Black Americans were historically denied the right to an equal education, yet many Black people made important scientific discoveries — even if they didn’t have a college degree.
Here are three of the Black scientists who’ve made our world better.
Gas mask and traffic signal inventor
The gas mask, also called a safety hood, protects firefighters and other rescuers from inhaling smoke and dangerous fumes. The three-light traffic signal allows cars and pedestrians to cross the streets safely and in an orderly way. Both were invented by Garrett Morgan, the son of formerly enslaved Black people.
Morgan had only a sixth-grade education, but he designed an improved traffic light in 1923 after witnessing a car accident. Earlier signals had only “stop” and “go,” with no warning to slow down. Garrett’s device, which added an “all stop” signal, led to safer intersections. His idea eventually became the yellow light.
Helped create a coronavirus vaccine
Kizzmekia Corbett is an infectious-disease expert at the National Institutes of Health’s Vaccine Research Center. She spent more than a decade studying viruses, including influenza and earlier coronaviruses. Corbett began receiving attention last year when the team she leads helped develop a vaccine for the new coronavirus. Testing showed it to be more than 90 percent effective. The head of the nation’s infectious-disease institute, Anthony Fauci, credited Corbett with producing the Moderna vaccine, one of two being used in the United States. Administering vaccines is a critical development as covid-19 deaths have increased to more than 500,000 people in the United States.
Super scientist invents the 'soaker'
NASA scientist Lonnie Johnson accidentally invented one of the most popular toys in modern times: Super Soakers. Johnson grew up in Alabama in the 1950s and 1960s, when the state wouldn’t allow Black kids to attend school with White kids. He loved to tinker. As a high school senior, he entered an air-powered robot that he had built in a university-sponsored science fair. Johnson, the only Black student in the competition, won first place. He earned a master’s degree in nuclear engineering at Tuskegee University before joining the Air Force and eventually NASA.
Johnson never stopped tinkering in his spare time. While working on a heating and cooling device in the early 1980s, an accidental burst of water gave him an idea for a powerful version of a squirt gun. The Super Soaker was born. It became a bestseller, and in 2015 it was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame.