The Ancient Spirit of African Ingenuity

Do you know that the real Father of Medicine is a black man? Or that millions around the world owe their life to a black woman's cells? Or, that it was black men who invented the elevator and the traffic light as we know them today? Or maybe you don’t know that you have black women to thank for GPS and video calls? Black people have been building the world since time began and it’s time we paid tribute to their legendary contributions.


Inventive explosion in a tunnel
Photo by darkday licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The saying goes that necessity is the mother of invention and while that may be true, the creative spirit has been endemic to Africa since pre-historic times, through periods of great prosperity and misfortune. And these are not just any creations; black inventors touch practically every fabric of society and their ideas have often changed daily life for the better.

The problem is, they don’t always receive the recognition and infamy they deserve because they are not “supposed” to exist; the white supremacist system is dependent on their nonexistence. And yet, every time you donate or receive blood, pick up your dry cleaning, videoconference, turn on GPS, power up your computer, stop at a traffic light, or step into an elevator, you are engaging with the fruit of a brilliant black mind and probably don’t even know it.


Africans (homegrown as well as descendants in the diaspora) have achieved and continue to achieve incredible feats in the arts, sciences, technology, engineering, medicine, and mathematics. And yet, these inventors and scientists who’ve advanced society hardly receive the celebration and recognition they are due. So, let’s put some #respect on their names in this post.


African Innovation in Antiquity


By now, we all know that humanity and civilization originated in Africa. This means that almost every field in existence today has its roots in the Motherland and we have the original black kings and queens to thank for this. Besides coffee and shea butter, here are some of the most significant gifts from ancient Africans to humanity:


Medicine

ancient egyptian
Photo by kairoinfo4u licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Many modern treatments used today were first practised in ancient Africa millennia ago. For instance, the earliest known surgery occurred around 2750 B.C. in Ancient Egypt. Imhotep, the black Egyptian physician and architect and real “Father of Medicine” was the original doctor from whom the Greek physician Hippocrates learned all that he knew. In fact, Imhotep was practising and writing about medicine for over 2000 years before Hippocrates, and the Greek physician even credits Imhotep (renamed “Asclepius” by the Greeks) as the “God of Medicine.” Imhotep practised plant medicine and knew about blood circulation and the location and function of the vital organs.


Some of the first procedures performed in Africa before anywhere else in the world include brain surgery, vaccinations, autopsies, arthritis treatments, pregnancy tests, tests to determine a baby’s sex, broken bone setting, dental work, caesarean sections, cauterization, anaesthesia, and more. Even during American slavery, plantation owners who were ill often didn’t call a white physician to their sickbed; instead, they trusted and relied upon the “Big Mama” on the plantation’s expert knowledge of plant medicine and herbs.


Mathematics

Math developed in ancient Africa and many of the math concepts taught in schools today date back to the continent. Ancient textbooks from the continent reveal everything from division and multiplication of fractions to geometry formulas calculating the area and volume of shapes. The ancient Egyptian pyramids were constructed with mathematical precision using various formulas including Pi. Living around the Nile Valley also required precise geometric calculations to predict floods before they could cause severe damage, and to redetermine land boundaries after floods erased property lines.


Archeologists date the oldest known mathematical object, the Lebombo bone discovered in the Lebombo Mountains of Swaziland, to around 35,000 B.C. Another early African artifact, the Ishango bone, was discovered along the shores of a lake in Congo and dated to about 20,000 years old. The markings on the bone suggest it may have been an early abacus, calculator, or lunar calendar. The artefact is currently held in a Belgian museum.


Law, Religion & Philosophy

Researchers reveal that the people of ancient Kemet (Egypt) were the earliest examples of a culture identifying with an unseen force, known as “Neter.” They identified a relationship with this force and created the first temples and rituals to honour and strengthen their spiritual tradition. People came to Kemet from all over to study these spiritual and philosophical traditions. The people of ancient Kemet also identified the concept of the afterlife and the soul or “ka” as the life force of the body and believed this life force resided in the heart.


During the mummification process when a person died, they removed all the body organs and stored them in canopic jars but left the heart in place to aid passage into the afterlife. In the afterlife, true to the ancient Egyptians’ strong sense of morality and justice, Ma’at (the Egyptian embodiment of truth, justice, and harmony) would weigh the individual’s heart with a feather and if the heart was in balance, the individual was allowed to pass on. The pyramids were constructed in such a way as to help the soul ascend in death.


Astronomy

Several ancient African cultures made advanced discoveries in astronomy that still astound historians today. The Dogon people of Mali reportedly knew of Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s moons, and the shape of the Milky Way long before this became mainstream knowledge.


The oldest known astronomy site in the world is Nabta Playa, in northern Sudan. It’s the site of a 7000-year-old stone circle that once aligned with the sun and the stars to track the seasons and the annual monsoons. It was an early calendar that was instrumental in guiding ancient civilizations on when to plant and harvest crops, etc.


Agriculture

Archaeologists indicate that crop farming may have existed as far back as 5200 B.C. in ancient Kemet, and Africans domesticated cattle. Some of the oldest evidence of agriculture on the continent include cutting blades, milling stones, grindstones, mortars and pestles.


Navigation and International Trade

Ancient Africans frequently sailed to Asia and the Americas hundreds of years pre-Columbus. They had an arsenal of vessels ranging from small boats to massive ships that could carry 80 tons. In one of the most infamous expeditions in the 1300s, Mansa Musa, emperor of Mali, made a pilgrimage to Mecca with an entourage of 60,000 people, hundreds of horses carrying people and essential supplies, and 80 camels that each carried nothing but 300 pounds of gold!


The long journey included a three-month stop in Cairo, where Mansa Musa gave away so much gold that the price of gold plummeted and remained low for over a decade! According to historians, international trade was first established between Africa and Asia, laying the foundation for the two oldest civilizations to exchange ideas and cultural practises.


Architecture and Art

Africa has produced some of the greatest architectural marvels in history; from the hundreds of pyramids in Egypt and Sudan, to the colossal stone complexes and castle-like compounds of Great Zimbabwe and Mozambique, to the legendary grand mosques, palaces, and universities of the Malian empire. Sudan still has over 200 pyramids standing despite an Italian explorer destroying many in his search for gold. The Pyramid of Giza still reigns as the oldest and last surviving ancient wonder of the world and it was built with a technology that modern engineers still can’t replicate.


In the 1970s, a Japanese company attempted to build a pyramid using materials and technology they thought would’ve been available at the time and failed. They reattempted with helicopters and 20th century equipment and still couldn’t build the structure. The blocks used in the Pyramid of Giza weighed between 2 to 20 tonnes and over 300 million stone blocks were stacked to a height of almost 500 feet.


The circular stone walls of Great Zimbabwe were about 25 feet high and 16 feet thick. The Mali empire also had impressive cities like Timbuktu, which was a hub of wealth, art, and higher learning. Over 700,000 scholarly manuscripts (on the sciences, math, astronomy, philosophy, and art) have been discovered around Timbuktu dating back to the ninth century.


benin bronzes
"Benin Bronzes 3" by Son of Groucho licensed under CC.

Africa has also been a huge source of artistic influence; works like the renowned bronze sculptures of the Benin Kingdom greatly influenced artists like Picasso. But much of this heritage was lost in the late 1800s when the British sent over 1000 soldiers to burn down towns and villages in Benin and kill the locals. The British soldiers looted the royal palace, stealing thousands of valuable monuments, wood carvings, ivory, masks, and bronze sculptures, which they shipped to Europe for distribution to major museums.


Most of these artefacts, including Cameroonian boat ornaments, Namibian artefacts and human remains, and more are still kept in European museums, despite a century old call for repatriation. One of the oldest artworks in the world (about 75,000 years) was discovered in a South African cave.


