Even though a full-throated appreciation for Black History Month is an important endeavour for anyone who loves history and wants to practice anti-racism, we often place importance squarely on the past, rather than on how that past informs our present. But the truth is that so many past contributions by Black Americans have a massive role in our day-to-day lives, from the way we use the internet to communicate to how we transport food and medicine. Below, a handful of the modern luxuries—from Zoom calls to GIFs to curtain rods and more—that wouldn’t exist without the visionary minds of Black scientists, engineers and other creators.
VOIP: Marian Croak
Today, Croak has over 200 patents relating to VOIP, but her most novel achievements may be the development of text-to-vote (originally created for the first season of American Idol) and text-to-donate campaigns.
Home Security Systems: Marie Van Brittan Brown
Refrigerated Trucks: Frederick Jones
If you’ve had groceries delivered in an effort to keep your social distance during the pandemic, you can credit Frederick Jones. An avid tinkerer, Jones taught himself enough about engineering to earn an engineering license in Minnesota by the time he was 20 years old, in 1913. He served as an Army engineer during World War I, and in the 1930s he patented a portable air-cooling unit for trucks carrying perishable food. During WWII, his invention (and his company, US Thermo Control) was responsible for preserving not just food, but much-needed medicine and blood for American soldiers. While he didn’t live to see it, President George H. W. Bush presented his widow with a National Medal of Technology in 1991 for Jones, making him the first Black man to receive the honor.
The Electret Microphone: James West
West, who was hired to work at Bell Labs when he graduated from Temple University in 1957, set out to make microphones smaller and less expensive—but still as sensitive as the larger ones in use at the time. By 1962, he and fellow scientist Gerhard M. Sessler had completed a successful design that went into mass production in 1968. Over the course of his career, he accrued over 250 patents on microphones and other similar technologies.
Colour Computer Monitors: Mark Dean
Mark Dean‘s achievements are many, and you might be looking at one right now. As an engineer for IBM, Dean’s early work is responsible for three of the company’s original nine patents. He helped develop everything from the first gigahertz chip (a processor able to complete a billion calculations in a second) to the Industry Standards Architecture systems bus, or ISA, which allows you to plug peripheral devices, like printers and disk drives, directly into your computer.
Perhaps his best-known creation is the colour computer monitor, a contribution that helped make computers radically more accessible for people who didn’t use them merely to solve difficult equations. Dean developed the monitor in 1980, helping to kick off a wave of personal computers that fundamentally changed how people interact and do business.
The GIF: Lisa Gelobter
Speaking of interaction, if you’ve ever sent someone a reaction GIF, you can thank Lisa Gelobter. The computer scientist is credited for her work on Shockwave, a browser-based multimedia platform for interactive applications whose use of animation laid the groundwork for the GIFs we know and love today. Gelobter’s pioneering work in online video is also responsible for access to some streaming content; before her roles at BET and in the White House’s US Digital Service, Gelobter was on the senior management team that launched Hulu.
Dry Cleaning: Thomas Jennings
Jennings’s exact practice for cleaning the clothes was lost to history—his patent is one of the so-called X Patents, a group of around 10,000 documents damaged during an 1836 fire in Washington, DC. Still, Jennings’s innovation ushered in a new wave of garment care that became a forerunner to how your suits, shirts and other delicate clothes are cleaned today.
The Curtain Rod: Samuel Scottron
The Automatic Lift Door: Alexander Miles
The Golf Tee: George Grant
According to the United States Golf Association, before Grant’s invention, players commonly made wet mounds of sand where they’d balance their golf balls before teeing off. Grant devised and patented a wooden tee to save himself the trouble in 1899, but he never produced it at scale. Instead, he had tees made for himself and his golfing buddies to use on the links. It wasn’t until William Lowell (coincidentally, another dentist) created the Reddy Tee in the 1920s that Grant’s idea spread across the country and around the world.