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Black History Month - American Black Scientists and Engineers that changed the world


Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson worked for NASA as a “human computer” from the 1950s to 1980s. Her handwritten calculations plotted the path for Alan Shepard’s space flight in 1961, John Glenn’s orbit around the Earth in 1962, the Apollo 11 trip in 1969, and the safe return of Apollo 13 in 1970. Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 for her pioneering work. She was born in West Virginia on August 26, 1918. She graduated eighth grade when she was only 10 years old, but high school education was not available to African Americans in her town. Then, her family relocated to Institute, West Virginia so Katherine could continue her education. She graduated from West Virginia State College with degrees in mathematics and French when she was 18 years old. She taught math and French in schools in Virginia and West Virginia. In 1952, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became NASA, was hiring African American women to serve as "computers" to perform and check calculations. Johnson was hired and excelled in this position relative to her peers. She is quoted as saying, “The women did what they were told to do. They didn’t ask questions or take the task any further. I asked questions; I wanted to know why.”. She was quickly reassigned from the African American computing pool to Langley's flight research division, and the rest is history. Her story was told in the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly in 2016, which was portrayed in the movie Hidden Figures. In 2017, NASA honored Johnson by dedicating a new research building to her, called the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility. Johnson passed away in February 2020 at 101-years old.




Alice Ball

Alice Augusta Ball was born on July 24, 1892, in Seattle, Washington. She developed an interest in Chemistry early in her childhood and went on to become the first woman and first African American to earn a Master’s degree in Chemistry. She earned her graduate degree from the College of Hawaii (now the University of Hawaii). Ball’s thesis focused on identifying the active ingredients of the kava root. In 1916, Harry T. Hollman, and assistant surgeon at Kalihi Hospital in Hawaii, sought her help to develop a treatment for patients with Hansen’s disease (leprosy). Hollman was investigating the use of chaulmoogra oil, which is derived from the tropical chaulmoogra tree, to treat leprosy. In less than a year, Ball developed a technique to extract the oil’s active ingredients so they could be safely injected. Her method, which was highly effective, remained in use for treating patients with Hansen’s disease for the next 20 years. However, Alice Ball was not able to witness or experience the successful impact of her work. Tragically, Alice Ball died later that year on December 31st 1916. She became ill and returned to Seattle before her death. It is thought that she died by chlorine poisoning in the laboratory while teaching her class. She was only 24. Her death also happened before she was able to publish her method. After her death, college president Arthur L. Dean continued her work on the chaulmoogra oil extracts, which were by then in high global demand. Dean never credited Alice Ball for her original work on the oil. Fortunately, Hollman, who had initially sought her help, mentioned her work in a medical journal publication dubbing her technique the “Ball Method”. Still, only recently, 1000 years later, did Alice Ball’s work get finally recognized. Among the many recognitions she is now receiving, a plaque commemorating her discoveries was placed underneath the chaulmoogra tree at the University of Hawaii in 2000, and in 2007, the university Board of Regents presented her posthumously with the Medal of Distinction. A student Scholarship was also named after her. Today, Hansen’s disease is treated with a cocktail of antibiotics. The development of an effective vaccine awaits the next Alice Ball.




Frederick McKinley Jones

Jones was born in Covington, Kentucky, near Cincinnati, Ohio, on May 17, 1893 and served in France in World War I. After he returned home, he worked as a garage mechanic, and with this experience, he developed a self-starting gasoline motor. His mastery of electronic devices was largely self-taught, through work experience and the inventing process. In the late 1920s, Jones designed a series of devices for the developing movie industry, which adapted silent movie projectors to use talking movie stock. He also developed an apparatus for the movie box-office that delivers tickets and returns change to customers. He invented a snowmobile. Frederick Jones was granted more than 40 patents in the field of refrigeration. In 1935, he invented the first automatic refrigeration system for long-haul trucks and railroad cars in 1935 (a roof-mounted cooling device). This system eliminated the risk of food spoilage during long-distance shipping trips and was later adapted to a variety of other common carriers, including ships and railway cars.
Jones's pioneering designs for mobile refrigeration units led to the formation of the Thermo-King Corporation (Minneapolis) in 1935 and revolutionized the field of transport refrigeration for trucks, railcars, and ships. His invention radically altered American consumer's eating habits; now people could eat fresh produce across the United States during the middle of summer or winter. Frederick Jones also developed an air-conditioning unit for military field hospitals and a refrigerator for military field kitchens. Frederick Jones patented more than 60 inventions but is best known for inventing a practical automatic refrigeration system for long-haul trucks.