Metallurgy, Mining & Toolmaking

The oldest records of mining and tool-making also date back to the continent. Ancient Africans mined gold, iron, copper, salt and minerals, and made metal chisels and saws, iron and copper tools and weapons, steel and bronze weapons and art, nails, steam engines, and glue. Archaeologists date the oldest known mine, “Lion Cave” in Swaziland, at about 43,000 years old.


Hidden Figures of History


There’s a rich history of African descendants in the diaspora inventing new products and improving upon existing ones, often in the face of institutional racism and state-sanctioned illiteracy. But as impressive as their achievements are against such odds, you’ll still have to dig a little deeper than a simple google search to learn about these incredible individuals. Black creators are often overlooked, underappreciated, appropriated, or deliberately written out of history.


It would be an impossible task to try to identity all the black inventors (past and present) and their vast body of creations, so what I’ll do instead is single out some of the more fascinating and prolific inventors who aren’t as familiar as they should be.


So, black women you need to know:

Henrietta Lacks, the “Mother of Medicine” Although Lacks herself wasn’t an inventor, she posthumously changed the future of medicine. Her cancer cells created the first immortal human cell line (known as HeLa) and arguably the most important cell line in medical research.


Her cells have led to countless medical breakthroughs including the development of the polio and HPV vaccine, virus research, gene mapping and chromosome research, cloning, cancer research, radiation research, HIV research, tuberculosis, fertility research and more.


But her story has a lot of ethical issues because for one thing, neither her nor her family consented to her cells being taken. And while there have been major leaps in medical science and huge financial gains for pharmaceutical companies, Lacks’s children have remained poor. 70 years later, her cells are still being used for medical research in labs all around the world and there have been over 10,000 inventions using her cells.


Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan – these three formidable women are depicted in the 2016 epic biopic Hidden Figures. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, drop everything and go watch. If you have, drop everything and go watch. The biographical drama tells the story of these three brilliant aeronautical engineers, basically “human computers,” who were key to the early success of the NASA space program.


A nurse named Marie Van Brittan Brown and her husband created the first home security system in 1966 to protect her while her husband was away. The system, which included a camera that could look through peepholes in her front door and feed the image to her via a monitor, a two-way microphone to talk to the visitor, and a button to open the door or contact the police, paved the way for the design features commonly seen in security technology today!


Dr. Gladys West, a brilliant mathematician whose calculations formed the building block of the GPS system we worship today. In 2018, the humble inventor was inducted into the U.S. air force hall of fame. In a Guardian interview last year, she spoke on the rare recognition of black achievement:

“We always get pushed to the back because we are not usually the ones that are writing the book of the past. It was always them writing and they wrote about people they thought were acceptable. And now we’re getting a little bit more desire to pull up everyone else that’s made a difference.”

Ironically, Dr. West (now 91 years old) said she doesn’t use the system she helped create because she prefers physical maps.


Dr. Marian Croak – Google’s current Vice President of Engineering is the brains behind Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP); the technology that makes it possible for us to have zoom calls, skype calls, video conferencing, and online audio/video interactions. She holds over 100 patents in VOIP technology, and over 300 inventions to her name.


Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner – she invented the sanitary napkin belt that paved the way for modern menstrual products. Her belt featured a built-in adjustable napkin pocket that was moisture-proof and intended to prevent menstrual leaks on clothing. She also invented the toilet tissue holder.


Dr. Patricia Bath invented a way to remove cataracts using a laser in 1988. Her creation has saved the eyesight of millions around the world.


Sarah Boone created the modern-day narrow, padded, collapsible ironing boards.


Madame C.J. Walker – An enterprising chemist who built a cosmetics empire for black women. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, she was the first self-made millionaire in America. There's a Netflix mini-series about her life that came out last year.


Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson – her ground-breaking scientific research led to the creation of caller ID, call waiting, touch-tone telephones, fibre optic cables, solar cells, and the portable fax.


