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Famous African American Women Inventors

Science is generally viewed as a men's world. Females are rarely found tinkering around the laboratory or handling mechanical devices, much less inventing one and having it patented under their name. Patents are the proof of "ownership" of an invention and only the inventor(s) can apply for a patent. In the past, women were not allowed equal rights of property ownership (patents are a form of intellectual property) and many women patented their inventions under their husband's or father's names. In the past, women were also prevented from receiving the higher education necessary for inventing. Today, however, hundreds of thousands of women apply for and receive a patent every year. About 20% of all inventors are currently female and that number should quickly rise to 50% over the next generation.

Among these women inventors from the past to the present, there are African American women inventors. Their number, however, can not be exactly determined. According to, Sarah S. Goode was the first African American woman to have received a patent in 1885 (patent #322,177, approved on July 14, 1885). She invented the folding cabinet bed, a space-saver that folded up against the wall into a cabinet. When folded up, it could be used as a desk, complete with compartments for stationery and writing supplies. Goode owned a furniture store in Chicago, Illinois, and invented the bed for people living in small apartments.

The second African American woman to receive a patent was Miriam Benjamin who was a Washington D.C. school teacher. She received a patent in July 17, 1888 for an invention she called a "Gong and Signal Chair for Hotels". Her invention allowed hotel customers to summon a waiter from the comfort of their chair. A button on the chair would buzz the waiters' station and a light on the chair would let the wait staff know who wanted service. Miriam Benjamin's invention was adapted and used in the United States House of Representatives.

On April 26, 1892, Sarah Boone's received a patent (U.S. Patent #473,653) for an improvement to the ironing board. Sarah Boone's ironing board was designed to be effective in ironing the sleeves and bodies of ladies' garments. Sarah Boone's board was very narrow and curved, the size and fit of a sleeve, and it was reversible, making it easy to iron both sides of a sleeve.

Perhaps the most famous African American woman inventor of all time is Madame C. J. Walker (December 23, 1867 - May 25, 1919). She was an inventor, businesswoman and self-made millionaire. Born Sarah Breedlove McWilliams C. J. Walker, she was an African-American who developed many beauty and hair care products that were extremely popular. Madame Walker started her cosmetics business in 1905. Her first product was a scalp treatment that used petroleum and a hot comb. Sarah later invented a system for straightening hair. She added Madame to her name and began selling her new "Walker System" door-to-door. Walker soon added a hair-growing ointment and other cosmetic products to her line. The products were very successful and she soon had many saleswomen, called "Walker Agents," who sold her products door to door.

Many of these women grew up in a time when females and colored people were discriminated against. Their social status may have prevented them from getting an education but this did not stop them from exploring their world and finding ingenious solutions to everyday problems. Their innate intelligence and determination had brought them their personal triumph over adversity. Their inventions may not have survived into the 21st century and yet their pioneering spirit will live on in the present generation of women working in the fields of science and technology.

About the Author: Find great articles on African American culture, history, lifestyle, and relationships with links to products online and other African American websites at

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