Celebrating Amazing Black Engineers
In honor of Black History Month, we look back on some incredible engineering role models.

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  • Countless African Americans have made incredible contributions to engineering, and in honor of Black History Month, we’re discussing a few of them and would like your suggestions on others we should acknowledge. Check out the ProjectBoard here.
  • “The Real McCoy”, Elijah McCoy was born in Canada thanks to the underground railroad and went on to hold over 50 patents for locomotive and steam engine lubrication.
  • Granville Woods battled Thomas Edison over the patent for the “telegraphony” twice and won.
  • Garrett Morgan invented the precursor to the gas mask and used it to save workers trapped under Lake Erie.
  • James E. West revolutionized audio recording with the foil electret microphone.
  • Annie Easley started at NASA as a human computer and went on to develop computer code that launched the space shuttle.
  • Ursula Burns went from intern to CEO at Xerox and now regularly tops the list of the world’s most powerful women.

The great thing about engineering is that is transcends boundaries—no matter who you are, where or even when you’re from, a good idea is a good idea, and a good engineer is a good engineer. That’s as true today as it was two hundred years ago, and it’s also why it’s important to recognize the achievements of those who may have been underappreciated in history.

In honor of Black History Month, engineering.com is taking a closer look at the achievements of some of greatest African American engineers.

Elijah McCoy (1844 – 1929)

Elijah McCoy (1844 – 1929)

Born free in Canada, Elijah McCoy was the son of fugitive slaves who had escaped from Kentucky via the underground railroad. At age 15, McCoy was sent to Edinburgh, Scotland to apprentice as a mechanical engineer. He returned to North America via Michigan, where he established a home-based machine shop to develop his inventions. McCoy held over 50 patents in his lifetime, most of which were for lubrication systems he designed for locomotives and steam engines.

Despite his numerous contributions to the railroad industry, McCoy received little recognition during his lifetime. For example, his name is absent from Lubrication of Locomotives, written by E.L Ahrons in 1922. However, a lingering thread of his legacy can be found in the phrase “The Real McCoy,” which some historians have attributed to a saying by railroad engineers looking to avoid inferior copies of McCoy’s oil-drip cup invention.

McCoy was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2001.

Granville Woods (1856 – 1910)

Granville Woods (1856 – 1910)

Another inventor with more than 50 patents under his belt, Granville Woods grew up in Columbus, Ohio, where he attended school until he had to start working in a machine shop at age 10. Woods learned machining, blacksmithing and, eventually, electrical and mechanical engineering. Known as “The Black Edison” during his lifetime, Woods’ most notable invention was a combination telephone and telegraph that he dubbed “the telegraphony,” which enabled stations to send voice and telegraph messages over a single wire.

Woods and Thomas Edison actually did clash over this device, with Edison unsuccessfully attempting to claim ownership over the patent, twice. After his second defeat in court, Edison offered Woods a job at his company. Woods declined.

Baltimore Community College established the Granville T. Woods Scholars Program in his honor.

Garrett Morgan (1877 – 1963)

Garrett Morgan (1877 – 1963)

Not only an engineer, but also a businessman and political activist, Garrett Morgan was 14 when he moved from Kentucky to Cincinnati looking for work. Although he’d had to quit school and get a job, Morgan was able to hire a tutor and continue his studies while working as a handyman for a Cincinnati landowner. He then moved to Cleveland, where he repaired sewing machines and in doing so gained an appreciation for all things mechanical.

Morgan made the news in 1916 when he used his most famous invention—the gas mask or smoke hood—to rescue workers trapped inside a water intake tunnel 50 feet beneath Lake Erie. Morgan engaged in what might be the first guerilla marketing campaign to demonstrate his invention: he would fill a tent with noxious combustibles, set them ablaze, and then remain inside for 20 minutes while wearing his safety hood.

In addition to co-founding the Cleveland Association of Colored Men (which eventually merged with the NAACP), Morgan also founded The Cleveland Call, a weekly newspaper, and the Black Wakeman Country Club, which was funded by the sale of another famous patent to General Electric for $40,000: the three-position traffic signal.

James Edward Maceo West (1931 – )

James Edward Maceo West (1931 – )

One of the two living people on this list, James E. West has arguably had more influence on modern music than almost anyone. In fact, his influence goes beyond music to touch practically every aspect of audio recording today. While working at Bell Laboratories with Gerhard Sessler in 1962, West invented the foil electret microphone, which had a higher capacitance compared to previous condenser microphones and eliminated the need for a polarizing power supply.

Consequently, nearly 90 percent of the billions of microphones produced every year are based on Sessler and West’s original design. Not content to rest on his laurels, West currently has over 250 patents to his name and, at age 88, he’s still inventing. Beyond his contributions to acoustic science, West co-founded the Association of Black Laboratory Employees (ABLE) and spearheaded the creation of several fellowship programs to provide opportunities to graduate students pursuing terminal degrees in STEM.

Annie Easley (1933 – 2011)

Annie Easley (1933 – 2011)

Her career with NASA—then the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA)—began with an application to be a computer in the days when computers were human beings. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, decades before the Civil Rights Movement, Annie Easley was a bright student who initially studied pharmacy until a move to Cleveland forced her to change career paths.

That certainly turned out for best, though, since it signalled the beginning of a 34-year career at NASA, during which Easley would develop and implement computer code to support the Centaur high-energy upper rocket stage, which laid the groundwork for future space shuttle and satellite launches. She also conducted energy analyses to determine the lifetime of energy storage systems.

When asked about the discrimination she experienced during her career, Easley said:

“When people have their biases and prejudices, yes, I am aware. My head is not in the sand. But my thing is, if I can't work with you, I will work around you. I was not about to be so discouraged that I'd walk away. That may be a solution for some people, but it's not mine.”

Ursula Burns (1958 – )

Ursula Burns (1958 – )

The other living person on this list, Ursula Burns, embodies The American Dream: she began working at Xerox as an intern in 1980 and by 2009 she was named CEO, making her the first black woman to be CEO of a Fortune 500 company. During that time, she earned a Master of Science in mechanical engineering from Columbia University. President Obama also appointed Burns to be leader of the White House’s National STEM program in 2009, a position she held for the remainder of his presidency.

Among her various philanthropic activities, Burns is a founding director of Change the Equation, which is focused on improving the American education system in the STEM fields. Burns has appeared repeatedly on Forbes’ lists of the world’s most powerful women. In 2015, she ranked 29th.

Of course, these six individuals are only a tiny fraction of the black engineers who’ve used their craft to contribute to the common good. Black History Month reminds us to appreciate the contributions of those who may have gone unappreciated in their time and the role models who can inspire the next generation. Fortunately, the great thing about engineers is that their work stands the test of time.

What other black engineers do people need to know about?

Share their stories and post any others on the Black History Month Projectboard.

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