on long-standing West African methods. Onesimus, Howard said, introduced “to the Western world an inoculation process that would be rooted in the very invention of modern era vaccines.”

Howard also cited Granville Woods (1856-1910), who, among dozens of other inventions, patented parts for electric streetcars and a system for train stations and moving trains to communicate via telegraph. His inventions, Howard said, were “on par” with those of “Bell and Edison.” He wishes figures like these would appear on U.S. postage stamps, but he did note that the National Inventors Hall of Fame inducted its first African American female inventors this year — Patricia Bath, who invented a laser cataract surgery technique, and Marian Croak, who advanced technology enabling voice communications using the internet.

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Apart from racism, Brown had another impediment. Her invention was too far ahead of its time for her to reap much personal benefit. At the time, the technology was too expensive for the vast majority of people.

When technological advancement made costs less prohibitive, the effectiveness of her invention was beyond any dispute. These days, video surveillance is a massive and fast-growing industry, with a global market that was worth $45.5 billion in 2020 and is expected to exceed $60 billion in 2023.

Although these surveillance systems have raised substantial privacy issues, they have also helped bring countless thieves, burglars and other offenders to justice — and likely helped deter far more property and violent crimes.

There is virtually no public record of Brown’s life after her patent was approved in 1969. Nor is there any indication she profited much financially. She died at 76 on Feb. 2, 1999, just before her innovation became omnipresent.