Mae C. Jemison, PhD 

Mae Jemison is arguably one of the most renowned African Americans in science and engineering. In September of 1992, Jemison became the first African American woman in space as part of a mission aboard the Endeavour space shuttle.
With a background in medicine, Jemison conducted several experiments aboard the Endeavour in her role as a mission specialist. Her work included examinations into the effects of weightlessness on bone density, motion sickness in astronauts, and experiments with frogs to examine the development of tadpoles in zero gravity.
In 1993 she left NASA to pursue other interests related to marrying social science and technology. She founded the Dorthy Jemison Foundation for Excellence (named after her mother). In 2012 Jemison's foundation made the winning bid for DARPA's 100 Year Starship Project, a joint-efforts between DARPA and NASA to fund a private entity to create a business plan that can lead the next 100 years of technology development for Interestellar space travel.




Lonnie Johnson 

Lonnie Johnson is president and founder of Johnson Research and Development Co., Inc., a technology development company, and its spin off companies, Excellatron Solid State, LLC; Johnson Electro- Mechanical Systems, LLC; and Johnson Real Estate Investments, LLC.
Johnson holds a B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering, an M.S. degree in Nuclear Engineering, and an honorary Ph.D. in Science from Tuskegee University. Upon graduation, he worked as a research engineer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and then joined the U. S. Air Force, serving as Acting Chief of the Space Nuclear Power Safety Section at the Air Force Weapons Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In 1979, he left the Air Force to accept a position as Senior Systems Engineer at the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where he worked on the Galileo mission to Jupiter. Returning to the Air Force in 1982, he served as an Advanced Space Systems Requirements Officer at Strategic Air Command (SAC) headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, and as Chief of the Data Management Branch, SAC Test and Evaluation Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base in California. He was awarded the Air Force Achievement Medal and the Air Force Commendation Medal on two different occasions. In 1987, he returned to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory where he worked on the Mars Observer project and was the fault protection engineer during the early stages of the Cassini (Saturn) project. He was responsible for ensuring that single point spacecraft failures would not result in loss of the mission. During his nine-year career with JPL, he received multiple achievement awards from NASA for his work in spacecraft system design.
In 1989, Johnson formed his own engineering firm and licensed his most famous invention, the Super Soaker® water gun, to Larami Corporation. Two years later, the Super Soaker®, generated over $200 million in retail sales, and became the number one selling toy in America. Larami Corporation was eventually purchased by Hasbro Corporation, the second largest toy manufacturer in the world. Over the years, Super Soaker® sales have totaled close to one billion dollars. Currently, Lonnie Johnson holds over 100 patents, with over 20 more pending, and is the author of several publications on spacecraft power systems.
Two of Johnson’s companies, Excellatron Solid State and Johnson Battery Technologies, Inc. (JBT) are developing revolutionary energy technology.




Elijah McCoy 

Elijah McCoy was a 19th century African American engineer and inventor who is best known for inventing lubrication devices that were used to make train travel more efficient. Elijah McCoy was born in Canada, to parents who had fled slavery in Kentucky using the Underground Railroad. McCoy was trained as a mechanical engineer in Scotland. However, despite his qualifications, McCoy was unable to find work as an engineer in the United States due to racial barriers and prejudice. Specifically, skilled professional positions were not available for African Americans at the time, regardless of their training, education, or background. Therefore, McCoy accepted a position as a fireman and oiler for the Michigan Central Railroad. It was in this line of work that he developed several major inventions, such as, a lubricating cup that distributed oil evenly over the engine's moving parts and nearly 60 patents over the course of his lifetime. Although McCoy's achievements were recognized during his lifetime, his name did not appear on the majority of the products that he devised because he did not possess the money to manufacture them. So, he often assigned his patent rights to his employers or sold them to investors, until he was able to finally form his own company, the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company towards the end of his life to produce lubricators.