Black men you need to know:

traffic lights
Photo by broodkast licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Garret A. Morgan – created two things that are a staple in our culture today: the three-colour traffic light (1923) and the gas mask (1914). He created the former after he witnessed a car accident and realized drivers needed to be better warned to yield, stop, and go; and his gas mask saved a lot of soldiers in the first world war and is still being used by firefighters and chemists today.


Dr. Charles Drew, whose revolutionary technique for storing blood plasma led to the creation of the first ever blood bank.


Dr. Mark Dean – computer scientist and inventor with over 20 patents who should be as infamous as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Dr. Dean was instrumental in the creation of the first personal computer and colour monitor (1980s), owning 3 of the 9 patents that IBM (International Business Machines) used for the first PC. He co-created the system that allows for printers, scanners, and drives to be plugged directly to a computer. He also led the team that created the first gigahertz computer chip (1999) – a revolutionary technology that significantly improved processing power with a billion calculations per second. He broke the barrier of what was considered possible in processing speed!


Frederick Jones who invented portable refrigeration in the 1930s that made it possible for food to be transported anywhere without perishing. His innovation led to the rapid growth of the frozen food, supermarket, and long-haul trucking industries. His invention was instrumental in preserving blood and supplies during the Second World War. Jones has over 40 patents in refridgeration and also invented the automatic movie ticket dispenser.


Lewis Latimer – A skilled electrical engineer and patent drafter. He invented the carbon filament light bulb in 1881 that drastically improved the life span and efficiency of bulbs and could be widely installed in homes and on street corners. Without Lewis Latimer, the light bulb invention often attributed to Thomas Edison might not exist as we know it today. Latimer also created an air conditioning and disinfecting system for hospitals and public rooms, and co-created the railway car toilet.

George Washington Carver – An expert botanist, chemist, and agriculturist often referred to as the “Plant Doctor” and the “Father of the Peanut Industry.” He invented over 300 different uses for peanuts and other crops. He was instrumental in rebuilding the southern economy by sharing his alternatives to cotton and teaching his methods for rehabilitating the soil.


George Carruthers – an astrophysicist who built the telescope that NASA used in the 1972 Apollo 16 mission to the moon. Thanks to his device, NASA was able to capture ultraviolet images of the surface of the Earth, and over 500 other images of galaxies and stars.


Granville T. Woods – has over 100 inventions to his name, but most notably invented the railway telegraph which allowed messages to be sent between rail stations and moving trains. His invention led to safer train travel as it allowed stations to communicate and share information about how far away trains were etc. Woods actually had a court battle with Thomas Edison over his invention (which was a cross between the telephone and the telegraph), and Woods won his case, prompting Edison to try to hire him but Woods declined.


Otis Boykin – invented over 25 electronic devices. His most infamous creation is a wire resistor that controls the flow of electricity to a device, withstanding shock and extreme temperature changes. His creation is a key component of the pacemaker (a device that keeps a heart beating with electrical pulses) but is also used in computers, guided missiles, and household appliances!


John Stanard, who improved the functioning of refrigerators by adding a manually filled ice chamber designed to circulate and trap cool air. He also created a portable oil stove to serve hot food at buffets – a central part of the catering industry today!


Richard Spikes created the automatic safety brake for vehicles while losing his vision!


George T. Sampson created the forerunner to modern automatic clothes dryers in 1892.


John Lee Love created the portable pencil sharpener.


Alexander Miles made elevators safer in 1887 by creating the electric version with the automatic closing doors we take for granted today.


Walter Sammons created the hot comb, the predecessor to today’s flat irons for straightening hair. Although originally created for black women, it’s used by women everywhere today.


Elijah McCoyinvented the “lubricating cup” that solved the time-consuming and expensive issue of manually lubricating heavy machinery to prevent metals parts fusing together. The cup provided automatic lubrication and became a staple in major industrial plants operating heavy machinery. McCoy reportedly had over 50 patents but while others made millions off his products (he sold the rights to his patent so he could have money to invent more), he died poor as a result of racial discrimination affecting his commercial success. Though many tried to imitate his quality creation, no-one ever quite got it right.


Thomas L. Jennings – invented dry scouring in 1821, otherwise known as dry-cleaning today.

Thomas Elkins – created the “chamber commode” in 1872, that included a mirror, dresser, washstand, and bookrack. Today, we know it as the modern bathroom.


Joseph Smith – invented the rotary-head lawn sprinkler that sprays water in multiple directions in 1897.


Philip Downinginvented the four-legged metal letterbox with the self-closing hinge door still seen on streets everywhere designed to protect mail from the elements until it’s picked up by the postman!


James E. West – an acoustics expert who co-invented the microphone technology in the 60s that is still used in 90% of the microphones today, as well as in telephones, hearing aids, baby monitors, and tape recorders. He also has over 50 other inventions.


Emmett Chappelle – his research led to safer space travel for astronauts. He discovered that single-celled organisms can photosynthesize which led to astronauts using algae as a source of oxygen to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning in space.


Daniel H. Williams – in 1893, he performed the first successful open heart surgery. The patient, who had been stabbed in the chest and was bleeding internally, was saved by Williams’ quick and decisive action and reportedly lived a long life.


While doing research for this post, I came across several stories of black inventors who didn’t achieve fame and fortune simply because they didn’t take out patents on their ideas or felt fulfilled enough just inventing and sharing their creations for the benefit of mankind.


Frederick Jones reportedly had over 60 inventions and assigned almost all of them to the company he co-founded because he was more interested in devoting time to inventing than to personal fame and riches.

George Washington Carver
"George Washington Carver" by TradingCardsNPS CC.

George Washington Carver, one of the most prolific inventors, made thousands of people wealthy but rarely patented his ideas. Whenever he was reminded of the money he could be making by protecting his creations, he reportedly replied:

“God did not charge me or you for making peanuts. Why should I profit from (peanut) products?”

Thomas Edison reportedly told his peers that “Carver is worth a fortune” and tried to seduce the chemist with a high salary, but Carver turned him down. Henry Ford, who worked closely with Carver and reportedly called him “the greatest scientist living,” also tried to hire him and was turned down. Ultimately, Carver believed his creations, however valuable, needed to be offered to humanity free of charge.


Whitewashing black creativity


There’s an amusing proverb I once heard (I think by the pan-african historian Dr. Kaba Kamene) that went something like “the only thing Europeans created was the patent office because they stole everyone else’s ideas and put their name on it.” While I don’t endorse the saying and salute every creator in their own right, the underwhelming acknowledgement of black intellectual contributions is a historical injustice that must be corrected.


We also can’t ignore the fact that the dominant feature of colonial culture is theft and usurpation. The colonial enterprise was nothing more than a well-coordinated theft of black bodies, labour, resources, cultural relics and art, and intellectual property.


During slavery, because African captives weren’t considered citizens, they couldn’t have property or enter into contracts therefore couldn’t register their inventions at the patent office. And naturally, enslavers wouldn’t register their captives’ inventions either because that would require the patent to be issued to the actual inventor. So, because the enslaved weren’t granted notoriety for their creations, and often didn’t even understand how the patent process worked since they were kept illiterate by law, enslavers often took credit for their captives' creations.


For instance, Eli Whitney’s captive known as “Black Sam” reportedly came up with the idea for the cotton gin invention but Whitney patented it in his own name. In a similar case, an enslaver known as Cyrus McCormick gave his captive, Joe Anderson, credit for the mechanical grain reaper but filed and received the patent in his own name and opened several factories to produce the reapers. In another documented case, an enslaver named Oscar Stewart was denied a patent for a cotton scraper after it was discovered that it was his captive, Ned, who had invented the device. Stewart nonetheless began selling the device and profited from it.


As a result of these codified injustices, some free black inventors went so far as to keep their race secret for fear of racial discrimination affecting the commercial success of their work. For instance, a woman named Ellen Elgin invented a clothes wringer in 1888 that ended up being financially successful after Elgin had sold the rights for $18. When asked by an interviewer why she did so, she reportedly said:

“You know, I am black, and if it was known that a negro woman patented the invention, white ladies would not buy the wringer; I was afraid to be known because of my color in having it introduced to the market, that is the only reason.”

Despite their oppressive conditions, enslaved Africans still managed to advance their environments using the heritage and creative intellect that enslavers tried to beat out of them. For instance, enslaved Africans introduced rice farming methods pioneered in Africa to the plantations and taught their enslavers how to cultivate the crop. They also imported their knowledge of metal-making, instruments like the banjo, and disease prevention. They also influenced the making of shotgun houses and dugout canoes, and the introduction of foods like black-eyed peas, sorghum, millet, and okra.


Creative tradition continues today


Africans today continue to embody the inventive spirit of their ancestors and have kept the creative tradition alive and shining as brightly as ever. There has also been a noticeable rise in environmentally conscious social entrepreneurs on the continent. Here are some of the continent’s more modern inventors:


Nigerian Philip Emeagwali, a gifted mathematician who helped usher in the age of the internet. He created the formula for multiple computers to communicate at once. Drawing inspiration from the efficient way that bees construct honeycombs, he created the world’s fastest computer capable of performing over 3 billion calculations per second. Apparently, his computers today are being used to predict the weather and the effects of global warming.


Guided by a library book at the age of 14, Malawian William Kamkwamba built an electricity-and water generating windmill using bicycle parts and junkyard scraps. His inspirational story was turned into the 2019 biopic The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Please GO SEE THIS MOVIE. The trailer alone is enough to give me the feels.


Cameroonian engineer Arthur Zang invented the Cardiopad, a life-saving medical device used to conduct remote heart examinations.


Congolese engineer Thérèse Izay Kirongozi has created giant human-like robots that regulate traffic and monitor drivers in Kinshasa, DRC. The robots can withstand weather changes, run on solar energy, and are even programmed to speak to pedestrians.


Kenyan Anthony Mutua invented a shoe that can charge phones from the power generated by walking.


Four female high school students in Nigeria built a generator powered by urine. One litre of urine can keep the generator running for 6 hours.


Kenyan environmentalists created the world’s first boat made from recycled flipflops and plastic. It’s called the FlipFlopi and it’s awesome.


Sierra Leone’s Emmanuel Alieu Mansaray built the world’s first solar-powered car from trash. He calls it “The Imagination Car” and it’s a local celebrity.


A Nigerian teen collective who call themselves “The Critics Company“ have been using smartphones and recycled items to film and produce epic sci-fi films that have gone viral.


Senegalese Meissa Fall creates stunning metal sculptures from discarded bicycle parts.


South African Thato Kgatlhanye creates solar-powered backpacks made from recycled shopping bags that can emit light for up to 12 hours.


Zimbabwean William Pasi Sachiti created Kar-go, an autonomous car that can deliver multiple packages by using a combination of advanced robotics and driverless vehicle technology.


Kenyan Morris Mbetsa created a drone-powered flying taxi that can so far carry one passenger about 10 to 30 feet above ground at a speed of over 120km/hr.


You've made it to the end. I know this was a super long post, but trust me, it could’ve been even longer considering the wealth of creations from this continent. If there’s one thing I hope you take away from this post, it’s that creativity and innovation is our African birthright and the ancestors have left evidence of this everywhere we turn.


So, the next time you walk into a hospital, I hope you think of Imhotep. While waiting for the elevator doors to open, say Alexander Miles’s name out loud. When you turn on your phone’s location, meditate for a moment on Dr. Gladys West. And when you reach the intersection on an orange light, instead of groaning, give some props to Garrett A. Morgan.


Say their names, and remember them.